By Maria Rita Hasugian
PAILIN, CAMBODIA — The road was slippery, and several times the motorcycle taxi we were riding almost slid right into muddy potholes. The afternoon rain had enticed us to stop near a granite monument, but after a while our driver Sean had suggested we continue, so off we went again. After some three kilometers, Sean parked his tiny vehicle in front of a food stall.
“I believe this is their house,” said radio journalist Him Khortieth, who had accompanied me on this trip, acting as translator.
Manning the stall were two teenagers, one of whom was busy watching television. The other was relaxing on a hammock made of rags, but both boys soon had their eyes latched on us as we approached. Him Khortieth said something to them in Khmer, and both visibly relaxed somewhat. “Our sister is here,” said the older one, bolting up suddenly from the hammock. “But our mother is out in the fields.”
He then told his younger brother to fetch their elder sister from their house, which was just right behind the stall. After a few minutes, a young woman of about 20 appeared, but she was even warier of us than her brothers were. It took a few jokes from Him Khortieth before she spoke, and all the while she stared intently at me. “We moved here right early this year,” she said. “None of the villagers knows that we are grandchildren of Nuon Chea.”
“We are lucky,” she added.
Nuon Chea was the former deputy secretary of the Khmer Rouge, whose short rule of Cambodia during the 1970s had led to the deaths of some 1.7 million people. I had seen one of the most infamous legacies of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, the national capital that is 385 kilometres away from here: Tuol Sleng, the school that had been turned into a torture-and-slaughter compound by the group during its violent reign. Many of the instruments the Khmer Rouge used to torture people are still there, as are pictures of the victims and some of their skeletons.
Elsewhere in Cambodia, small collections of skulls and bones of those slain by the Khmer Rouge can be found by roadsides or inside buildings, all of them morbid reminders of the suffering the group had inflicted on the people of this former French colony. But here in Pailin, the Khmer Rouge legacy is more benign: the families of its former cadres and officials, who see only their loved ones in the very same people who are called murderers by others. And while it is no surprise that those who lost relatives under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime want justice, Khmer Rouge families themselves say they and their accused relatives have been wronged, a sentiment I would hear again and again in Pailin, where many of them have sought refuge.
Home of the Khmer Rouge
Indeed, while this city near the Thai-Cambodian border has long been associated with gemstones like rubies and sapphires, it is also known for being the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. As late as the 1990s, the communist guerrilla group was holed up here while the rest of Cambodia was already being ushered into a semi-democracy. By 1999, the Khmer Rouge admitted defeat and surrendered. The horrors it had wrought on its own people, however, remain embedded in the minds of many Cambodians.
Just recently, a United Nations-sponsored tribunal looking into the crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge was formed. This was after years of hemming and hawing among Cambodian officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge. According to Chea Leang, prosecutor of Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, evidence is being collected and witnesses sought. But he said the genocide tribunal would put on trial only the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge and those accused of being “directly responsible” for the multiple massacres that occurred during the Khmer Rouge era. “We do not have authorisation beyond that,” he said.
Yet for a tribunal that was a long time coming, its list of accomplishments may end up short. Pol Pot, the acknowledged mastermind of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal efforts to turn the entire country into an agrarian utopia, died in 1998. His most ruthless henchman, Ta Mok, passed away in 2006. The few ex-Khmer Rouge leaders still alive are now in their old age, and are sickly. These include Ieng Sary, who stood as the regime’s foreign minister and who is believed to be in his late 70s, and Nuon Chea, who is 82 years old.
Nuon Chea’s older grandson now told us that the last time he saw his grandfather, just several weeks ago, the man once known as “Brother Number Two” could not get up from bed without assistance. But he could still talk and smile while listening to his grandchildren’s stories, said his grandson.
The slim boy said that his grandfather liked to watch boxing matches, and also usually listened to news on radio and television after waking up and before going to bed. But he wasn’t sure whether or not Nuon Chea has been able to hear the news on the upcoming Khmer Rouge trials.
The three siblings said neither their parents nor grandparents had told them about the Khmer Rouge and their grandfather’s role in the group. Their teachers had also been silent about the communist movement that had caused this nation so much anguish. In any case, Nuon Chea’s grandchildren said they had no desire to learn more about the past. “I don’t see any benefit (in knowing),” said his granddaughter firmly.
She is not that close to her grandfather, she said. But her brother apparently is, even describing Nuon Chea as “a good grandfather.” Every time they would meet, said the teenager, his grandfather would always ask about his studies. But he is not the kind of grandparent who would reward them for getting good grades or would throw them a birthday party, said Nuon Chea’s grandson. “We like ordinary things,” he said.
The boy said they had heard stories about the Khmer Rouge and their grandfather from other people, as well as from television and radio. But he said that up until a nongovernmental organisation showed a documentary on the ruthless guerrilla group earlier this year, he had refused to believe any of the stories in media and even those from neighbours.
The film had included footage of hundreds of human skulls, as well as photos of the Khmer Rouge. The teenager said their grandfather was not mentioned in the documentary. But he admitted, “I was shocked. I began to believe several things.” Now, he said, he knows why many Cambodians hated his grandfather, and why his own family has also been hounded and threatened. Yet he said he hopes his grandfather would not be called to court. “If I can do something to stop it,” he said sharply, “I will.”
‘The Butcher’’s family
The relatives of the late Ta Mok say they themselves have received death threats. “Those whose families were murdered hate us,” said one of his grandnephews. “But they are outside Pailin. In Pailin, we’re safe.”
We had gone from the home of Nuon Chea’s grandchildren to a hair salon in the heart of the city. We squeezed past vendors of fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish, past street dogs that milled around, and past a glass cabinet filled with boxes of face powder and bottles of hair tints and nail polish. We sat inside the salon while Ta Mok’s grandnephew finished selling lottery tickets. When he was done, he scampered inside to talk with us.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” said the young man. “I sell ice cubes and lottery tickets here. The hair salon is my cousin’s.”
He said not many people know he is related to Ta Mok, whose real name was Chhit Choen. Among the few who know is Noun Chea’s granddaughter, who is also in the 11th grade like him at a local high school. They are the best of friends, he said.
Ta Mok was also known as ‘The Butcher’ for having engineered numerous massacres, including one that saw the slaughter of some 30,000 people in one area. He was the Khmer Rouge’s southwest district secretary, but later rose to become a member of its central committee and its military commander. When the Khmer Rouge split into two in the late 1990s, he became head of one of the factions and ordered the arrest of Pol Pot, who would die in his custody. A year after Pol Pot’s death, Ta Mok was arrested; he, too, would die within seven years, behind bars.
The young lottery-ticket seller’s mother is Ta Mok’s niece. He said she never told him of Ta Mok’s infamous ruthlessness. What he was told, he said, was that Ta Mok was “more patriotic” than the other Khmer Rouge leaders, including Pol Pot. “My mom told me that grandpa was a good leader,” he added. “He thought about his country.”
He does not believe the stories people tell about Ta Mok; he said he does not understand why his granduncle had been — as he saw it — singled out. “They caught and put him in jail until he died,” he said. “But why everyone else can go free? This is unfair.”
He was referring to other former Khmer Rouge officials who were allowed to go on with their lives while his granduncle continued to be hunted down. Some, like Nuon Chea, had even been pardoned almost a decade ago. Then again, at the time, Ta Mok was still putting up a fight from the jungle fringes of Pailin, where his family would also be forced to seek refuge. But Ta Mok’s grandnephew didn’t tell me that; perhaps he had not known that detail.
A ‘hidden’ history?
The young man is now the head of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in Pailin. There is obviously no love lost between his family and the Hun Sen administration. According to Ta Mok’s grandnephew, he has been forced to support himself ever since authorities threw his own father in jail 10 years ago because of politics. But, he said quite proudly, he has been doing well, managing to earn enough for his tuition.
I would meet his mother later in Phnom Penh, and she would echo the things her son had told me about Ta Mok. Her uncle, she would tell me with conviction, was only following orders, he could not be solely accountable for what people said he did.
“My uncle fought against Vietnamese colonisation,” she would say, adding that she had hoped that the genocide tribunal would also consider the “involvement” of the Vietnamese government in what came to be known as Cambodia’s “killing fields.” She would even assert that her uncle’s capture and detention were part of attempts to cover this up. “This is really unfair,” she would declare, insisting that the tribunal should also query the U.S. and Vietnamese governments for their respective roles in what turned out to be one of the darkest periods in Cambodian history.
At its height, the Vietnam War in which the United States was an infamous participant had spilled into parts of Cambodia. Sometime in 1969, the North Vietnamese set up camps on Cambodian territory, which prompted attacks from the U.S. forces. These in turn added fuel to a burgeoning Cambodian civil war, which saw the guerrilla group that was the Khmer Rouge on one side and the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Lon Nol on another.
But it was not as if the Khmer Rouge was fighting on its own; for at least three years, it had the backing of communist Hanoi, which would officially pull out its support only in 1973 as part of a peace accord it had struck with Washington. It was, in fact, North Vietnamese troops that engaged Cambodian forces in vicious battles in the countryside. That left the Khmer Rouge free to concentrate on the urban areas, and in April 1975 it finally took control of Phnom Penh and the rest of the country.
Vietnamese troops would not be back in Cambodia until December 1978, this time with the intent to topple the Khmer Rouge from power. It accomplished that within months, with the Khmer Rouge forced to retreat to the rural areas. By most accounts, however, much of the slaughter of those deemed by the Khmer Rouge as “parasites of society” had already been done by the time the Vietnamese marched into Phnom Penh, with hundreds of thousands more also dead of starvation and overwork.
I had wanted to see Nuon Chea himself, hoping to hear his version of his country’s history. Our driver Sean accompanied us to the Nuon Chea’s home right at the Thai-Cambodian border. Sean said he often brought foreign and local reporters there. Nuon Chea’s granddaughter was wrong in believing no one knew who they were. “I know exactly where Nuon Chea’s family lives,” said Sean.
But we only got as far as the front yard of the Khmer Rouge’s former second in command; he was heavily guarded and we were not allowed to go farther than that. We had to make do with Kang Sok Leang, the accommodating father-in-law of Nuon Chea’s youngest daughter Mom, but he could only confirm that Nuon Chea was not in good health. Kang Sok Leang lives about four kilometres from Nuon Chea, but he visited the ex-Khmer Rouge official regularly. Thai doctors, he said, were taking care of Nuon Chea.
Truth and the tribunal
Mom called up Kang Sok Leang during our visit, and he urged her to let us see her father. But she only repeated that her father was seriously ill. Besides, she said, “I can’t let you meet him as there are no one taking care of my children.”
She kept the conversation short. Before hanging up, she said, ”If he is summoned by the court, my father will not be able to come. His health is very bad.”
Kang Sok Leang, for his part, said that he would support a jail sentence for Nuon Chea if the court found the latter guilty. He said he did not care if many people hated him as well just because he is an in-law of Nuon Chea. But Kang Sok Leang said it is a different story if people began hounding Nuon Chea’s family. That, he said, he would not take sitting down. “They don’t know anything about the past,” he said.
It’s hard to believe it now, but when the Khmer Rouge first came to power, celebrations were said had broken out in the streets of Phnom Penh. After five years of war, including months of bombing by U.S. planes, residents in the capital probably thought their suffering was finally over. Yet the truth was, it was just about to escalate. Almost immediately after the Khmer Rouge’s ascent, everything began to go terribly, terribly wrong.
It may be beyond a court’s power for Cambodians to truly fathom what they went through during the Khmer Rouge years. There is no question, however, that Cambodians are weary of carrying the burden of a bloody past. Him Khortieth, in trying to explain to me the importance of the genocide tribunal, also pointed out that at the very least the court would bring home the message that no crime goes unpunished.
It was raining again on the day Him Khortieth and I left Pailin. As the taxi skidded past potholes and filth in the muddy streets, the images of skulls and black-and-white photos of those doomed to die in Tuol Sleng kept flashing inside my head. But I could also hear the wistful voice of Ta Mok’s grandnephew, who had pinned his hopes on the tribunal: “I want to know clearly about my grandfather. I hope I can get the truth.”
Post script: Nuon Chea was arrested in September 2007. Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith – sister-in-law of Pol Pot and who was also the social affairs minister in the Khmer Rouge government – had their turn two months later, as did Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge head of state. Preceding them in detention by many months was Duch, nom de guerre of Kang Kek Ieu, who had been responsible for the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. The tribunal was scheduled to begin trying the accused sometime in 2008.
Maria Rita Hasugian is a reporter of Tempo magazine in Jakarta, Indonesia. This piece was translated from its original text in Bahasa Indonesia.