chamkar rei village, Phnom Voar, Kampot province – An empty plastic stool stands in the center of the cockfighting ring where Chhouk Rin spent every Wednesday, before the Supreme Court rejected the former Khmer Rouge commander’s final appeal against life in prison on Feb 16.
It was at this ring and others like it where Chhouk Rin—who is now on the run from police—came nearly every day for the past four-and-one-half years to provide for his family as a professional cock fighter and gambler, his wife Yem Sav said Thursday.
Promoted to RCAF colonel after defecting to the government in the aftermath of the 1994 train ambush, Chhouk Rin once received regular visits from government and army officials seeking to buy land in the fertile Phnom Voar area.
He made the career change to cock fighter after being ostracized by Cambodian society outside Phnom Voar, Yem Sav said. Chhouk Rin’s isolation began after the Appeals Court, and finally the Supreme Court, ruled him guilty for the 1994 train attack and the killing of 13 Cambodians and three foreign hostages.
“He was fed up with everything,” Yem Sav said.
“But he didn’t really mind when he was removed from the army,” she added. “He said he was very happy at the cock fights.”
On Wednesday, more than 10 police officers from Kep municipality armed with AK-47s arrived at the house, Yem Sav said.
One of the police officers told Chhouk Rin’s son, 7-year-old Cheang Theara: “I am your father’s friend, where is he?” Yem Sav said. The boy told police he did not know his father’s whereabouts and accused them of coming to arrest him, she said.
Ka Yum, Kep municipal judicial police chief, said that police will continue searching Phnom Voar for the fugitive Chhouk Rin. But based on information from the family, they believe he has fled, Ka Yum said.
Chhouk Rin remains a popular figure in Phnom Voar, and his former Khmer Rouge neighbors listened to news of the Supreme Court ruling on Voice of America and Radio Free Asia with sadness and disappointment, said Srei Sam, 70, a former rebel soldier.
Phnom Voar’s inhabitants “don’t trust the government anymore,” Srei Sam said. “He led troops to defect to the government but then they arrested him,” he said.
The government appointed Chhouk Rin chairman of Phnom Voar’s development, and “if Chhouk Rin hadn’t had problems …things would have been better here,” Srei Sam added.
Supporters of Chhouk Rin would like to go to Phnom Penh and protest against the ruling, said Thach Sambo, who runs the Chamkar Bei village cockfighting ring.
“But without a legal expert we can’t go and we also don’t have the money to go,” he said.
Chhouk Rin’s friends said they were uncertain of his exact whereabouts, and several said he was in Phnom Penh.
Though if he were in Phnom Voar, 80 percent of the inhabitants would be prepared to help him hide, Seri Sam said defiantly.
Police will not find Chhouk Rin unless he gives himself up, added Ouch Nuon, the former rebel commander’s close friend and doctor.
“He doesn’t let anyone close to him know his whereabouts,” he said. “Even I don’t know.”
Lying in a hammock at her house, Yem Sav, who like her husband is HIV positive, appeared frail wrapped inside a gray-colored blanket.
The mother of five has dropped the name Chhouk from her son’s name. “I don’t want Chhouk Rin’s name anymore, it’s unlucky,” she said.
Chhouk Rin has barred his son from any involvement in either war or politics, Yem Sav said, adding that her husband was the victim of both.
She said Chhouk Rin was innocent of the deaths of Briton Mark Slater, Australian David Wilson and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, but he was sacrificed by the Cambodian government in return for continued aid from the Australian, British and French governments.
“I feel no regrets because Chhouk Rin has been exchanged for aid for the Cambodian people,” she said.
But “it’s difficult,” she added. “If my husband goes to jail, our family will suffer unthinkably.”