Tou Samouth – The first Khmer Rouge leader

Tou Samouth was a Cambodian communist revolutionary. A founding member of the Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party (KPRP), he was instrumental in the change in direction and formation of the Workers Party of Kampuchea, the precursor to the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps most famously he will be remembered as the mentor to Solath Sar, the alleged perpetrator of the Killing Fields.

Early life of Tou Samouth

Bron in 1915 in Cochinchina, then part of Vietnam, he was part of the Cambodian diaspora known as the Khmer Krom. Ironically a group that would suffer greatly under the Khmer Rouge.

He originally trained as a Buddhist monk and became a professor at a Phnom Penh monetary.. During his time there he was exposed to left-wing ideals and by the late 1940’s was lecturing Khmer Isarrek recruits on left-wing political awareness and economics.

The United Issarak Front (in Khmer: សមាគមខ្មែរឥស្សរៈ, Samakhum Khmer Issarak, lit. ‘Khmer Issarak Front’) was a Cambodian anti-colonial movement 1950–1954. It existed as a broad coalition of factions, mostly of the left and at its height controlled anywhere from 1/3 to 1/4 of the country. It was broadly promoted and supported by the Vietnamese communists.

To read about the Khmer Issarek click here.

As well as being the primary military force fighting the French Colonial Government in Cambodia, it was also one of the leading political movements in the country. Its aim was to form a left-wing post-colonial government in the mould of North Vietnam.

The founding conference of UIF was held in Kompong Som Loeu, Kampot province April 17–April 19, 1950. Around 200 delegates assisted the conference, out of whom 105 were Buddhist monks. At this time it was far from being a far-left organization and was genuinely a broad coalition. The heavy support of Buddhist Monks suggest influences from Buddhist Socialism for example.

To read about Buddhist Socialism click here.

The first left-wing Cambodian Government

At this conference it was decided to set up socialist government. Again at its height up to half of the country was under its effective control. On June 19, 1950, Son Ngoc Minh (the President) declared Cambodia independent. This was not recognized by anyone, but for all intents and purposes they ran the areas under their control.

The United Issarak Front Government;

President: Son Ngoc Minh

    Vice-President: Chan Samay

    Minister of Interior: Tou Samouth

    Minister of Foreign Affairs: Keo Moni

    Minister of Education: Chau Yin

    Minister of Defence: Sieu Heng

    Minister of Ethnic Affairs: Leav Keo Moni

    Minister of Religion: Sos Man

By this point Tou Samouth was an important enough figure that he was named Minister of Interior.

The end of the United Issarek Front

We will deal more in-depth with the United Issarek Front in a later article, but for all intents and purposes they ceased to exist after the 1954 Geneva Peace Convention that granted independence to North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The circumstances here are hotly debated, the North Vietnamese viewed it as a tactical withdrawal. A fact that can be backed up by the fact that in 1976 the whole of French Indochina was communist. Others though, particular the core that would form the Khmer Rouge viewed it as a betrayal.

The Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party

As stated the The United Issarak Front was a broad coalition, one of the components of this coalition was the Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party. The KPRP was formed in 1951 with Vietnamese backing to be a vanguard communist organization in the country.

It consisted of urban and rural factions, with Tou Samouth a founding member of the party and a member of the urban faction.

Following the 1954 peace accords the party for a time stepped away from armed struggle and decided to take part in the electoral process through the guise of the “Peoples Party”. 

During this period many communists returned from France and joined the party. This Paris clique would join the “urban faction” of Tou Samouth and would later form the nucleus of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

To read about the Standing Committee click here.

One of the returnees was Solath Sar, later to become Pol Pot. He was to become a protege of Tou Samouth, something which would lead to his rapid rise through the party ranks and to his eventual leadership of the party and country.

Communism in Cambodia during the 1950’s

Despite taking part one elected politics suspected left-wingers were targets of the Sihanouk regime, which itself declared it was “socialist” . This led to many members fleeing to etc countryside, as well as numerous purges of party members.

In 1959 after the defection of Sieu Heng the rural faction of the KPRP was decimated leaving the urban faction, and the paris clique as a majority.

To read about the Khmer Students Association click here.

It was this decimation by the forces of Sihanouk that would be the catalyst for everything else that was to follow.

The Workers Party of Kampuchea

Facing increasing repression from the government of Sihanouk

the KPRP held a secret meeting in 1960 in Phnom Penh railway station. Little is officially known about the meeting and it has undergone historical revisionism by both the CPP and the Khmer Rouge, but we do know some facts about the meeting.

Sihanouk and his Sangkum “movement” favored (officially) collaboration with the left. A fact that alienated the right and led to the formation of groups such as the Khmer Bleu.

To read about the Khmer Bleu click here.

At the 1960 meeting the KPRP argued about whether to collaborate in the government of Sihanouk, or enter into armed rebellion. Tou Samouth was known to be pro-engagement with the regime and was elected as General-Secretary (leader) of the party.

Alongside him a number of other leading members of the urban faction were also elected, such Nuon Chea, and Solath Sar, second and third in command respectively. This group favored armed insurrection rather than cooperation with Sihanouk.

It was at this meeting that the party name was changed to the Workers Party of Kampuchea. Retroactively the Khmer Peoples Revolutionary Party, now the CPP would trace their lineage to 1951, rejecting the 1960 meeting, whilst the Khmer Rouge would place this meeting as their foundation.

Death of Tou Samouth

Tou Samouth was killed in extremely controversial circumstances in July of 1962, an incident which would lead Pol Pot to become leader of the party. Officially he was killed by government forces whilst trying to get medicine for his sick daughter. It has been argued that he was killed, or betrayed by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea in order for the Paris Clique to take over the party.

Pol Pot denied this up until his dying days, declaring that they were as close as brothers, and that had Tou Samouth talked (which he didn’t) Pol Pot and the rest of the group would have been killed, or captured.

During the time of Democratic Kampuchea Som Chea, who had been a courier of Pol Pot was named as a suspect in the killing. He was, of course executed during the Killing Fields. As such no one will likely ever know who killed Tou Samouth, or indeed why he was killed.

Pol Pot becomes the leader of the Workers Party of Kampuchea

Following the death of Tou Samouth Nuon Chea was next in line to become party leader. By his own admission he stepped aside so Pol Pot could become leader and “appeal to intellectuals”. Nuon Chea being one of the few central figures not to have been part of the Paris Clique.

You can see a video clip of his reasoning here;

It has also been argued that Nuon Chea, who contemporary cohorts of the pair have described as extremely cruel was the real power behind the throne, for a time at least.

You can read about who the real leader of the Khmer Rouge was here.

What if Tou Samouth had not been killed and what was his ideology?

It is extremely hard to say what could have happened had he not been killed. WE know though that certainly in comparison to the Pol Pot clique he was certainly a moderate (in compare terms). This is shown by his popularity with Buddhist monks and indeed his respect and tolerance of religion.

Realistically though and whilst we will never know who killed him, the Workers Party of Kampuchea was controlled by the extremist faction of Pol Pot and Nuon Chea. It is likely that at some point he would have been overthrown and likely suffered the same fate as other “liberals” after the April 17th 1975 liberation of the country.

History might have largely forgotten Tou Samouth, but he cannot be ignored when looking back at the revolutionary history of Cambodia and the genocide that it created.