Heng Samrin (born 1934) was a relatively minor Cambodian Communist leader who suddenly, in January 1979, rose to international prominence as president of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) after the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of his country. His earlier obscurity had left him untainted by the odious reputation of the bloody Pol Pot regime which had preceded him.
Heng Samrin was born on May 25, 1934, the son of a well to do peasant-trader in the Ponhea district of Kompong Cham province. Some accounts also list a hamlet in Prey Veng province as the abode of his youth. He attended local schools, and it is not certain that he completed any secondary level of education. In the early 1950s he joined a group of Cambodians who were fighting together with the Viet Minh against the French colonial government. Official statements claim membership for him both in the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP) and in the United Khmer Issarak (Freedom) Front. The former was Cambodia's first Communist party, organized in 1951 as an offshoot of the Indochinese Communist Party, and it, like its parent organization, remained under Hanoi's influence. Though hazily structured, it provided Heng Samrin with his first ideological and organizational training. The Issarak, led by nationalist and Marxist radicals of various hues, shaped his initial combat experience.
The deft political maneuvering in 1953-1954 by Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk in order to achieve his country's complete independence from French colonial rule left Cambodian Communists and leftist nationalists increasingly divided. After the 1954 Geneva Conference Heng Samrin, along with other Viet Minh oriented KPRP members, left for Hanoi and further organizational and ideological training. He returned in 1956 to join the Krom Pracheachon (Citizens Association). The latter had been established in 1954 by KPRP and other underground anti-Sihanouk radicals as a legal Communist organization to participate in national elections.
How deep Heng Samrin's loyalties went to any one of the various developing factions within Cambodian Communism at this time is not clear. The founding in 1960 of the Workers Party of Kampuchea, later the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), by Pol Pot gradually quickened the anti-Sihanouk Marxist insurrectionary resistance in Cambodia. Vietnamese party cadres and followers of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam increasingly infiltrated the Krom Pracheachon. It was in considerable measure under their tutelage that Heng Samrin acquired further guerrilla combat experience. During the 1960s and early 1970s his military service reportedly was interrupted by new sojourns to Hanoi. The Vietnamese in this period were intensifying their recruitment of younger middle level Cambodian Communist leaders in an attempt to affirm their hegemony over the Cambodian party.
Upon their return most of the approximately 1,500 members of this so-called Khmer Hanoi group to which Heng Samrin belonged eventually developed party and military bases close to the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, including the Cambodian part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Collectively they came to be identified as the Eastern Zone group within the CPK. It was in this area that Heng Samrin eventually rose to intermediate command position in the CPK's Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea, which had been formally established on January 12, 1968.
The name of Heng Samrin did not win any attention, however, amidst increasing popular unrest. There were strikes and demonstrations against Sihanouk's rule and clashes of Sihanouk's forces with the Khmer Rouge (the Sihanouk regime's catchall term for the Communist or Communist-influenced political and military resistance). After the overthrow of Sihanouk on March 18, 1970, Communist resistance against the new Lon Nol regime intensified.
In the common struggle against Lon Nol, ideological and tactical differences between pro-and anti-Hanoi factions tended to be submerged. This circumstance, along with his party and military service, allowed Heng Samrin to establish himself in the Eastern Zone after Lon Nol was driven out in April 1975.
In early 1976, shortly before Pol Pot rose to the premiership of Kampuchea, Heng Samrin was named political commissar and commander of the Fourth Infantry Division of the government's Revolutionary Army. This unit was stationed in the Eastern Zone, and the new position gave Heng Samrin considerable authority over local party policy and military preparedness. His appointment, however, appears to have been part of a general trade-off of party and military command posts among the CPK factions at the time. Heng Samrin's new position should be seen primarily as reflecting the appointment of Heng Samrin's superior, So Phim, to head the Eastern Zone and So Phim's membership in the new CPK Politburo, rather than as any sign of favor by Pol Pot himself.
In the next two years, Pol Pot's extensive purges decimated the ranks of senior CPK leaders. Heng Samrin, though known to be a part of the Hanoi-oriented party faction, managed to escape liquidation. This probably was due less to his political astuteness and more to his second rung party status and his relative harmlessness as perceived by the Pol Pot leadership. In May 1978, however, Heng Samrin and other Eastern Zone party dissidents led by So Phim rose up in revolt against Pol Pot. The details of the plot and Heng Samrin's exact role in it are still unclear, but it would appear that Heng Samrin, So Phim, and their associates sought to mobilize military and party units in other zones and called for the aid of Vietnam against Pol Pot. The revolt failed, however, in part because of the rumored betrayal of some key plotters. Amidst bloody new purges (So Phim committed suicide), Heng Samrin managed to escape to Vietnam as clashes between Vietnamese and Kampuchean troops continued to intensify.
With the Vietnamese already controlling much of the Eastern Zone in Cambodia and poised for a final invasion to oust Pol Pot, Heng Samrin and other fellow pro-Hanoi party associates who had escaped met in Snuol in Kompong Chom province in Cambodia on December 2, 1978. Here they drafted a political alternative to the Pol Pot regime. This was the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea, and Heng Samrin was proclaimed president of the front and of its central committee. To these posts he subsequently added that of the presidency of the Revolutionary People's Council, the formal executive arm of the new People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The PRK had been proclaimed jointly by the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin on January 7, 1979, as Vietnamese forces, having driven out the Pol Pot regime, installed themselves in Phnom Penh.
Already in his capacity as leader of the National Salvation Front, Heng Samrin in December 1978 had announced a commitment to the abolition of the excesses of the Pol Pot regime and to the establishment of an independent democracy "moving towards socialism." Restoration of family life and freedom of expression and association also were assured in this declaration. After coming to power, Heng Samrin's PRK government, though heavily dependent on the continuing presence of 180,000 Vietnamese military and political cadres in Cambodia, restored a measure of the rule of law and attempted to begin the recovery of the country's shattered economy. The brutalities of the Pol Pot era did not disappear, however. The Heng Samrin regime was criticized by such human rights groups as Amnesty International (London) and The Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights (New York) for arbitrary arrest, extensive confinement of suspected dissenters or old regime officials in "re-education camps," torture of prisoners, and severe restrictions on all movement of people, on those engaging in trade or other occupations, and even on those wishing to get married.
Heng Samrin apparently was seen even by supporters of his regime as a puppet of Hanoi, but he was also viewed by many as preferable to a possible return of Pol Pot and his bloody policies. Cambodian enthusiasm for Heng Samrin's regime remained lukewarm at best. The KPRP (the name assumed again by the pro-Hanoi Communist followers of Heng Samrin) probably numbered no more than 1,000 and Heng Samrin himself complained that the level of political and ideological training of his cadre followers was low. Foreign recognition of the Heng Samrin regime was confined to Soviet bloc nations, with the notable exception of India. Already, on December 5, 1981, Heng Samrin forced the resignation of party secretary Pen Sovan, his closest rival. Hanoi appeared uninterested in replacing Heng Samrin so long as the Cambodian conflict persisted. The forces of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea continued to battle the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin's regime.
Nothing is known for certain about Heng Samrin's private life. Reportedly, he was married to a former Eastern Zone cadre and had four children.
The Cambodia conflict, with its multiple political factions, splinter groups and guerilla armies, was reported daily in news dispatches, factional press releases and questionable government statements. The Supreme National Council, established as a result of the 1991 peace treaty, and representing the four major factions, began to govern the country under United Nations supervision. Vietnam continued to support Heng Samrin, but he no longer held the post of Chairman of the Council of State. He continued to disavow his former Khmer Rouge alliance and military position, and apparently retained his position as Chairman of the People's Revolutionary Council. Norodom Ranaridh and Hun Sen shared the Royal Government's Deputy Prime Minister position; both also being co-Chairmen of the Provisional National Government.
The Cambodian army, together with Heng Samrin's well-trained and well-equipped Vietnamese forces, temporarily ousted the Khmer Rouge from the capital, Phnom Penh, and other sensitive areas. However, the Khmer Rouge were still a major factor, both politically and militarily, and could counter-attack anytime.
The Paris Peace Accord was attended by most of the major factions, with Heng Samrin representing the Council of State. This led to the general elections of 1993. Funcinpec, The United National Front for and independent, neutral, peaceful and Co-operative Cambodia, won the election by a narrow margin. This was the monarchist Party and Prince (now King) Sihanouk was now head of state. He persuaded both the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the Funcinpec faction to resolve their differences to create a stable government. Heng Samrin was apparently a member of the CPP, though he seemed to be non-participatory.
The re-establishment of King Sihanouk as head of state, a new constitution (1993), and the elections, seemed to be what Cambodia required for stability and the re-establishment of social order. However, the Khmer Rouge controled the northern and western portions of the country and increased their guerilla attacks every dry season. The Vietnamese-backed forces impinged on the border and occasionally made forays against key areas, increasing their control. This was Heng Samrin's allegiance, and Vietnam continued to back and support him. Both established political parties (Funcinpec and CPP) fragmented into several interest groups, and no one faction seemed able to rule the country—least of all Sihanouk, the titular head of state.
The economic situation worsened daily; battles and skirmishes were won and lost by the Cambodian army, the Khmer Rouge guerilla forces, and the Vietnamese force along the border. King Sihanouk's shaky government became increasingly repressive, violating human rights and suppressing all political opposition. The bloody Pol Pot was captured, tried, and sentenced to several years' house arrest. Apparently, the political situation collapsed and the fight for control of the country was between Heng Samrin's Vietnamese forces and the Khmer Rouge rebels who controled most of the northern and western provinces already.
In July 1997, Mary Kay Magstad, an NBC correspondent, reported from Phnom Penh that the Cambodian populace had lost faith in the Hun Sen government, which had resorted to mass political arrests and inhuman torture of prisoners in a desperate attempt to control the country.
There was no published biography, not even one issued by official PRK quarters, of Heng Samrin. Various glimpses of his career were offered in Michael Vickery, Cambodia, 1975-1982 (1984) and in Serge Thion, "Chronology of Khmer Communism, 1940-1982," in David Chandler and Ben Kiernan, editors, Revolution and Its Aftermath in Kampuchea (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph Series, no. 25, 1983). See also the interview of Heng Samrin by the Swedish journalist Sven Oste in the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, February 5, 1984 (reprinted in Foreign Broadcast Information Service reports, Washington, D.C., February 15, 1984).
For a graphic account of the horrors of daily life under Heng Samrin's army and government, Dr. Haing Ngor's book, A Cambodian Odyssey (1987), was an excellent source. Haing Ngor was the Cambodian refugee medical doctor who finally escaped to Thailand and came to Los Angeles. His case and his country's plight came to world attention when he won an Academy Award as best supporting actor in The Killing Fields (1984).
For general background information regarding the ongoing turmoil in Southeast Asia, Heng Samrin and other factional leaders, consult: William Colby's Lost Victory, Chicago: Contemporary Books, (1989); Asian Affairs: An American Review (Winter 94, Vol. 20, Issue 4, pp. 187, 218); The Economist Newspaper NA Inc., (January 12, 1991, Vol. 318, Issue 7689, p. 28 and October 26, 1994, Vol. 321, Issue 7730, p. 39); or The UN Chronicle (September, 1990, Vol. 27, Issue 3, p. 24; December 1990, Vol. 27, Issue 4, p. 25; and March 1991, Vol. 28 Issue I, p. 65.)