Chey Sena village, Kampot province – Nhol Mon, a former low-level commander in the Khmer Rouge, was chopping wood at the foot of Chang Ek mountain in Kampot province on Thursday as judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal read out a guilty verdict against two senior leaders of the regime.
“We didn’t know anything, we just followed orders from the top,” said the 60-year-old farmer.
Mr. Mon was a military commander in the Khmer Rouge faction led by Sam Bith, who defected to the government in 1997 and was later jailed for ordering a 1994 attack on a train in Kampot province that killed 13 Cambodians and three foreign tourists.
The soft-spoken farmer claimed he joined the communist movement in 1974, lured by promises of a more just society. He said he was stationed on Koh Rong island for the entirety of the regime’s three years, eight months and 20 days in power.
“I never knew that people were being killed as I was stationed on Koh Rong during the regime,” he said, adding he returned to his village in 1979 only to quickly flee to the Thai border and rejoin Khmer Rouge guerrillas upon hearing the Vietnamese were killing suspected members of the regime.
On Thursday, Khmer Rouge chief ideologue Nuon Chea and former head-of-state Khieu Samphan were found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison, the first time Khmer Rouge leaders have been held criminally responsible for the atrocities committed under the regime.
“This is a good day for the people because nobody was ever made responsible for the killings,” Mr. Mon said. Sticking with the Khmer Rouge through the 1980s and 1990s was simply a survival tactic, he said.
“I never considered Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan as great leaders, but if I’d joined with the government I thought I would die, so I just had to choose the side I thought would keep me alive,” he said.
Next door to Mr. Mon’s house, about 30 villagers crowded around a television screen set up inside the Chey Sena pagoda in Chhuk district’s Taken commune to watch the Khmer Rouge leaders’ sentencing in Phnom Penh. The screening was one of 20 organized across 12 provinces by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
“We wanted to show the verdict to people that live in rural areas and cannot get information on the ECCC. We want people to feel justice for what they experienced,” said Monin Sarak, a reporter for DC-Cam’s magazine Searching for The Truth.
Sitting at the front of the group in Chey Sena pagoda was local villager Ung Pov, 68, who lost three children and her husband to the Khmer Rouge during its nine years in control of the village.
“It’s good being able to see this because I hate Pol Pot and I hate these two just as much. But even if the court does punish them it will never match my pain because I lost so much,” Ms. Pov said as the charges were broadcast through a towering worn-out speaker.
As she was explaining her lack of trust in the ex-Khmer Rouge still living in her village, the verdict of life imprisonment was read out.
“I’m happy with that but I’d be more happy if they were executed,” she said.
But for the younger generation in both Kampot and Phnom Penh that is only vaguely aware of the horrors experienced during the 1970s, reactions were more tempered.
Sor Da, a 22-year-old from Phnom Penh, said she did not know much about the history of the Khmer Rouge, but had read some Facebook posts that questioned the guilt of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
“I read some comments saying they were not such bad guys, but I am not very clear on the history so I don’t know if that’s true,” she said.
Ty Bunkheang, a 30-year-old from Chey Sena village, said that despite never seeing a picture of the Khmer Rouge leaders before Thursday, he now planned to educate himself on the period with books disseminated by DC-Cam.
“I’d never seen Nuon Chea or Khieu Samphan’s faces so that’s why I came today,” Mr. Bunkheang said.
“The older people told me that the Khmer Rouge forced them to work really hard with no food and killed many of them,” he said. “I will learn more from these books because we were never taught about the Khmer Rouge before.”
After the screening in Chey Sena, a group of men sat chain smoking and sipping energy drinks. They explained why much of the younger generation is so poorly informed about the Khmer Rouge.
“We suffered a lot so many don’t want to revisit those memories,” said Yang Chuon, 50, who lost three siblings at the hands of the regime.
“I hope after witnessing this, some of the younger ones in the village will start asking more questions about where the Khmer Rouge came from and how it happened,” Mr. Chuon said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim and Simon Henderson)