Adusty, provincial meeting hall fills up with people one recent morning. Cambodians have come to tell their stories in public for the first time in decades.
It has taken them this long to feel safe to speak about their time under the Khmer Rouge—about those responsible for the deaths of their uncles, their sisters, their fathers.
By midday, a humble police officer stands up, looks at the crowd and blurts a single question that underlies virtually every discussion of the past and at times eludes even the most renowned scholars:
“Who is the Khmer Rouge?”
For the sake of a UN-backed trial, the answer is beginning to take shape: A handful of surviving men once led by Pol Pot who formed the exclusive, decision-making center of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
But that answer does not satisfy the policeman.
“I want to know who did it—all of it,” he says. “Even if it involves current government ministers.”
And in one moment he has voiced a notion rumored and whispered for years but never fully documented. – while the majority of their colleagues from the Khmer Rouge have spent the last twenty years hidden in the jungle.
The most prominent of such unusual success stories is Minister of Finance Keat Chhon, who stands well toward the front of the receiving line, waiting his turn to shake hands with the prime minister. Known for his cultivated politeness and his willingness to cooperate with Cambodia’s foreign donors, he turns his calm, expectant face toward the plane.
Following the premier out of the aircraft is Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong. Another of these mysterious success stories, he descends with his hand raised in a terse greeting and his face screwed into a tight, deliberate smile. In charge of all
Cambodia’s diplomatic efforts, he is known as a man who makes few apologies, even in his day-to-day work.
What Were They Doing From 1975-1979?
In one moment, the policeman has voiced a notion rumored and whispered for years but never fully documented.
He has implied that the Khmer Rouge is not only Pol Pot and his cronies. It also includes the dozens of intellectuals who worked behind the scenes.
Among this second category are two of the current government’s senior leaders, Minister of Finance Keat Chhon and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong. Unlike dozens of others in this lower tier of operatives, they managed to not only survive the regime’s brutal policies but also attain two of the government’s most powerful posts.
In the tens of thousands of accessible documents from Cambodia’s violent 1970s, there is little to suggest that men in this lower tier—namely, Keat Chhon and Hor Namhong—were part of the regime’s innermost circle of decision makers and therefore responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians.
Yet their stories—told over the last several months by survivors from varying political backgrounds, surviving documents and genocide researchers—suggest they were much more involved than they admit and reveal a tale of two political chameleons willing to do just about anything to save their skins and their ever-advancing careers.
Whether this willingness means Keat Chhon or Hor Namhong would be witnesses—or even suspects—in a UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal remains to be seen. Both recently denied any wrongdoing.
However a look into their past helps one understand why they and their government for the last several years have been reluctant to relinquish control over such proceedings.
For if Keat Chhon and Hor Namhong do reside in this lower tier, such a trial could shine a light on a past that neither one wants to face.
And for the first time, it might begin to answer the policeman’s questions.
In 1960s Cambodia, Keat Chhon was one of dozens of Cambodia’s Paris-educated, Vietnam-inspired urban leftists. The group grew quickly, as did their hostility to what they saw as a corrupt government run by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
Like many of these leftists, Keat Chhon for a while served in Prince Sihanouk’s government. But by 1963, the young engineer had made his way onto a list of “subversives” the Prince targeted as political enemies, according to historians.
Also on the list were members of the emerging Communist Party—Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Son Sen, Hou Yuon and Hu Nim. They were names that later would surface in the 1970s as leaders of the Khmer Rouge government—known as Democratic Kampuchea (DK).
It was before 1970 that Prince Sihanouk would dub this group the “Red Khmers,” or the Khmer Rouge in French, and the moniker stuck.
When the Prince was ousted from power in a 1970 coup, he switched sides and joined forces with his Red enemies in the hopes of assembling a military and political resistance.
Known as the United Front, they served as the Prince’s government-in-exile, and many were among the subversive group the Prince had publicly denounced just a few years before.
During this time, Keat Chhon lived with the Prince in Beijing, the United Front’s headquarters. He served as the Front’s Minister of Industry and was a member of the Communist Party’s central committee, according to the Prince’s later writings. In this position, Keat Chhon worked with hundreds of intellectuals who had come to Beijing to join the cause.
Khmer Rouge forces steadily gained control of Cambodia’s countryside and eventually took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Soon after, United Front intellectuals were called back to Cambodia. Most flew from Beijing, but some, including Keat Chhon, made the trip via the Ho Chi Minh trail from Vietnam, a route researchers say was reserved only for the most trusted communists.
When Keat Chhon reached Cambodia, he had a brief encounter with a newcomer to the movement, a man who now serves as a human rights worker in Phnom Penh.
They met at the zone headquarters in Stung Treng province in the northeast. It was just one week after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. The human rights worker says he was afraid the worst had happened to his family, but he dared not speak to Keat Chhon.
Even now, the human rights worker does not want to reveal his name and prefers to meet outside the office, on weekends.
“We saw Keat Chhon and knew he was an important minister. Here, you can always tell someone is important by the way he carries himself. I was afraid to say anything,” says the human rights worker, whose account has been confirmed with Keat Chhon.
Later, the young recruit would be sent to a work camp farther west, where his loyalty and endurance would be tested for the next several years.
Keat Chhon, however, soon would go on to Phnom Penh to begin his work for the government of Democratic Kampuchea.
Hor Namhong had fewer deep-seated communist leanings in the early 1970s. More loyal to the throne and the bourgeois way of life, he joined the United Front after completing his studies in Paris. He served as a secretary at the Front’s embassy in Paris from 1970-73, and then was ambassador to Cuba.
He entered Phnom Penh in late 1975, like most returnees, on board a plane from Beijing.
Like Keat Chhon, Hor Namhong already had been corralled on a list of emerging “subversives” who constituted the upper echelon of the United Front—this one a US State Department document.
But unlike Keat Chhon, Hor Namhong was still new to the scene, and loosely associated with the group because of his time in Paris and Havana.
His friend and embassy colleague in Paris, Van Piny, also was included on the list: “A 1965 graduate of the Royal School of Administration, Van Piny…together with Hor Namhong…went over to Sihanouk in 1970, because of his love of luxury,” reads a 1971 report from the Phnom Penh-based US embassy.
The two men would discard this privileged lifestyle as they grew more involved with the Front. They would remain together in almost every endeavor—until Van Piny’s untimely death in DK’s Tuol Sleng torture center in 1977.
It is at this crucial point, Tuol Sleng documents point out, that Hor Namhong would assume his old friend’s post as the liaison between detainees and staff at a DK prison camp.
Roughly 1,000 intellectuals like Hor Namhong and Keat Chhon were called back to Cambodia after DK took control in 1975.
No reliable number exists on how many of them survived, but researchers estimate that hundreds of them were executed while others died of starvation or disease.
Up to a point, the tragic stories of surviving intellectuals are similar.
Linked in one way or another to the United Front, they either were asked or decided to come back to Cambodia to help rebuild a country torn apart by the spillover of the war in Vietnam.
When they arrived in Phnom Penh, they did not find the thriving capital they had expected.
Instead, they were herded to bleak, communal living spaces that once had served as government offices. They drove through a city that had been gutted during the evacuation. Despite their pleas, they were not allowed to stop at the homes that once belonged to their families.
They were taken to “camps” in the city and given some form of political re-education. They were assigned to work for the regime, growing vegetables or translating letters. Some were shipped out to the notorious rural work cooperatives. Hundreds of them remained in Phnom Penh.
Keat Chhon, survivors agree, held a prominent position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Ieng Sary, who is considered the third-highest ranking Khmer Rouge leader still alive and once served as DK’s deputy prime minister. Hor Namhong, survivors say, was the “chief” of returnees at a Phnom Penh political re-education camp known as Boeng Trabek.
Where the survivors’ tales begin to diverge, however, is when they’re asked just exactly what the two men’s responsibilities meant in a regime that since has been accused of committing international crimes.
To loyalists of Keat Chhon and Hor Namhong’s Cambodian People’s Party—also the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen—the two men were lured back to Cambodia. Like all other returnees, their hopes were shattered when they arrived and the regime held them hostage for the next four years.
To royalists in the Funcinpec Party, the two men were cunning opportunists who, like then-Prince Sihanouk himself, sided with the Khmer Rouge before 1975. In their eyes, Keat Chhon and Hor Namhong chose to remain with the movement and became malevolent, self-serving adherents to Khmer Rouge dogma.
To former Khmer Rouge intellectuals and soldiers living freely in remote parts of the country, Hor Namhong and Keat Chhon are friends of theirs from the old days who were close to Ieng Sary. Yet many of these survivors are unwilling to elaborate, fearing they could implicate themselves in the upcoming trial. Instead, they assert that only a select few leaders were privy to the regime’s deadly secrets—and most of these leaders, they say, are either dead or incarcerated.
To many others, publicly accusing these two men—either individually or in a trial—is just too politically risky.
“One of the main purposes of a trial is to condemn the project to which they devoted their entire lives,” says genocide researcher Craig Etcheson. “Who wants to have his life project publicly and officially excoriated? What a loss of face!”
Like many of his comrades, Keat Chhon often went by an alias, a mono-syllabic “revolutionary name” frequently used in party memos and minutes. Known in documents and by former colleagues as “Muth,” Keat Chhon quickly became one of the Foreign Ministry’s key staffers, according to his then-colleagues and a ministry log now located in the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which since 1995 has gathered potential evidence against DK leaders.
Pich Chheang was DK’s ambassador to China at the time.
He now lives in a humble wooden shack near the Thai border in the remote Anlong Veng region. His guards detain visitors for several minutes outside the house until he finally invites them in, apparently deciding his absence from Phnom Penh during the critical years allows him to speak freely.
“Keat Chhon, he cooperated and worked closely with Ieng Sary and the Ministry from the beginning…because he was educated, he was experienced in working with other countries,” Pich Chheang recalls.
“According to his position, Keat Chhon was very active. But I cannot know what was in his heart. I don’t know if he was a member of the party or not, but his position was high. His position suggests he was in the party.”
In April 1976, the Communist Party that had joined forces with the Prince held a party congress to strengthen its leadership committees. At this point, the Prince was forced to resign as head of state, and Keat Chhon says he was stripped of his title as minister. Researchers disagree over whether Keat Chhon remained a member of the Party’s decision-making central committee.
They do know that like many returnees who worked in Phnom Penh, he was housed in a camp run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs known as “B-1.” (The “B” stands for “borteh,” the Khmer word for “foreign.”) Survivors say life in B-1 was grueling, with seemingly endless workdays tending to livestock and growing food for the camp.
By all available accounts, Keat Chhon spent his days helping shape the regime’s foreign policy.
In May 1976, he and a small group of DK cadre attended a round of significant border talks with Vietnam, according to Cambodian historian Ben Kiernan.
The delegation later briefed Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary —the party’s highest-ranking members. After the briefing, a June summit with Vietnam was canceled, relations between the two countries deteriorated and later that year, the party began ordering massacres of Vietnamese people living on Cambodian soil that would span the next three years.
Suong Sikoeun also worked at the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh. A childhood friend of Keat Chhon’s, he has not been as fortunate as the minister. He, too, lives in a humble shack in the jungle near the Thai border.
Niceties are scarce in his village, Phnom Malai, but Suong Sikoeun goes out of his way to prepare cool drinks in his outdoor “sitting room” of a few tree stumps. He sits on his green, Chinese-silk hammock—standard Khmer Rouge issue—shoos the ducks away and recalls what a typical day was like at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For the most part, he and Keat Chhon wrote speeches and memos and translated letters and documents on behalf of Ieng Sary and other leaders, he says. Most of these memos, he asserts, were headed abroad to countries sympathetic to DK.
Many of them contained the now-infamous orders so characteristic of the Khmer Rouge, such as “smash the enemy” or “solve the problem.”
“We knew what ‘smash’ meant,” Suong Sikoeun says. “But we said it about everyone: The US imperialists, the bourgeoisie….We would write, ‘Solve the problem,’ but it did not mean ‘Kill.’ Maybe some people just interpreted it as ‘Kill.'”
One minute, Suong Sikoeun is proud of the power he and Keat Chhon wielded in the government: “All those speeches and memos? He, I, we wrote those!” The next, he denies everything: “Just like me, he knew nothing.”
Cambodian lecturer Stephen Heder tends toward the latter, characterizing Keat Chhon’s role as that of a “technocrat.”
“It was [party] policy to keep him and others like him out of positions of significant power,” Heder wrote in a recent e-mail. “Nevertheless, he was part of the group of technocrats with extensive diplomatic and other expertise upon whom Ieng Sary relied for advice and speech-writing, and was in some ways the most senior one of these.”
When Suong Sikoeun is asked about Keat Chhon’s connection to Ieng Sary, he repeats a story several of his old colleagues have recounted in recent months:
“Keat Chhon, he always said he owed his life to Ieng Sary. Everything he has, he owes to Ieng Sary.”
Hor Namhong’s revolutionary name rarely is said in public.
Most survivors of Boeng Trabek, however, remember him as “Yaem,” and Van Piny’s confession from the Tuol Sleng torture center also names Hor Namhong as such.
Few traces of Yaem have surfaced during extensive searches at the Documentation Center, which leads most researchers to believe he was nowhere near the inner circle of DK decision-makers.
In fact, when Hor Namhong landed in Phnom Penh in late 1975, he still went by his given name. Like other returnees still seen as loyal to the Prince, he quickly was shuttled to political re-education classes in the capitol city.
He then was sent to a camp in the Eastern Zone with a group of about eight former United Front diplomats. According to Tuol Sleng documents, many in this group eventually were taken away and executed, their confessions saying they were plotting against the regime with the help of the CIA.
It wasn’t until late 1976 or early 1977 that Hor Namhong would arrive at the returnee camp at Boeng Trabek school. It was known as K-17 while it was under control of Pol Pot’s inner circle, but by 1977 control shifted to Ieng Sary and the camp split into three “kom,” or camps known as B-30, B-31 and B-32.
Much like the other camps in Phnom Penh, residents had no freedom of movement, were forced to work and ate little. They also were required to attend regular political meetings, where their faults would be declared either by themselves or their leaders. Some of them would later disappear.
In his confession, Van Piny admitted he was the “chief” of the prisoners in this camp, and Hor Namhong was his deputy. Several survivors corroborate this account.
When Van Piny was arrested and taken to Tuol Sleng torture center, they say Hor Namhong took over.
“Before I stepped into the car, I told Hor Namhong I was going to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that I would seek some way to contact him,” Van Piny’s confession reads. “I asked him to control this building more tightly. I just said these words, and they forced me into the car.”
Researchers agree that confessions are rarely to be taken at face value, because victims regularly were forced to implicate their friends. This likely is what Van Piny was doing with Hor Namhong.
Either way, Van Piny never returned to Boeng Trabek. He was executed on Nov 11, 1977.
One current government official survived the diplomatic camp where Hor Namhong served as “chief” of the prisoners.
Sitting in his plush office, he is reluctant to discuss Hor Namhong’s past. But he explains how Van Piny’s disappearance was a critical turning point for those who lived at Boeng Trabek.
“I will never forget the look on his wife’s face. She went pale, motionless. That is when we began to realize what was happening to the people who were taken away.”
The official says after that, control over the prisoners was more psychological than anything.
“It was a prison without walls,” he continues. “There was nowhere to go, no money, no market. If we were seen outside we would be killed… (DK staff) organized big meetings where people were criticized publicly: ‘This is Comrade X. He must be smashed.’
“After a while, they began ‘re-integrating’ people into the Foreign Ministry, which meant you could go and work for them… Everyone wanted to go, because they realized that it was the first step away from death. Reintegration was the first step toward life.”
Most survivors remember these reintegration programs.
One former DK Foreign Ministry staffer says he spearheaded a program in 1977 and brought a select group of people into the ministry’s fold.
Known then as Chhiem, and now as Pi Puth, he stayed with the Khmer Rouge until 1996 and now lives comfortably as the deputy village chief in Phnom Malai.
He says Ieng Sary instructed him to bring people back into the ministry. When asked to list the names, he without prompting mentions Hor Namhong first.
“According to the plan of the Ministry…we wanted Hor Namhong to be on staff. We didn’t fully know his stance, so we had to work with him and test his loyalty, whether he believed in DK or not. So we appointed him to be chief in Boeng Trabek.”
“He and I would have meetings. He would report about the simple people in Boeng Trabek. He would tell us about their feelings, about their opinions… He talked about the good and the bad, both. This is how Communists work. They want to expose their enemies.”
Despite this seemingly damning account, Pi Puth is eager to defend Hor Namhong and Ieng Sary. He argues that when the Foreign Ministry took control of Boeng Trabek, the regime stopped killing educated people. Rather, they realized that killing intellectuals would get them nowhere. (Some historians agree. Others say intellectuals continued to be killed with the same fervor as before, even though they apparently were chosen because of confessions made at the center more so than reports from camps like Boeng Trabek.)
Moreover, while at least two unrelated survivors can place Pi Puth at Boeng Trabek and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—both by his revolutionary name and by description—none have yet corroborated his report that Hor Namhong was singled out by higher-ups in the regime.
The handful of intellectuals whom Pi Puth says were re-integrated with Hor Namhong all stayed with the movement for decades and now live in Paris, the US and Bangkok—or remain in virtual obscurity in Cambodia.
Other surviving intellectuals, apparently of lower status than Hor Namhong, now hold mid-level positions in the government.
They tell a different story than Pi Puth.
In their minds, a “chief” was nothing more than a middle-man between prisoners and the “real” DK staff who wore the tell-tale black pajamas and were mostly young, uneducated soldiers.
At the very most, Hor Namhong received work orders from these more hardened leaders, according to a handful of survivors who now serve as CPP secretaries and undersecretaries of state. In their minds, he had absolutely nothing to do with identifying enemies and was unaware that people who disappeared from the camp were going off to die.
On the other side of the political fence are the royalists, yet telling their version is a delicate balancing act: To suggest that Hor Namhong was in the know could mean the same about themselves. After all, they, too, had revolutionary names. So they have tempered their stories a bit and focus instead on Hor Namhong’s demeanor in the camp.
“We hated him,” says Princess Sisowath Ayravady, who now serves as the deputy cabinet director for Prince Norodom Ranariddh. “He was so rigid with us. His words were very striking: ‘We revolutionaries believe. You, upper class, you are bourgeois. You don’t know how much people suffered under the monarchy,’ he would say to us.”
Pushed on whether he was just rude or was actually responsible for the deaths of returnees, she concedes:
“He is an ambiguous character. What he was saying to the organization, we really did not know.
“The thing I am quite sure of is Hor Namhong and his family managed to get out of quite a difficult situation,” says Princess Ayravady, whose baby son died in 1977, just before she arrived at Boeng Trabek.
“We like to call him the man of many regimes, the man of every season. If the current regime falls, Hor Namhong will be there, high up in the next one.
“He’ll do anything to survive. He said that [to me]. But I asked him, at what cost? All he could say was that he would do anything to save his skin. I suppose we’ll never really know what that was.
“Only he and his god know the answer to that.”
Even though he had served as Boeng Trabek’s “chief” for more than a year and had shed his given name in favor of his revolutionary title, Hor Namhong apparently was not given preferential treatment by the regime’s end.
A few days before Vietnamese troops overthrew DK and took Phnom Penh in 1979, he and several other prisoners were transported out of Boeng Trabek. Others in the Foreign Ministry were shipped abroad, but he was led out of the city by Pi Puth, who says he escorted Hor Namhong and his family into a jungle hiding place.
They made it to a village near Battambang town, according to Pi Puth and others in the group. The families were hoping to make their way to Thailand.
But Pi Puth says Hor Namhong wanted to forge on.
“He said he wanted to go with me, but I told him to stay. ‘I am a soldier now, you cannot follow me,’ I said. ‘Stay and take care of your family.'”
Two months later, Vietnamese troops reached the village, and Hor Namhong was tapped as an intellectual and ordered to Phnom Penh to work for the government.
“I never saw him again,” Pi Puth says. “I only hear his name… Maybe he has forgotten me. But if I remind him, he will know. If I remind him about his work in Boeng Trabek, he will know.”
Keat Chhon would not be so quick to jump ship. In fact, he would stay with DK for the next several years, as a member of its exiled cabinet, according to researchers.
When the foreign affairs department became, as Stephen Heder puts it, “a matter of survival” for the regime after its overthrow, Keat Chhon’s technocratic role continued, but more often for Pol Pot than Ieng Sary.
Probably the most noteworthy sighting of Keat Chhon at that time was when he met journalist Henry Kamm in 1980.
Kamm was brought to a DK stronghold along the Thai border. He was met by Keat Chhon, who escorted him to the camp, which Kamm described as “the latest in jungle luxury.” The bungalows had all the comforts of home: beds, flowers, fruit, soap and fresh towels.
“The Khmer Rouge chieftains adopted anew the courteous, hospitable ways of Cambodian tradition,” Kamm wrote. “They did it skillfully, but who could forget that these hard men of soft manners were the very ones who had set out to destroy those traditions at the cost of untold innocent lives?”
A few years later in 1983, Keat Chhon left the movement with the help of French diplomats. He worked for a French company until 1988, a UN organization in Africa until 1992, as a Cambodian government adviser from 1992-93. In 1994 he took charge of the powerful Finance Ministry.
One of Keat Chhon’s former DK colleagues who still lives in the jungle, In Sopheap, tries to explain how the minister managed to do so well while he remains an unemployed farmer.
In his mind, it required the right mix of loyalty and pragmatism.
“When he worked for Sihanouk, he believed in Sihanouk. When he worked for DK, he believed in DK. Now he works for the CPP. And I think he believes in the CPP. At least until the next one.”
Keat Chhon briefly answered questions about this story this week before a National Assembly meeting, but would not grant a sit-down interview.
As he is first approached about his past, he makes a point to state he was not a DK minister from 1975-79. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, he maintains he was used by Pol Pot.
“They proclaimed me in their cabinet because they needed my name,” he says calmly. “But you look in the documents; you will find no decree on this, no nothing.”
As for his work in DK’s Foreign Affairs ministry, he says he wrote and translated many documents and speeches and had regular contact with Ieng Sary. Yet this, he maintains, does not mean he knew about the leadership’s genocidal policies.
“They kept me in a jar. I never knew what they would do,” he says.
Hor Namhong, on the other hand, would not be interviewed.
In fact, when he was approached at his office after several written requests, reporters were escorted out of the building and away from the parking lot by security guards.
His curriculum vitae says that from 1975-79 he was in a “working camp under the Khmer Rouge regime,” and in an interview last year he maintained he was a “prisoner” and had no access to DK leaders.
In the recent past, neither official has been too enthused by a high level of UN participation in a Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Hor Namhong in 1999 was the one to deliver the blow to the UN that the government would not allow an international tribunal outside Cambodia, like those for crimes in Rwanda and the Balkans.
In the past year, both have repeated their claims that Cambodia should retain its “sovereignty” in a trial.
Despite the current verbal agreement between the UN and the government to hold a “mixed” tribunal inside Cambodia, the government repeatedly has stalled any progress beyond that point. A UN legal expert will visit Phnom Penh next week to continue negotiations.
While Hor Namhong and Keat Chhon are by no means the sole, driving force behind the delays, few doubt their influence at the top of the current party structure.
As one Phnom Penh-based Western diplomat who is close to the negotiations puts it:
“It’s not that the current government really wants to block a trial of the six or so key people—those household names who most everyone knows is responsible for the atrocities. What they’re scared of is a…prosecutor who will look beyond this, who will try to expand the scope of the trial.”
Even scholars have a hard time reaching consensus on who exactly these “household names” are—in other words, who made up the mysterious center of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Suspects like Duch, in charge of the Tuol Sleng torture center, was not part of the center of the party, but is widely accepted as a possible suspect.
Yet the diplomat explains one possible scenario:
“If someone like Hor Namhong or Keat Chhon is going to get tainted in this process, it should only happen after this first trench of suspects—Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ta Mok, Duch, Ke Pauk—is tried. Once this trench produces more names and more evidence, the process could give way to a second trench. So the real political test will not come in the first few years of the trial. It could come later.
“And that’s what the government is worried about.”
A red carpet stretches up to the airplane poised to depart Phnom Penh’s Pochentong International Airport on a recent afternoon. As custom dictates, officials waiting to see Hun Sen off have taken their places along the carpet according to their rank in government.
The men converse animatedly, clearly aware they are being watched. The proud, ruling class of Cambodia, this well-fed, middle-aged clan knows it controls virtually every arm of government.
Keat Chhon stands near the head of the line, waiting his turn to say farewell to the prime minister. He turns his calm, expectant face toward the approaching entourage.
Among the group accompanying the premier is Hor Namhong, who weaves down the line with his hand raised in a terse greeting and his face screwed into a tight, deliberate smile.
As the two men briefly greet one another on the tarmac, nothing in their faces belies even the slightest pause over what they might have seen, what they might have known.
They smile at each other, shake hands, then turn and continue up the receiving line.
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