‘Around Here, People Love Him’
In the Cambodian province where Khmer Rouge leaders came to die, people aren’t celebrating a guilty verdict against two top regime officials. After all, they’re neighbors.
PAILIN PROVINCE, Cambodia — When former Khmer Rouge officials Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, were sentenced to life in prison on Thursday for committing crimes against humanity, no one inside a small pagoda near the Cambodia-Thai border clapped. Sitting on mats strewn across the floor, most people watching the state broadcast of the ruling seemed to be intermittently paying attention. Many viewers chatted with friends and family or stared down at their cell phones as judge Nil Nonn from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) — the U.N.-funded tribunal established to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge — read the guilty verdict.
There were 20 such public screenings across the country, organized by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), an organization that specializes in historic preservation, education, and outreach about the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. Nearly two million people were killed in the Cambodian communists’ attempt to create their own brand of the Great Leap Forward. Except for a hasty 1979 show trial convicting senior leaders in absentia, there was no justice in the immediate aftermath of the ruinous regime. It wasn’t until 2006 that, as a result of international pressure, the ECCC was established. And until Thursday, there had been only conviction in the court, in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, who ran an infamous prison torture center.
The men on trial this time were two of the Khmer Rouge’s top officials: Nuon Chea, who served as deputy to Pol Pot, the regime’s notorious leader, and Khieu Samphan, the one-time head of state. They faced a raft of charges, including crimes against humanity and genocide. Cambodians who have waited 35 years for a major Khmer Rouge leader to be convicted finally saw it happen.
But Pailin province, where the pagoda screening was held, is different.
One of the first places invaded by the Khmer Rouge when it was an insurgent army, Pailin also became the de facto home of many of the Khmer Rouge leaders after the regime fell. Ieng Sary, the ex-Khmer Rouge minister of foreign affairs who died last year before the verdict in his trial, and his former wife, Ieng Thirith, who was declared unfit to face the court due to dementia, both still have relatives and property in the area. Chea and Samphan also lived there at the time of their arrests in 2007. Pailin, in short, is where many Khmer Rouge figures came to die.
Many in the area want to forget the past, and those who knew the defendants, including the men’s relatives, think they are innocent or were too old to be prosecuted. Others have simply stopped paying attention to the ECCC after nearly a decade of limited progress.
Him Klou watched the verdict with his prosthetic leg placed beside him on a mat. Klou, 65, served in the government army before being forced to enlist with the communists when they maintained an insurgency in the 1980s. He lost his leg after stepping on a landmine. Klou, who also lost relatives to the Khmer Rouge, now runs the commune, the small administrative area where the screening was held — and his time in Pailin has given him a unique view on the ECCC. Klou said the verdict was just and that he supports the court, but he also said that since locals are friends of Chea, he can understand why they don’t want him to be in jail.
"From my point of view, what I see is good," Klou said, describing Chea’s life in Pailin. But then he hedged: "When he has no power, he is good."
Pailin is a six-hour drive from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh; it is the last province before the Thai border. The vestiges of the Khmer Rouge came here in the late 1980s as the Vietnamese military, which had pushed them out of power in 1979, withdrew from Cambodia. As part of a deal with the government, the part of the Khmer Rouge loyal to Ieng Sary lay down their arms and defected in exchange for semi-autonomy. Chea and Samphan, who had been with Pol Pot in a separate stronghold, followed a few years later. In the early 2000s, the area became a legitimate province.
Among those who moved to the border in the 1980s are the relatives of Samphan and Chea. They now live in Prom, a village within sight of Thailand. A taxi driver named Has Sarom knew the way.
"[Chea] was just a normal person, he stayed at home," Sarom said as he drove along a winding mountain road. "Very simple and very kind." Sarom, 57, said he was not aligned with the Khmer Rouge when it was in power, but he also doesn’t understand why officials would want to lock up a man in his 80s. "Nuon Chea is so old. Why did the trial arrest him?"
"I cannot believe [Chea] made the decision to kill people," he added.
Nearing the Thai border, Sarom turned left down a muddy road before pulling up to a clearing. A short walk down a path stood two clapboard structures. Laundry was hanging up, and a young child was feeding ducks, but no one else was in sight. This, Sarom said, is a house that Chea used to live in. The complex was in disarray. Later, a relative of Chea’s said the owner of the land had gotten so sick of journalists coming down the path seeking interviews with Pol Pot’s second-in-command that he personally dismantled the house.
Back toward the main road, Sarom parked outside a large house built of timber. A man identifying himself as Chea’s grandson-in-law, a 36-year-old police officer named Ou Boran, came outside to talk. Like Sarom, he didn’t understand why Chea was in jail, let alone about to be sentenced for crimes against humanity.
"[Chea] is clean. He did everything for the nation," said Boran, referring to Chea respectfully as Lok ta, which translates to "Sir Grandfather". "Around here, people love him. People in Pailin, they believe that those leaders are respectful."
Khieu Samphan’s house is located about 20 minutes away, on a street closer to the center of Pailin town, across from a gas station and in view of a mountain peak. The house is a rectangular box of concrete surrounded by coconut and mango trees. An elderly man who came out of the house said he was a distant relative of Samphan’s, though a neighbor later said he was actually a brother-in-law. The man refused to give his name and seemed nervous, ambiguously saying that he had to call someone to make sure he could give an interview. (He did not specify who was on the other end of the line.)
Yet after a while, he seemed more at ease. "A lot of people living here think it is wrong to arrest Khieu Samphan because he was not involved and had no part in the killings," the man said. (A common argument offered in support of Samphan is that he was just a figurehead in the Khmer Rouge.) "About Nuon Chea, I don’t know, but about Khieu Samphan, it’s an injustice."
The vast pagoda where the verdict was screened has columns stretching from floor to ceiling. Paintings of the Buddha’s life cover the interior, and a 15-foot Buddha statue stands at the head of the shrine. The crowd inside for the show was mixed in age; some had lived through the Khmer Rouge’s awful reign, while others weren’t alive at the time.
Hun Pheun, 61, a senior village official, joined the Khmer Rouge in 1973, two years before the group took power. He insisted that he never killed innocent people, and that he only learned of the grievous nature of the regime when the ECCC trials began. He said he tried to leave the Khmer Rouge many times to defect to the government, but never succeeded. As for the verdict, Pheun said the life sentence was necessary, to set the right precedent. "It would be a bad habit for the old to be released," he said. "It will be a model." He suggested giving the convicted two life sentences, just to drive home the point.
Like others at the viewing, however, Pheun couldn’t help expressing misgivings about the convictions. "Everybody has bad and good," he said, noting that when Chea was in power, he did some things right, like eliminating thievery and striving for equality.
"But," Pheun acknowledged, "he killed people."