By Mic Mic Villaflor
PAILIN, CAMBODIA – Elsewhere in Cambodia, one may still stumble upon some concrete reminders of the days when the Khmer Rouge still ruled this country. In the capital, Phnom Penh, some 270 kilometers southeast of here, is the Tuol Sleng prison – now the genocide museum – where there are piles of skulls and bones of those who lost their lives there. Some of the victims even have their photos hanging on the museum walls, taken before they were tortured and killed, their faces mirroring their resignation to their fate.
But this western Cambodian border town of about 40,000 people is bereft of such things. What it does have, though, is a sizeable population of former Khmer Rouge, including some of the Marxist group’s top leaders like Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, and Nuon Chea. All of them move about freely (although the former top guns do not really like to show themselves in public anymore) despite the blood on their hands. This has angered many Cambodians who had somehow survived the Khmer Rouge years but lost family members and scores of their friends. They say they want justice, which some equate with blood for blood.
An estimated 1.7 million people died in the four years of Khmer Rouge rule. The ruthless group had tried to turn the entire country into one huge commune. Instead, Cambodia was transformed into killing fields as people died from disease or starvation, or were simply executed and dumped into mass graves.
Pailin was among the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge after the group was toppled from power in 1979. Driven to the countryside, the ragtag band fought a guerrilla war with the new government, attacking village outposts even after it had signed the 1991 Paris peace pact, in which all of Cambodia’s warring factions agreed to lay down their arms. The group continued to wreak sporadic havoc across Cambodia until 1999, when it finally disintegrated. All that time, Pailin remained under Khmer Rouge control, specifically under Brother No. 3, Ieng Sary, who once had a hotel here.
The leaders years after
In 1996, Ieng Sary managed to wangle “virtual autonomy” for Pailin in exchange for a guarantee that the Khmer Rouge would not take advantage of the worsening fight between Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the royalist FUNCINPEC headed by then first premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh. That “autonomy” supposedly meant that Ieng Sary and the Khmer Rouge could do what they wanted with Pailin’s gem and timber resources. It’s not clear how that worked out, but Pailin today has neat, paved roads – hardly the dusty town that one would expect in these parts.
Ieng Sary’s son is now the next highest official in Pailin. His daughter is the head of the local office of the national Election Commission. But Pailin’s new “boss” is Y Chhean, sidekick of the late Khmer Rouge defense minister Son Sen. Y Chhean was elected governor a few years ago, running under the CPP. Ieng Sary, now in his 70s, is said to be living a quiet life.
Ieng Sary, like Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge’s nominal leader, and Nuon Chea, Brother No. 2, defected to the government in the late 1990s. This is why they remain free. Defection to the government or taking advantage of the amnesty deals offered in the past by Phnom Penh in fact became the usual routes to normal lives by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
Pol Pot, the real Khmer Rouge chief, died mysteriously in the jungle in northwestern Cambodia some five years ago. Only two senior Khmer Rouge officials are in detention, both awaiting trial: Ta Mok, the military commander who is more popularly known as “The Butcher,” and Duch, the chief interrogator at Tuol Sleng prison. Ta Mok was arrested in connection with the murder of two foreigners while Duch was charged with illegal possession of firearms.
Many Cambodians, however, insist this will not do at all. They want leaders of the former Khmer Rouge to be brought to justice. As for the underlings, some Cambodians have already taken justice into their own hands, and have made sure these ex-cadres would never have a moment’s peace – unless they move to a place like Pailin.
Ex-cadres in exile
Hi Sam An did just that years ago. He used to live in a faraway province, but he says he was harassed by the people there because they knew he was once a Khmer Rouge cadre. He had joined the group at 15. He is now 46 years old, married, and living the life of a struggling farmer here. He does not want to talk much about his past, but allows that he is still haunted by it. He says he cannot just walk in the streets of Phnom Penh without fearing that he would get stabbed or hacked in the back. “That’s how difficult it is for us,” he says.
Nouv Py, 44, hints that people are wrong to judge ex-Khmer Rouge members because, she says, they were only taking orders. She says sometimes they just tagged along with the troops – only to learn later that some people had been scheduled to be “delivered” to the killing fields. She says nothing about participating in the killings herself, but admits she saw how people were executed.
Kau Van, another former cadre, believes that distancing themselves from those who were never a part of the Khmer Rouge means less trouble for them. She says she doesn’t care if people outside Pailin will accept her or not, but then she doesn’t have any plans of stepping beyond Pailin’s borders anytime soon. In fact, the 44-year-old mother of five is content living on the edge of the jungle some eight kilometers north of Pailin proper.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says unless reconciliation takes place, the gap between the former Khmer Rouge soldiers and other Cambodians will remain. But he says reconciliation can be obtained only after justice is given to the victims of the genocide.
The past on hold
Many Cambodians think the Hun Sen administration has deliberately sat on the matter of putting Khmer Rouge members on trial because some of them are now part of the government. Hun Sen himself was once a Khmer Rouge regional commander, before he escaped to Vietnam in 1977.
This June, Cambodia and the United Nations finally signed an agreement to create a tribunal to try those who were formerly with the Khmer Rouge. The Hun Sen government, however, ensured that tribunal would answer to Cambodian law, and that Cambodians will be among the judges who will choose who will go before it.
The agreement still has to be ratified by the Cambodian national assembly, but it’s already leaving many people upset. Leading those who are against it is opposition politician Sam Rainsy, who says he would really rather forget the past because all Cambodians are victims, anyway. He also says the agreement is a “mockery” and will not really give justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. If there is going to be any trial at all, he says, it should be before an international court.
In the meantime, Hi Sam An has to attend to his ricefield and his family. Kau Van has to figure out how to feed all her children. As for their former superiors, age has simply caught up with them. Like Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea spend most of their time at home these days. Khieu Samphan, 72, is said to have failing health and goes only so far as his garden, where he is said to take much joy in working the soil. He lives in the same compound as Nuon Chea, now 76, near the Thai border.
Life in Pailin is going on as before.