Phouk Chhay - at a glance

Name (alias): Phouk Chhay,

Relevant childhood facts: born into a very poor farming family in Takeo province.

Before joining maqui: leader of student movement in Phnom Penh, in mid 1960’s and an early leader of Sino-Khmer Friendship Association. Travelled to China and was enthused by aspects of Cultural Revolution promoting them to Sihanouk. He worked in banks and had commercial training. He was jailed in 1967 by Sihanouk following the rebellion in Samlaut.

When joined the maqui: released from jail by Lon Nol in 1970, then fled to the jungle.

Responsibilities pre 1975: Political Commissar for the troops in Southwest Zone.

Alliances: aligned with the moderate camp including Chou Chet, and was opposed to Ta Mok and Thuch Rin in Southwest Zone.

Group associations: one of the younger left wing urban intelligentsia, under Hi Nim and Hou Yuon

Responsibilities during KR rule: placed at Pochentong airport (Phnom Penh) and was in charge of trading with foreigners overseas.

Death: In March 1977 he was arrested and sent to Tuol Sleng, executed at Choeung Ek in July 1977.


Phouk Chhay – extended biography

Phouk Chhay was born in the early 1940’s to impoverished, farming parents in Takeo province. While still a young teenager he was expelled from his first school for claiming the local Governor was a “lackey of the French”. 1 From 1952-56 he attended a college in Kampot thanks to a scholarship.

He moved to Phnom Penh from there, attending school and hoping to study abroad. However his father died so he stayed and studied law and political science at the University of Phnom Penh for six years. 2

Student leader

In the early 1960’s Chhay became a leader of the student movement, setting up the General Association of Khmer Students in 1964. He fell in with the older and more accomplished Hu Nim (see YouTube link below) and other leading left wing intelligentsia. In 1963 he married the daughter of a Chinese trader from Pursat with links to the elite of Phnom Penh.3

He moved on from student politics to work in various banks and wrote articles critical of land-grabbing rich landowners. He must have impressed Sihanouk as he was appointed Deputy Commissar-General of the Royal Khmer Socialist Youth.

Later that year, 1965, he travelled to China and to other socialist countries representing Cambodia and Sihanouk. He became active in the Khmer-Chinese Friendship Association, just at the time when the government was becoming more right wing and authoritarian.

In 1967 Chhay led a 10,000 strong student revolt against the government and Sihanouk, in a move to the right, banned the Khmer-Chinese Friendship Association and declared war on all opposition to his rule. The few remaining urban intelligentsia snuck out of Phnom Penh and headed for the country and joined the maqui (resistance).

This is a YouTube clip with videos of Hu Nim, who was a mentor to Chhay and died in the same way and time and for the same reasons as him. The footage shows some of the Khmer Rouge leaders in the jungle receiving Sihanouk who by 1970 was on the same side as the Khmer Rouge

Arrested by Sihanouk

Chhay wasn’t quick enough and he was arrested in his home while having dinner with his wife and brother. 30 police arrived and he was sentenced to death shortly after for ‘treason’. Sihanouk had a change of heart and commuted it to life imprisonment.

In an unlikely turn of events, Lon Nol released Chhay and 486 other political prisoners, following his accession to power in 1970. Chhay shortly after headed for the maqui, and, although being unable to forgive Sihanouk for his harsh prison experience, was given a leadership role in the Southwest Zone; political Commissar for the Southwest Zone armed forces.

The fact that a well-known urban intellectual like Chhay was given such a high profile position was perhaps because he had no Vietnamese history4 and at that time the maqui was still a relatively ‘broad church’ with Sihanoukists and other non-communists as well as the ‘northern regroupees’ (Khmers who had undergone training in Hanoi) together in the NUFK alliance.

Opposed Ta Mok

Chhay’s political skills were recognised by the CPK and he toured other regions beyond the Southwest Zone, with Chou Chet, another moderate, together promoting a philosophy that embraced the Vietnamese as allies in an anti-imperialist struggle. This eventually put him at odds with Ta Mok, who prevailed in the following years up until 1975.

Chhay retained the loyalty of the Khmer Rouge regime after victory and was put to work at Pochentong airport in charge of dealing with the outside world. He used his commercial background and diplomatic experience to administer purchase of supplies from overseas and worked there for over two years.

Arrested by Pol Pot

In April 1977 however he was arrested by the party along with various other of the ex ‘urban intelligentsia’ such as his old mentor Hu Nim (now Minister of Information in the DK regime) and Hou Yuon, and taken to Tuol Sleng.

Traitors “were often perceived as being people with urban backgrounds and intellectual skills who might have hoped to occupy the top positions in the party.”5 Hu Nim and Phouk Chhay were in this category, considered to be traitors, and arrested within weeks of each other. Kiernan suggests that both men (and Tiv Ol) were suspect as they "saw themselves as part of an international revolutionary movement. The Pol Pot group did not."6 This stemmed back to their student days and involvement with the Cultural Revolution in China.

For six weeks Chhay was tortured, with increasing ferocity each time until he ‘confessed’ complete guilt to being a CIA spy who had consciously acted against the party for the previous decade. He pleaded to be allowed to live, then for his wife and children to be spared.

On July 6, 1977, Chhay and Hu Nim were taken with 125 others and executed at Choeung Ek ‘killing fields’.7


  1. retrieved October 9, 2017.
  2. New York Times, April 13, 1970
  3. Eccc document, ibid
  4. Kiernan claims this was why he was allowed to be placed in such a position. Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power, p 314
  5. David Chandler The Tragedy of Cambodian History, p 293
  6. Ben Kiernan, Pol Pot and the Kampuchean Communist Movement, in Kiernan, B and Boua Chanthou, Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1942-1981, Sharpe, 1982, New York, p 228
  7. eccc document, ibid