sihanoukville – Em Poung and her family managed to steer clear of the Khmer Rouge for the first year of the regime’s macabre agrarian experiment. Rebels already had killed her parents, so she and her children fled and hid in the jungle in nearby Ream village.
One day, however, she returned home just in time to see Khmer Rouge soldiers shoot and kill her 14-year-old daughter. Her husband and son were soon to follow. She then escaped to the jungle and managed to evade the Khmer Rouge for more than three years.
But Em Poung did not come here to boast. She came to face those she believes are responsible for her years of struggle. At the last in a series of public forums to bring both Khmer Rouge rebels and their victims together, Em Poung had a simple message on Thursday:
“They say they didn’t kill innocent people. But that is wrong. They did.”
One of roughly 100 people gathered at the forum, titled “The National Reconciliation and the Khmer Rouge,” her story should not be dismissed, forum organizers said. They fear that information about the upcoming trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders—whether a national trial led by the Cambodian government or a “mixed” trial by both local and UN officials—has a hard time reaching people in remote areas.
To be sure, the trial was utmost in participants’ minds on Thursday, with opinions ranging from holding a UN-run proceeding to no trial at all.
Yet unlike other forums, especially one held in Battambang in February, former rebels had little to say.
“The Battambang one…were Khmer Rouge intellectuals. That means they were outspoken people. Here, we are talking about the grass-roots Khmer Rouge, who take about three hours to warm up,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, which organized the series of forums.
More than a dozen former Khmer Rouge soldiers sat quietly on their side of the meeting hall, barely flinching when survivors like Em Poung told their stories and called for a trial of not just the Khmer Rouge leaders, but anyone who committed atrocities from 1975-79.
One former rebel, however, had much to say.
Long Van, who defected to the government in 1996, said: “It was war. And during war you follow the orders of your leaders….I had family who died, too. I think if we have a trial, it will be no good. We have to remember that everyone was involved in the Khmer Rouge in one way or another.”
Other participants included students who weren’t even alive during the regime’s rule.
One of them said a trial is imperative to finally resolve Cambodia’s troubles. But another said the country should end its obsession with the Khmer Rouge and focus instead on developing poor areas.
Buddhist monks and nuns espoused the mantra of forgive and forget, while teachers who lost their husbands said one never can forget the loss of a loved one.
The center distributed surveys to all participants, asking them how they felt about a trial. The results will be compiled next week.
Em Poung said she still is having a hard time adjusting to everyday life. To earn a living she now sells cakes on the streets of this seaside town.
She took a few minutes after the forum to describe how she survived the Khmer Rouge, but after awhile, she decided she’d had enough. She wiped her tears and walked down the road.
“I’m hungry,” she said.