pailin municipality – With his uncle’s fine features, Seng Ly Theng spoke softly about the people seeking to try the Khmer Rouge.
“They came to ask me for information about when I was with the leader, what I did,” Seng Ly Theng, nephew of the late Brother Number One, Pol Pot, said Tuesday. “They asked how many people lived with him.”
“I was [Pol Pot’s] bodyguard. I lived with him from 1975 to 1998,” Seng Ly Theng, 61, said at his small cattle farm a few kilometers outside Pailin.
Despite claims at Pailin city hall Monday that he had refused to cooperate, Seng Ly Theng said that he had spoken for four hours in December with an investigator from the Khmer Rouge tribunal. He even went inside his small wooden home to fetch her business card.
Others among the Khmer Rouge movement’s veterans are more frightened by the tribunal, he said.
The sight of arrests, including four of Pailin’s own—Brother No 2 Nuon Chea, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife Thirith, and head of state Khieu Samphan—has brought the threat of punishment to the doorstep of this dusty, hilltop hamlet on the Thai border.
Rumors that more arrests of former Khmer Rouge members could follow have not helped.
“The news has made the other former Khmer Rouge worried, not only here but in other places, because we have seen many arrested already,” Seng Ly Theng said.
“They are worried they could be taken to the court for questioning,” he added. “They are worried because they don’t understand the procedures of the ECCC.”
The Khmer Rouge tribunal itself said this week that potential witnesses in Pailin have been skittish, and that investigators had found them uncooperative.
Local officials say Pailin’s residents believed until recently that the tribunal would try no more than the five Khmer Rouge suspects currently being detained and that everyone else was safe.
Officials from the court visited Pailin on Tuesday and Wednesday in a bid to do away with any misapprehensions. For several hours Tuesday, former Khmer Rouge officials in the city government, as well as several dozen police and armed forces members, met with the court’s two investigating judges, Marcel Lemonde and You Bunleng. And at a town hall meeting Wednesday, the judges held the tribunal’s first public forum organized without an NGO and explained the process of a judicial investigation.
During Wednesday’s meeting, a particular historical point of view began to emerge through the crowd’s questions, which betrayed the suspicion that the tribunal is not telling the whole story.
Why aren’t foreign powers being held to account for their interference in Cambodia? Were the Khmer Rouge responsible alone for all of the 2 million said to have died? Can witnesses incriminate themselves? And, importantly, just how far down the Khmer Rouge hierarchy do the terms “senior leaders” and those “most responsible” extend?
“Why was the Khmer Rouge tribunal formed and for whom?” Keo Keun, an older man, asked the judges during the meeting. He then added: “What were the levels of the senior leaders?”
Lemonde replied that his answer was not a foregone conclusion.
“If you want to know how many accused there will be in the end, you won’t get an answer this morning,” Lemonde told Keo Keun. “‘Most responsible’ is a notion the judges will have to define.”
Lemonde added that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia will be closer in nature to the 1945 Nuremberg trials, at which senior Nazi leaders were prosecuted, than to the international criminal courts now at The Hague, which can try low-ranking suspects.
Kong Duong, a former Khmer Rouge radio news anchor and current chief of the municipal information department, said that he had asked the same question during a private meeting Tuesday, and neither of this week’s events had helped him understand.
“The explanations yesterday and this morning were the same,” he said. “I am still not clear with the term ‘most responsible people.’”
After Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea defected to the government in 1998, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on Cambodians to put national reconciliation before judicial reckoning.
Kong Duong said former mid-level cadres could panic if the arrests continue as many former Khmer Rouge feel their integration into the government a decade ago was meant to protect them against prosecution, he said.
“If there are more arrests, some of them might escape because they were integrated with the government under the win-win policy. The arrests should not spread,” he said.
Lath Lina, 41, a relative and close family friend of Nuon Chea who flew with him to Phnom Penh the day of his arrest, agreed.
“If the arrests continue, those supposed to be arrested could fly away,” he said. “During integration, the agreement did not mention any trial.”
Kong Duong doubted, however, that witnesses would prove uncooperative in the future and he said that Wednesday’s forum with ECCC officials had been a help rather than a hindrance.
“This morning’s forum was a good step forward. It’s the first time but the ECCC needs to do this more,” he said.
Seng Ly Theng said he did not oppose the tribunal but shrank from saying whether anyone else in Pailin could fall under the category of “most responsible.”
“I don’t know. Even if somebody did that, they would not tell. I don’t know anybody who carried out killings but I’m not sure because it is the past,” he said. “I didn’t do anything bad.”
After living with Pol Pot for three years as a primary school student, Seng Ly Theng fought with the Khmer Rouge’s Northern Zone military against the Lon Nol regime’s hapless Chenla operations. But soon after Phnom Penh fell in 1975, the zone’s commander, the late Ke Pauk, sent him to the capital as a bodyguard for Pol Pot, to whom he also served dinner.
Brother Number One was not as he is often described.
“I don’t know about the past. But as far as I can see, he was like normal people. He was not cruel like the allegations against him,” Seng Ly Theng said.
As the capital fell in 1979 to the Vietnamese, he joined the westward flight of the Khmer Rouge.
“It was very difficult. You can imagine when someone follows you from behind, shooting at you with guns and there is no food or water,” he said.
“The part I remember most is when a brother and sister died on the mountain. They lay on Blue Mountain and died because of starvation and disease.”
Seng Ly Theng said he and others had joined the Khmer Rouge movement out of patriotism and that the Khmer Rouge tribunal should respect this.
“I support the tribunal because the government has already decided to have the tribunal. But the main thing is that they should discover the truth,” he said. “I heard that Khieu Samphan said, ‘Arrest the real killers and then learn who ordered them,’” he added.