Khieu Samphan

Khieu Samphan (Khmer: ខៀវ សំផន; born 28 July 1931)[3] is a former Cambodian communist politician who was the chairman of the state presidium of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) from 1976 until 1979. As such, he served as Cambodia's head of state and was one of the most powerful officials in the Khmer Rouge movement, although Pol Pot remained the General Secretary (highest official) in the party. On 7 August 2014, along with other members of the regime, he was convicted and received a life sentence for crimes against humanity during the Cambodian genocide, and a further trial found him guilty of genocide in 2018. He is the last surviving senior member of the Khmer Rouge following the death of Nuon Chea in August 2019.[4]

Khieu Samphan
Chairman of the State Presidium of Democratic Kampuchea
In office
11 April 1976  7 January 1979
Prime MinisterPol Pot
DeputySo Phim
Nhim Ros[1]
LeaderPol Pot (General Secretary)
Preceded byNorodom Sihanouk
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Prime Minister of Kampuchea
In office
4 April 1976  14 April 1976
PresidentNorodom Sihanouk
LeaderPol Pot (General Secretary)
Preceded byPenn Nouth
Succeeded byPol Pot
Personal details
Born (1931-07-28) 28 July 1931
Romdoul, Svay Rieng, Cambodia
Political party
Spouse(s)So Socheat[2]
Alma materUniversity of Montpellier (B.Ec)
University of Paris (PhD)


Samphan was born in Svay Rieng Province to Khieu Long, who served as a judge under the French Protectorate government and his wife Por Kong. Samphan was of Khmer-Chinese extraction,[5][6] having inherited his Chinese heritage from his maternal grandfather.[7] When Samphan was a young boy, Khieu Long was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to imprisonment, leaving Samphan's mother to take up a living selling fruits and vegetables in Kampong Cham Province where he grew up.[8] Nevertheless, Samphan managed to earn a seat at the Lycée Sisowath and was able to travel to France to pursue his university studies in Economics at the University of Montpellier after which he earned a PhD at the University of Paris.[9]

Khieu became a member of the circle of leftist Khmer intellectuals studying in Sorbonne, Paris, in the 1950s. His 1959 doctoral thesis, "Cambodia's Economy and Industrial Development"[10] advocated national self-reliance and generally sided with dependency theorists in blaming the wealthy, industrialized states for the poverty of the Third World.[11] He was one of the founders of the Khmer Students' Association (KSA), out of which would grow the left-wing revolutionary movements that would so alter Cambodian history in the 1970s, most notably the Khmer Rouge. Once the KSA was shuttered by French authorities in 1956, he founded yet another student organization, the Khmer Students' Union.[12]

Returning from Paris with his doctorate in 1959, Khieu held a law faculty position at the University of Phnom Penh and started L'Observateur, a French-language leftist publication that was viewed with hostility by the government. L'Observateur was banned by the government in the following year.[9] and police publicly humiliated Khieu by beating, undressing and photographing him in public.[13] Despite this, Samphan was invited to join Prince Sihanouk's Sangkum, a 'national movement' that operated as the single political party within Cambodia. Samphan stood as a Sangkum deputy in the 1962, 1964 and 1966 elections, in which the lattermost the rightist elements of the party, led by Lon Nol, gained an overwhelming victory; he then became a member of a 'Counter-Government' created by Sihanouk to keep the rightists under control.[9] However, Khieu's radicalism led to a split in the party and he had to flee to a jungle after an arrest warrant was issued against him. At the time, he was even rumoured to have been murdered by Sihanouk's security forces.[9]

In the Cambodian coup of 1970 the National Assembly voted to remove Prince Sihanouk as head of state, and the Khmer Republic was proclaimed later that year. The Khmer Rouge, including Khieu Samphan, joined forces with the now-deposed Prince Sihanouk in establishing an anti-Khmer Republic coalition known as the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), and an associated government: the Royal Government of the National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK). In this alliance with his former enemies, Samphan served as deputy prime minister, minister of defence, and commander-in-chief of the Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces, the GRUNK military.[9] FUNK defeated the Khmer Republic in April 1975 and took control of all of Kampuchea.

During the years of Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979), Samphan remained near the top of the movement, assuming the post of president of the central presidium in 1976. His faithfulness to Pol Pot meant that he survived the purges in the later years of the Khmer Rouge rule. His roles within the party suggest he was well entrenched in the upper echelons of the CPK, and a leading figure in the ruling elite.[14]

In 1985 he officially succeeded Pol Pot as leader of the Khmer Rouge, and served in this position until 1998.[9] In December 1998 Khieu and former Pol Pot's deputy Nuon Chea surrendered to the Royal Cambodian Government.[15] Prime Minister Hun Sen however defied international pressure and Khieu Samphan was not arrested or prosecuted at the time of his surrender.[16]

Arrest and trial

On 13 November 2007, 76 year old Samphan reportedly suffered a stroke. This occurred one day after the former Khmer Rouge Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife were arrested for war crimes committed while they were in power.[17] At about the same time, a book by Samphan, Reflection on Cambodian History Up to the Era of Democratic Kampuchea, was published; in the book, he wrote that he had worked for social justice and the defence of national sovereignty, while attributing responsibility for all of the group's policies to Pol Pot.[18]

According to Samphan, under the Khmer Rouge "there was no policy of starving people. Nor was there any direction set out for carrying out mass killings", and "there was always close consideration of the people's well-being." He acknowledged the use of coercion to produce food due to shortages. Samphan also strongly criticized the current government in the book, blaming it for corruption and social ills.[18]

The historian Ben Kiernan stated that Samphan's protestations (such as the fact that he regarded the collectivization of agriculture as a "surprise", and his expressions of sympathy for his "friend" Hu Nim, a fellow member of the CPK hierarchy tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng) betrayed the fundamental "moral cowardice" of a man mesmerized by power but lacking any nerve.[19]

After he left a Phnom Penh hospital where he was treated following his stroke, Samphan was arrested[20][21] by the Cambodia Tribunal and charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.[21]

In April 2008 former Democratic Kampucuchea head of state Khieu Samphan made his first appearance at Cambodia's genocide tribunal. His lawyer, the late Jacques Vergès, used the defence that while Samphan has never denied that many people in Cambodia were killed, as head of state, he was never directly responsible for any crimes.[22] On 7 August 2014, he and Nuon Chea received life sentences for crimes against humanity.[23] His lawyer immediately announced the conviction would be appealed.[24] The tribunal continue with a trial on his genocide charges as a separate process.[25] The tribunal found him guilty of the crime of genocide against the Vietnamese people on 16 November 2018 but he was cleared of involvement in the genocidal extermination of the Cham. The judgment also emphasised that Khieu Samphan “encouraged, incited and legitimised” the criminal policies that lead to the deaths of civilians “on a massive scale” including the millions forced into labour camps to build dams and bridges and the mass extermination of Vietnamese.[26]


  2. "Mrs. SO Socheat". Retrieved 21 March 2014.
  3. "KHIEU Samphan". Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  4. "Nuon Chea, ideologue of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, dies at 93". Bangkok Post. 4 August 2019. Retrieved 4 August 2019.
  5. Bora, Touch (February 2005). "Debating Genocide". The Phnom Penh post. Archived from the original on 25 November 2007. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  6. Bora, Touch. "Jurisdictional and Definitional Issues". Khmer Institute. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  7. Esterline (1990), p. 94
  8. Barron, Paul (1977), p. 46
  9. Bartrop, Paul R. (2012). "KHIEU SAMPHAN (B. 1931)". A Biographical Encyclopedia of Contemporary Genocide: Portraits of Evil and Good. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 031338679X.
  10. "Indochina Chronicle 51-52; Sept.- Nov. 1976 "Underdevelopment in Cambodia" : Khieu Samphan 1931- : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive". 10 March 2001. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
  11. Becker, Elizabeth (10 November 1998). "The Birth of Modern Cambodia". When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution. PublicAffairs. p. 63.
  12. Frey, Rebecca Joyce (2009). Genocide and International Justice. Infobase Publishing. pp. 266, 267. ISBN 0816073104.
  13. Shawcross, William, Sideshow, Isaacs, Hardy, & Brown, pgs. 92–100, 106–112.
  14. "Top Khmer Rouge leader charged". BBC News. 19 November 2007.
  15. "Khmer Rouge leaders surrender". BBC. 26 December 1998. Retrieved 7 August 2014.
  16. "CAMBODIAN LEADER RESISTS PUNISHING TOP KHMER ROUGE". The New York Times. 29 December 1998. Retrieved 7 August 2014.
  17. Cheang, Sopheng (13 November 2007). "Khmer Rouge Ex-Head of State Has Stroke". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 24 November 2007. Retrieved 13 November 2007.
  18. "Former Khmer Rouge head of state praises Pol Pot in his new book". The International Herald Tribune (The Associated Press). 18 November 2007. Archived from the original on 13 June 2008. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  19. Kiernan, B. Don't Blame Me, It Was my Prime Minister, in The Long Term View, VI, 4, p.36
  20. Cheang, Sopheng (19 November 2007). "Ex-Khmer Rouge Head of State Arrested". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 24 November 2007. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  21. Ker, Munthit (19 November 2007). "Ex-Khmer Rouge Head of State Charged". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 23 November 2007. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  22. "Khmer Rouge leader seeks release". BBC News. 23 April 2008. Retrieved 23 April 2008.
  23. McKirdy, Euan (7 August 2014). "Top Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of crimes against humanity, sentenced to life in prison". CNN. Retrieved 7 August 2014.
  24. "Cambodian court sentences two former Khmer Rouge leaders to life term". The Cambodia News.Net. Retrieved 8 August 2014.
  25. "Top Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of crimes against humanity". BBC. 7 August 2014. Retrieved 8 August 2014.
  26. "Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of Cambodia genocide". BBC News. 16 November 2018.


  • Barron, John and Paul, Anthony; Murder of a gentle land: the untold story of a Communist genocide in Cambodia, Reader's Digest Press, 1977, ISBN 088349129X
  • Esterline, John H. and Mae H., "How the dominoes fell": Southeast Asia in perspective, University Press of America, 1990, ISBN 081917971X
Political offices
Preceded by
Penn Nouth
Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea
Succeeded by
Pol Pot
Preceded by
Norodom Sihanouk
as Head of State
Chairman of the State Presidium of Democratic Kampuchea
Succeeded by
Heng Samrin
as Chair of the Revolutionary Council
Preceded by
Pol Pot
Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea
Succeeded by
Son Sen
Preceded by
Ieng Sary
Foreign Minister of Democratic Kampuchea
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by
Pol Pot
General Secretary of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea
Succeeded by
None, party dissolved
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