Exactly 50 years ago, the United States started a carpet bombing campaign in Cambodia, behind the scenes of the Vietnam War. The fleeing peasants ran straight into the arms of a small guerrilla group with big plans. The Khmer Rouge has persisted in its insanity for a long time, until only 20 years ago. The country has not come to terms with its past yet.
Article by Pascal Laureyn, Phnom Penh
”Nobody can replace him, there is no other strong leader like him. How can Cambodia manage without him? Ott dung, I don’t know.” Says Khim Suon (62) who charges foreign visitors two dollars to see a gruesome monument in the Dangrek Mountains, only 200 meters from the Thai border.
Surrounded by skinny trees, a mass murderer is resting under a corroded roof. Over the years, the ashes of Pol Pot have been mingling with the sandy soil and the remains of burnt car tires and personal belongings with which he was cremated unceremoniously in April 1998. A stray dog pokes his nose into the dirt. The extinguished incense sticks and a barely readable sign make this grave seem even more insignificant.
It was an ignominous end for a megalomaniac who plunged his country into the abyss. Pol Pot died of an everyday heart attack, much more peacefully than the almost two million Cambodians that succumbed to exhaustion, hunger, torture and murder. A quarter of the population did not survive his ‘great leap forward’. The Marxist-agrarian utopia of the Khmer Rouge became a mass grave.
When his rebels took control of the entire country in 1975, Pol Pot started the extermination of the “rotten” Cambodian cul- ture. The Khmer Rouge emptied cities, killed educated people and locked the population up in labor camps. Trade, money, art, religion and family life: everything was eradicated on the bonfires of insanity. Eventually the Khmer Rouge devoured itself and got driven deeper into the jungle by their enemies. All the way to the village of Anlong Veng, their last refuge.
There, Pol Pot died in 1998 while under house arrest, his last followers having turned against him. Grave keeper Khim Suon stayed by his side. She worked for Brother Number One and describes him as a humble and silent man. “Pol Pot didn’t want to murder people. If everything was true what people say about him, I wouldn’t be doing this job. Would I?” Nevertheless, it was him who scripted this slogan: “Keeping you is no advantage, destroying you is no loss.”
Today, the grave of her ultra-communist boss regularly gets visitors from the new casino across the street, the irony escapes her. Fortune seekers beg for lucky lottery numbers. She says people came here to pick pieces of his bones from the ashes. The skeleton of the genocidal leader now serves as a talisman on necklaces.
The paradise of the Butcher
The affection of Khim Suon is no exception in the northern province of Oddar Meanchey. In this region of rust coloured soil and fields of cassava, the nostalgia for the Khmer Rouge is still common. The small town of Anlong Veng and the district of the same name were their last crumb of territory. It became a shelter (or a retirement home) for the most dedicated fighters of the communist cause.
It was only 20 years ago when the Khmer Rouge ceased to exist. On 6th March 1999, Ta Mok was arrested. He was the last leader, stubbornly fighting on from Anlong Veng. A few months earlier, other leaders had betrayed the red cause and made a deal with prime minister Hun Sen. Finally Cambodia could close this horrific chapter. At least, that was everyone’s dream.
Ta Mok did not have a joyful resume. He was called the Butcher because of his bloodlust. In Anlong Veng, he prohibited theft, drunkenness, prostitution, private enterprise and contact with outsiders – all punishable by death. In the rest of Cambodia he was considered a monster. But in Anlong Veng nobody questions his kindheartedness. When he died in his cell in 2006, his demise was mourned by thousands.
“Everyone loved Ta Mok”, says Mea Chrun (66). He is the former chief of a unit of Khmer Rouge bodyguards. “He fought for the revolution, for equality. He did a lot for the poor. He built a temple and a hospital.” Mea still spends a lot of time at the house of his former boss. The skeleton of the villa looks over a lake that the one-legged commander had built for himself, now a creepy swamp with dead trees. The old radio car that once belonged to Pol Pot is slowly falling to pieces between the mango trees.
Why does the rest of the country call him ‘the Butcher’? “He was only mean to people who didn’t follow his rules. It started with the lower ranks, they started to kill. There things went wrong”, this verdict is expounded from Mea’s hammock. His shirt is adorned with the logo of the CPP, the Cambodian People’s Party of the new ruler. “One has to follow the stream”, is his answer.
The communist time capsule of Anlong Veng will disappear one day. When the sinister regime imploded, the outside world flowed in bringing with it whisky, hair salons and 3G. Past and present meet each other where skinny cows stroll by a karaoke bar. Cambodians are building on the ruins of their traumatized past, without addressing the trauma. Nevertheless, that was the task of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) when it was established in 2003.
War criminals of Khmer Rouge walk free
This Khmer Rouge tribunal, with Cambodian and international lawyers, had to quickly put the highest ranks of the Khmer Rouge behind bars. That would bestow catharsis to the country and put it back on the rails. Things went differently. 16 years and 300 million dollars later, three (3) people have been convicted in cases 001 and 002. 003 and later cases never produced any verdicts.
Im Chaem was supposed to be tried in case 004. The confidant of Ta Mok was accused of murder and crimes against humanity. She was powerful and responsible for large areas. In the dreadful document 308/3/1/20 of the ECCC, which recommends the closure of her case, simultaneously describes the proof of the trail of destruction that this woman left behind.
Examples? Article 222: “… a strong indication that Im Chaem was jointly responsible for the deaths of 40,000 prisoners in Phnom Trayoung …” 233: “… the complete village Chakrey, approximately 400 inhabitants, killed under her command …” 251: “… killings on a large scale and over a long period of time in Sector 5 prove the intention to exterminate (…) the responsibility of Im Chaem beyond a reasonable doubt …”
This woman now leads a peaceful life within a stone’s throw of Anlong Veng. On my arrival, the daughter warns me that her mother refuses to speak to foreign press. And that she’s not at home. I find her in the garden. The 78 year old is whacking a stick into a cashew tree. “Neak djung, what do you want?” The conversation is strained at first.
“Did you travel all the way from Europe to ask me how I am?” She laughs loud. The sharp minded senior constantly looks the uninvited reporter in the eye. “I never harmed anyone”, she says resolutely. “I stand firmly on my feet.”
Local papers report that she recently Christianized. “Because Christians are more forgiving?” I ask. She laughs again. “Christians love people who are honest and good. People love me. That proves that the accusations are false. Even Hun Sen knows that, he supports me.” The latter is true. The case of Im, and those of others, has been blocked by the prime minister for years.
“I thought I was dying when I heard the accusations. I prayed and God helped me.” She laughs again, too loud. “Do you know how many people died in your sector?” I ask her. Her blue eyes turn icy. “I cannot know that. Life is a cycle, one gets born and dies again.” She recounts how she has served her people and lists her own escapes from death. But are the accusations of the tribunal true or not?
“What is truth? What I have to know is in my heart and in my head. I will never forget it, it has already happened. But it should never happen again. I will never make the same mistakes again.” A bigger confession will not be granted to this foreign reporter. She asks me to greet Europe for her. Strikingly, Im Chaem still speaks Khmer Rouge slang. For example, she uses ‘mut yeung’ for ‘we’, loosely translated as ‘we-comrades’.
A failure foretold
One of the many victims of the ‘mut yeung’ is Chhang Youk (58). He was 14 years old when he was placed under the authority of Im Chaem. With bare hands he helped build the dam of Trapeang Thma, together with thousands of other forced laborers. “I went to work without eating. I got two spoons of water.” He was tortured, his sister was murdered, uncles and cousins have disappeared. “You died as a victim or you survived as a perpetrator. There was nothing in between.”
Article 222: “The court believes that there is sufficient evidence that crimes against hu- manity have been committed at the Trapeang Thma dam, resulting in hundreds of thousands of victims and that Im Chaem can be held responsible for them.” According to the records, she ordered the guards to beat, arrest and kill the forced laborers if they were too exhausted to work.
“My trauma is that I didn’t have a childhood. I have become a gardener to try come to terms with that. When I had to work for the Khmer Rouge, I saw beautiful vegetables everywhere. I was not allowed to touch them, or I was ‘re-educated’. But looking at it was enough. I really enjoyed seeing potatoes grow. I studied every detail, I cherished every leaf. I al- most saw them grow before my eyes. That was my emotional satisfaction in the darkest times: seeing things alive.”
The office of Chhang is full of cupboards with biographies, statements and evidence from perpetrators and victims. Since 1995 he has been director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a research center that collects and preserves the traumatic past. Under his leadership, 20,000 mass graves were discovered and an archive with a million documents compiled, including 30,000 testimonials from victims.
“My first motive was to take revenge for my mother”, Chhang remembers. “She is still alive, 94 years old. But she has suffered more than the dead. She feels guilty. She saw her family die, but couldn’t do anything. That is why I want the Khmer Rouge to be pros- ecuted.”
Chhang finds the three convictions of the ECCC a bitter disappointment. “You don’t build confidence in the future with impunity.” Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resistance to the tribunal was simple. He defeated the Khmer Rouge with bribery. The defected leaders received protection and well-paid positions in the government. In this way he created a loyal circle that further consolidated his power. He did not allow lawyers from Geneva to disturb that balance. What if they would dig deeper? After all, Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge commander himself until he defected in 1977.
“The ECCC was supposed to deliver catharsis, healing and reconciliation. That didn’t happen”, says historian Peter Maguire, author of ‘Facing Death in Cambodia’. “The tribunal would turn Cambodia into a democratic country. That didn’t happen. Cambodia did become a one-party state, opposition members were jailed and an independent press was abolished.”
“What did you expect? The law is dictated by Hun Sen, not by parliament or courts”, Sebastian Strangio says on the phone. He is a journalist and the author of ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia’. “Unconditional obedience to a strong leader has always been an important principle in their culture. It has always been that way. Implementing visionary abstractions about international justice in the messy realities of Cambodia could only fail.” Im Chaem can carelessly continue to pick cashew nuts in her wide garden.
Cabinet of skulls
Someone who did end up in jail, is Kaing Guek Eav, also called Duch. He presided over the murder machine of S-21 in Phnom Penh. In a converted school approximately 20,000 ‘enemies’ died between 1975 and 1979. Only seven people survived their pas- sage through the camp. One of them is Bou Meng (78). “I was accused of espionage because I could paint, art was suspicious. “ Nevertheless, he was saved by his brush. Duch spared him because he could paint portraits of Pol Pot.
Now S-21 is a creepy museum. It evokes images of children playing and screaming prisoners at the same time. Blackboards and torture gear in the same classroom. Barbed wire around the playground. Photos of captured men, women and children. Visi- tors looking for historical background or educational content leave frustrated. The Genocide Museum only wants to shock, not to clarify. But Bou still goes there often to sells his biography, his trauma is his income.
His brown eyes shine. He misses a number of teeth, lost through torture. The grooves in his face grow deeper as the conversation becomes more personal. He keeps a picture of his wife in his wallet, taken when she arrived in S-21. She didn’t survive. She still appears as a 28 year old in his dreams, along with other dead. “They ask for justice.”
Bou hoped that the restless ghosts would disappear after the conviction of his exe- cutioner in 2012. “But if you have ever been in prison, you will never get out.” In S-21, electroshocks, lashes, drowning, and humiliation were rarely inflicted by Duch, but by interrogators such as Prak Khan (67). He currently has a successful banana business in Samrong Yaong, in the southern province of Takeo.
A mountain of green bananas lay in front of the house. Prak does not want to talk to the foreign press here, what would the neighbors say? “Everyone knows what I did in S-21 and that is still sensitive here. But I can’t turn back the clock.” He takes me on the back of his scooter, he drives to more neutral terrain, a temple. He stops in front of a glass closet with skulls, victims of the ‘killing fields’.
Around fifty murdered people are staring at the visitors with hollow eyes. Many temples in Cambodia have such a cabinet of death. Prak can talk more freely here. “I was very scared in S-21. Half of the other interrogators were killed. I did everything that Duch asked.” With fanatic attention to details, Prak’s job was described in ECCC court documents E1 / 52.1 and E1 / 53.1. His testimony about life and death in S-21 is not intend- ed for sensitive readers.
He explains how people were tortured for absurd ‘confessions’, after which they were taken to the ‘killing fields’. Indifferent and methodical at the same time. In a documentary by Rithy Panh, “S-21: Killing Machine” (2003), Prak said it like this: “The lives of the prisoners didn’t interest me. They were animals. I hit them without thinking.” 16 years later, with the silent witnesses in the cupboard behind him, he sounds milder. “I regret what I did, but I had no choice.”
Heroes with supernatural power
On March 18, 1969, the US started a secret war in Cambodia against North Vietnamese communists who attacked the Americans in South Vietnam via a shortcut. Rice fields became battlefields. “The bombing campaign had more impact on the Khmer Rouge than on the Vietnamese”, writes Elizabeth Becker in her book ‘When the war was over’. “Malaria claimed more deaths. But the carpet bombing made them revolutionary heroes. Their survival was a sign of supernatural power.”
The Khmer Rouge found willing recruits everywhere in the early 1970s. “I was 17 when the rebels came to our village. Everyone became soldiers. They said we wouldn’t find a wife otherwise,” says Prak Khan. Bou Meng was convinced by a radio speech by the king. For Im Chaem it was something else: “We were poor, that was the only reason.” For many it was an honorable escape from the hopeless peasant life: fighting for country and king, against the nefarious imperialists and their B-52s.
“They all joined the Khmer Rouge because they wanted to”, sighs Chhang Youk, the genocide chronicler, from his office with a view of the official residence of Hun Sen. “I know their biographies. The whitewashing stories change regularly, they find another excuse every ten years. Because they feel guilty. They did not fight for the fatherland or because they were forced. In reality, they fought for social status. They wanted to be someone. “
It was a tried and tested recipe for a catastrophe: a feudal and fatalistic culture, com- bined with violence with impunity. The bas-reliefs of war scenes on the walls of Angkor Wat prove that it was not the first time. “The Khmer Rouge was an extremely barbaric expression of existing Cambodian tendencies”, says journalist Sebastian Strangio.
Country without memory
Those who have experienced the horrors of the Khmer Rouge are 50 years or older, which counts for 10 percent of the population. But the lives of all ages are still influenced strongly by the events of the 1970s. After the invasion of the Vietnamese at the end of ’78 and the later takeover of power by the CPP, history was rewritten, says journalist Sebastian Strangio. “The CPP promotes itself as the party that single-handedly saved Cambodia from the horror. That is the central propaganda pillar of Hun Sen until today.”
The Prime Minister will not waste a day to warn of a new civil war that only he can prevent. Result: Cambodia finds itself at the bottom of just about all country lists that measure progress. “When change comes, he promises stability. Because Cambodians have become afraid of change and the government cultivates that fear. They are very conservative because of their history.”
No wonder, historian Peter Maguire thinks. “In a quarter century Cambodians were exposed to all sorts of conflicting regimes: the monarchy of King Sihanouk (1953-1970), the republic of Lon Nol (1970-1975), the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), the Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979 –1989), the Cambodian State (1989-1992), the UN Interim Administration (1992-1993) and, since 1993, the iron fist of Hun Sen.”
The latter has cleverly steered himself through all storms. That’s how he has become the longest-running prime minister, he has been in office for 34 years. His monopoly on information has been helpful. After 30 years of silence in the classrooms, there has only been a (concise) history of the genocide in the education plans since 2009. Khmer Rouge? It still does not ring a bell for many young people.
The road ahead
In Anlong Veng, the local youth gathers at Ta Mok’s house on Sunday evening to relax by the lake with lots of beer and pop music. Shrill beats echo through the empty rooms of the Butcher. The dead trees reflect sharply in the still water. The village wants to lure tourists to this house and other nasty attractions. The dark history of Anlong Veng, littered with corpses and landmines until recently, has to produce money.
But as yet, the buses stay away. There are 50 foreign visitors every month, reports the local tourist office. 115 km to the south, the Angkor temples receive millions of tourists every year. “I want to leave this place,” says Ousa (21), “but it’s hard to find work elsewhere. I don’t know anyone outside of Anlong Veng.” His friend Vuthy (22) sounds more hopeful. “If the government were to advertise, more tourists would come automatically. And more jobs.”
Hun Sen stands in the way of this dream. Cambodian roads are adorned with portraits of the prime minister, and nowhere are they as large as in Anlong Veng. To make it clear to the wandering spirits of the Khmer Rouge who is in charge now. But 20 years after the dystopia, this is their only really useful symbol of progress: an asphalt road with a full yellow center line.
Pascal Laureyn, Phnom Penh, 2019