As Trials Loom, Peace Still Feels Fragile in Pailin

pailin – Pailin was created for and by the Khmer Rouge.

Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, until his September arrest, lived in a small wooden home here on the Thai border. Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan has two homes in Pailin. The family of Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, still plays a prominent role in local politics. Many here today regard the Khmer Rouge years with a mix of horror and deep, sanctified esteem.

Even as the Khmer Rouge tribunal takes aim at Pailin’s own, most do not believe their neighbors—said to be wise as leaders and kind in retirement—are re­sponsible for the sins of that revolution. Their only crime, some argue, was mismanagement.

It has been about a decade since the Khmer Rouge surrendered from their jungle redoubts along the Thai border. With peace came roads and farms. Today, 30,000 hectares of land are under cultivation, up from fewer than 1,000 hec­tares in 1996. The gems and timber that once sustained Khmer Rouge revolutionaries are for the most part gone, though locals still scavenge, by night, for rubies and sapphires on Pailin’s protected Blue Mountain. Today, the life­blood of Pailin is corn and beans.

But Pailin suffered so much war it’s hard for some to believe that this cool landscape of rolling hills and cornfields won’t one day ex­plode again. Rumors swirl about weapons caches buried in the jungle. Drunk old soldiers brag about the new battles they could wage. Local government officials emphasize that the Extraordinary Cham­bers in the Courts of Cambodia must not tamper with a peace so hard-won it can still seem fragile.

The government carved out Pailin municipality from Battam­bang province’s Ratanak Mondol district and handed it over to the Khmer Rouge forces who surrendered in November 1996. As part of the deal, Khmer Rouge leaders were installed at every level of government, said Ich Sarou, a deputy governor of Pailin and a member of the CPP’s Central Committee.

“By implementing the ‘Win-Win Policy,’” he said, referring to Hun Sen’s strategy for national reconciliation, “those who integrated into the government be­came the government.”

That foundation of civic power is still in evidence today.

Y Chhien, who has been Pailin’s governor since 1996, was once Ieng Sary’s messenger. After the Vietnamese invasion, he commanded 20,000 men in Battam­bang province, a quarter of whom died before surrendering in 1996, according to Keut Sothea, another deputy governor in Pailin and former Khmer Rouge military leader.

Today, three of Pailin’s seven deputy governors are former Khmer Rouge.

Among them is Ieng Sary’s son, Ieng Vuth. Ieng Sary’s daughter, Ieng Sophy, is chief of the Pailin Secretariat of the National Election Committee. His other daughter is a nurse, married to the director of Pailin’s health department.

Ieng Sary’s family is not only prominent, says Ich Sarou: “They are also rich. They’ve been here long enough to have property and land.”

How much property and land? “Too much,” he said.

Some, even in Pailin, wonder at the justice of this. “Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan and their families still have big positions, just like they did during the Khmer Rouge re­gime,” said Nhim Savuth, 51, chief of Funcinpec’s women’s movement in Pailin. “No one has punished them.”

Khieu Samphan has two homes in Pailin and one in Phnom Penh, according to his neighbors. Soer Sam Seima, 19, lives across the street from his house in central Pai­lin, a simple wooden structure tuck­ed beneath tall palm trees. She said Khieu Samphan treated her as a daughter. “He always welcomes us,” she said. “I love him since I was a kid,” she added.

They never talk about the past. “I dare not ask,” she said.

Ung Savuth, 43, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, lives next door to Khieu Samphan’s other, concrete house, which is now shrouded by a high fence, dense with bushes.

People were killed for stealing a papaya, or for having a love affair, he recalled of the years under the Khmer Rouge regime. Two of the dozen men he commanded in Bat­tambang province starved to death, he said. But he does not connect the horrors of those years with his neighbor.

“Khieu Samphan was not involv­ed,” he said, adding: “We should blame the grassroots cadre who wanted to be famous so they arrested people and said they were traitors. They killed them so they’d be promoted.”

Those grassroots cadre won’t face prosecution at the ECCC—and, for many in the government, that’s just the way it should be.

The tribunal is legally restricted to prosecuting top leaders and those most responsible for grievous crimes committed in Cambo­dia between 1975 to 1979. How ex­actly national and international prosecutors interpret who is “most responsible” has yet to be tested.

The answer for Ich Sarou is simple: “Fewer than 10 people,” he said.

Ich Sarou says it is “very important” for the Cambodian government to control the scope of prosecution at the ECCC.

“We want only a simple prosecution for the top leaders,” he said. Bore too deeply into the Khmer Rouge killing machine and it will “seem like genocide happens again,” he said.

“The international side [of the ECCC] cannot just do that and make further arrests,” he added. “Further arrests will not give us peace. The court must respect our goal and our country.”

For Ich Sarou, international participation in the ECCC is important, in part, because it can help legitimate the government’s 1979 prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders. Most international observers dismiss that trial as a sham.

Ich Sarou says he has personally spoken with Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary and all have agreed to submit to whatever punishment the ECCC might hand down for the sake of national stability, as long as their families remain unperturbed.

Pailin Deputy Governor Keut So­thea said he finds the prospect of Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan be­ing arrested saddening.

“I have been living with them for a long time. I received good ad­vice,” he said. “We were always clean people.”

He says the problem was that unruly followers did not heed their leaders’ sage, if inflexible, advice. “It was poor management of society,” he said, adding: “There was no in­tention to kill people.”

Today, Keut Sothea seems ready to talk about the past. From 1975 to 1978, he and 35 men under his command guarded the Royal Pal­ace—then-Prince Norodom Sihan­ouk did not go out much, he said—and provided security for visiting diplomats from North Korea, China, Iraq, Egypt, Vietnam, Ro­mania, Czechoslovakia and Laos.

In January 1978, he took over management of weapons logistics. He said it was his responsibility to sign off on every arms shipment from the Khmer Rouge’s sole military donor: China. In the year be­fore the Vietnamese invasion, he said China sent three airplanes, 20 tanks, over 100 trucks, two anti-submarine ships, and “too many” guns and bullets to count.

“In exchange they took rice and rubber,” Keut Sothea said.

He does not think the Khmer Rouge tribunal will provoke chaos. “People are fed up with war,” he said.

He’s not afraid of being prosecuted. “I had a small responsibility,” he said. “But it affects your emotions. It reminds you of the past.”

Related Stories

Latest News