battambang town – For likely the first time ever, former operatives in the Khmer Rouge movement on Thursday faced those who suffered under the regime that resulted in more than 1 million deaths from 1975-79.
At a public forum organized by the Center for Social Development titled “National Reconciliation and the Khmer Rouge,” a handful of former guerrilla soldiers and intellectuals sat down with teachers, monks, students and NGO workers to hear concerns and defend their role in Pol Pot’s brutal regime.
Many of the former rebels present came from surrounding areas held by the Khmer Rouge until just a few years ago, when they integrated with the government. Among them was Long Narin, who served in the Foreign Ministry of Democratic Kampuchea under Ieng Sary, alleged to be Pol Pot’s No 3.
“They ask who is responsible for these crimes? We all are responsible. All Cambodian people,” Long Narin said. “Am I responsible? Yes, I, too am responsible….I have family members who will not speak to me because I am in the Khmer Rouge….But if I am called to a trial, I will go. I will go and defend myself.”
Most other former rebels, however, were not so quick to accept responsibility. In a series of interviews before and after the forum, those present seemed much more likely to place blame on Pol Pot, who died in 1998, and his former bodyguard, Ta Mok, who currently is incarcerated and likely will face a trial.
And at least one, Suong Sikoeun, who serves as the spokesman for Ieng Sary’s new party, echoed the Khmer Rouge’s characteristic xenophobic rhetoric by renouncing foreign intervention in Cambodia’s problems.
“Who can help Khmers for reconciliation? The foreigners, they cannot…. If someone forces a trial, that is not in good faith, because we are Khmer and we must establish democracy, Khmer-style. Europeans don’t understand about democracy, Khmer-style…. Let us forgive and forget.”
Despite the differences of opinion, the four-hour forum rarely grew heated or emotional, as those who once considered themselves enemies sat side by side. Even though the group, which numbered roughly 100, was nearly split down the middle over whether one-time Khmer Rouge leaders should be tried, former rebels said they were happy to meet their friends “from long ago.”
Participants found the line is not always so clearly drawn between the victims and the accused.
Referring to a number of former rebels who said they, too, lost family members during the four-year period, the director of the Center for Social Development said the past is “blurred.”
“This is not a cut-and-dried process,” said Chea Vannath, who before the forum spoke with Ieng Sary, who eventually urged his colleagues to attend.
“This process is so much missed in Cambodia,” she added. “Usually it’s just the leaders and the experts who sit and write the policies, but not the people who express themselves freely.”
One woman who lost her father and her only son during the radical agrarian movement’s years of toil, starvation and alleged murders said she has “suffered too much” and does not want to take revenge with a trial.
Another said the government has completed its draft law to establish a trial, but still unclear is whether the UN will be involved in the trial or at what level.
One local resident said no trial without the UN would be good enough.
“I want to see peace. But I want to see peace with justice,” said Pok Linda, who works for a women’s NGO here.
The converging opinions underscored a growing conflict among officials, NGOs and experts over how Cambodian people want to resolve the Khmer Rouge issue. As far as the Khmer Rouge are concerned, the book was closed when they defected to the government in 1996.
“Please check our documents [from the integration agreement],” former rebel Suong Sikoeun said, hinting the Khmer Rouge were assured by the government they would not be tried. “We have peace; we follow the government’s policy. What more do we need?”
Recent surveys, however, conclude that at least some Cambodians hunger for an international-style trial because they don’t believe their government could conduct a fair and unbiased proceeding.
The conflicts stress the need for more projects like Thursday’s, said Chea Vannath.
“It is my hope that the government, the National Assembly and NGOs will have more [of these]. This is just a drop of water in the ocean.”