A Journalist’s Account of the Khmer Rouge

We had felt the Khmer Rouge advance on Phnom Penh for days. From my third-year classroom, we sometimes heard the corpses of Lon Nol’s officers exploding in Wat Tuol Tumpong’s crematorium. Only families of ranking officers could afford to have their dead retrieved from the battlefield.

Khmer Rouge soldiers liked to jam grenades inside them for the pagoda’s oven to detonate, hoping to kill its innocent tender.

The crematorium tenders were simple men with miserable jobs. They often found fortitude in rice wine.

As the fighting approached, their work got uglier. Unexploded ordnance aside, their charges regularly came to them swollen from decomposition on the battlefield.

These wouldn’t fit into the wooden coffins they were meant to be incinerated in. The tenders had to bind the corpses with wire, forcing out the noxious air, so they would fit in the boxes.

And we heard the rockets explode more frequently. The sound of helicopters above, trying to monitor the guerrillas’ movements, became almost constant.

Then, on the morning of April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge finally arrived. They reached my home, a block south of Mao Tse-tung Boulevard on the road to Phsar Tuol Tumpong, at about 8 am.

Their black trousers were wet and rolled to the knees from having crossed the canals to the south. They fell upon a basket of bread presented to them by a neighbor, the proprietor of a European bakery.

They were famished. They had never eaten bread, and it made them thirsty. We all gave them water and welcomed them.

The Khmer Rouge soldiers were wild-eyed, like monkeys who had just arrived in the city. Their eyes roved everywhere, followed by their gun barrels.

Most of them carried at least two weapons, a B-40 rocket launcher and an AK-47 assault rifle, or maybe a recently acquired M-16 assault rifle.

These they trained on the Lon Nol soldiers, who did not hesitate to relinquish their own weapons, piling them on the ground and in cyclos.

I saw Khmer Rouge shoot at the sky but not at people. I saw nothing to foreshadow the more than one million deaths they would inflict.

By noon, the rebel youths were moving around the city with bullhorns and loudspeakers mounted on cyclos. Our section of the capital was ordered to evacuate.

My brother ran home from the Tuol Sleng lycee and joined my parents, my two sisters and me. We packed little, being told we could return home in three days.

We weren’t frightened by the shooting around us. We were worried about the US bombardments that they told us were imminent.

We trusted the Khmer Rouge because Phnom Penh was a different, decorous place then. Phnom Penh was a place where couples danced closely only behind pulled curtains and laundry was never hung to dry in public.

We did not expect those three days to become “three years, eight months and 20 days,” as ruling party officials are fond of saying today.

So we gathered our things hastily. My father and older sister pushed motorbikes. I put a leash on my puppy, whose feet had known only wooden floors till that day. Her name was Barang, for her white fur.

The voices on the loudspeakers urged us: “Go, go, go! You will meet Angkar! Angkar will help you!”

My father decided we should head for his homeland in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district.

We joined the exodus moving south on Norodom Boulevard. It was chaos.People raided the storehouses on Norodom for rice. My sister ran in to get us a sack and returned to tell how people had taken sacks only from the bottom, causing the stockpile to collapse and crush them to death.

I lost Barang before we left the city.

We crossed the Monivong Bridge and followed the flow of the Tonle Bassac river. We saw no Khmer Rouge outside the city and did not encounter the cruelties inflicted on people leaving Phnom Penh from the north.

After three days of walking, we came to the point where we needed to again cross the Tonle Bassac to get to my father’s village in Siem Reap commune.

It was dark when we loaded our belongings onto a small boat and my father paddled us into the current.

Other households paddled along beside us. Some had cows swimming beside them, trying to get their muzzles over the gunwales, spraying water from their nostrils.

We reached the other bank and met the villagers there, the “old people.”

My father asked them, “Where is Angkar?” They replied, “You are Angkar.”

The second time the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh was Nov 27, 1991, as a dapper two-man delegation representing the Party of Democratic Kampuchea.

Since 1975, we had learned a little about the secretive leadership of the Khmer Rouge. When
Russian-backed Vietnamese communist forces drove them, the Chinese-backed Cambodian communist forces, westward in 1979, I heard the name Pol Pot for the first time.

It always was while held at gunpoint. The Vietnamese soldiers, who could not speak Khmer, would interrogate us by screaming, “Pol Pot! Pol Pot!”

By the end of 1979, I had figured out that Pol Pot, to some degree, was Angkar.

By 1991, we had been exposed to new propaganda by the Hanoi-backed State of Cambodia, which had changed its name from the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1989.

A song heard frequently on state radio jeered Prime Minister Hun Sen’s opponents in the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea.

It equated then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Son Sann, whose Khmer People’s National Liberation Front had joined the Sihanoukists to form the non-communist resistance, with their blood-stained allies in nationalism, the Khmer Rouge.

“Sihanouk’s face, Son Sann’s face, looks like Pol Pot-Ieng Sary-Khieu Samphan,” the tune went.

So that was who we knew of, who we blamed: Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan.

In late 1991, I lived in Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka and studied English. The SOC did not send me to fight the Khmer Rouge because I already had lost my immediate family to them.

Instead, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recruited me to work as a translator for a Japanese newspaper reporter who had come to cover Prince Sihanouk’s return from exile.

The Prince landed at Pochentong airport on Nov 14. It was a spectacle. Thousands of schoolchildren greeted the monarch, waving the new powder-blue flag of the Supreme National Council.

At this point, all factions were coming forward to sit on the Council in an apparent effort to implement the Paris Peace Accords.

On Nov 27, Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge’s nominal leader, and Son Sen, its defense minister whom no one in Phnom Penh had heard of, arrived to negotiate for their comrades in the jungle.

The SOC had arranged for them to reside at a house on Street 214 between Monivong Boulevard and the Olympic Stadium, the stretch named for Yugoslavian strongman Josef Tito.

Encouragement for people to turn out and welcome the Khmer Rouge delegation circulated through the capital by word of mouth, our communist handlers preferred form of communication.

The people did not necessarily love the State of Cambodia, but if it told us that one plus one equals one, we would repeat it.

Schoolchildren were not invited to the Nov 27 welcoming party. Government militia officials urged the adults, those who remembered Democratic Kampuchea, to attend. My Japanese boss and I went.

Shortly after Khieu Samphan’s van pulled up, I heard militia officials outside the German Embassy, on the corner of Street 214 and Monivong Boulevard, reminding people how much they had suffered under the Khmer Rouge.

Some historians have suggested that what followed was incited by SOC authorities, and I am sure that it was. After Jan 7, 1979, when the Khmer Rouge surrendered Phnom Penh and returned to the jungle, many of us took our revenge on Pol Pot loyalists.

That had been more than a decade ago. We were still angry with the Khmer Rouge, but now we were tired. We wanted peace and security.

Nonetheless, the day’s upheaval did not require too much encouragement. People on the street grew irate and cried out their desires to carve, bleed and dismember Khieu Samphan. Slow suffering was the order of the day.

I remember a woman in her mid-50s, wielding a meat cleaver and stalking toward his house.

“My family members were killed! I want to chop Khieu Samphan with my own hand!” she shouted.

I tried to quiet her. “Please, calm down. If you do this, we will have more fighting at the Thai border,” I pleaded.

My sentiments weren’t popular. Men surrounded me and began to shove me angrily. I decided to shut up and do my job. I was there to translate.

Hundreds filled the street in front of Khieu Samphan’s house. We worked our way to the locked gate. Already, about 30 men had climbed over it. They cast documents and luggage into the street.

No police were in sight, despite the growing size of the mob and proximity of a police post.

By the time I got inside, the house was heaving with bodies. A man on the balcony upstairs yelled to the mob below, “We’ve nearly got Khieu Samphan!”

Police from the Interior Ministry finally arrived as I worked my way up the packed, curving staircase. People still shouted their violent wishes. A battering ram and the knocking of sticks reverberated down the stairwell.

Inside Khieu Samphan’s bedroom, about three meters by four meters, I was pushed toward a window. Too many men were in there. I smashed out the window so we could breathe.

Then Hun Sen could be heard urging calm over a bullhorn from a rooftop across the street. He ordered police to guard Khieu Samphan and ensure his safety.

We heard police whistles, fire engine sirens and the rumble of an armored personnel carrier. Smoke rose from fires in the street.

I spotted Khieu Samphan. He and Son Sen were crouched against a wall. His head had been struck and blood stained his suit. Some of his bodyguards hovered over him, while others distributed cash to the police.

The police officers carefully separated the stacks of money into thin sheaves. They hid them in separate pockets so no suspicious bulges would draw attackers.

The APC backed through the gates of the house and Khieu Samphan and Son Sen, now wearing combat helmets, were ushered aboard.

Rocks rained down on them, and police lifted their riot shields to the sky for protection.

Police delivered the two cadres to Pochentong airport and they flew to Bangkok. My boss and I returned to the Hotel Cambodiana and he filed his story.

The next time I encountered Khieu Samphan, he had just eaten lunch with Hun Sen. It was Dec 29, 1998. He and Nuon Chea, Brother No 2, had defected to the government.

“This is the end of the Khmer Rouge,” Khieu Samphan said that day.

The two aging cadres had flown with their families by helicopter from Pailin to be welcomed at Hun Sen’s home. After their meal, they checked into suites at the Royal Phnom Penh hotel.

There the two cadres gave a news conference and expressed a small amount of remorse for the lives lost under their regime.

Asked if he were ready to apologize to the Khmer Rouge’s victims, Khieu Samphan tersely replied, “Yes, sorry, very sorry.”

But mostly, he and Nuon Chea urged Cambodians to “let bygones be bygones.”

Toward the end of the conference, I approached their table and held my tape recorder up to Khieu Samphan.

“Do you know if my aunt, Moeung Thol, is alive?” I asked.

Khieu Samphan looked startled. I don’t think he placed the name at that moment, but I think it jolted him into his past.

My aunt had attended the Lycee Kambuboth, known in the 1960s for its faculty of progressive intellectuals. Khieu Samphan had taught my aunt there.

My grandmother had told me that my aunt, whom she had not seen since 1970, had followed her teacher into the jungle after Lon Nol ousted Prince Sihanouk.

Khieu Samphan’s assistant, Long Naren, wrote down my aunt’s name and took my name card. He said they would ask around Pailin and contact me if they found her. I haven’t heard from them.

The government and the UN say that Khieu Samphan and the other surviving leaders of the Khmer
Rouge will have another day in Phnom Penh, a day before Cambodian and international law, sometime in the next year or so.

I cannot speculate on this. I am a reporter. I can only say what I have seen.

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