chamkar bei village, Kep – Talk of celebration was in the air when Chhouk Rin’s cellular telephone rang with an invitation for drinks, food and singing.
It had been five years of peace for the former rebel commander and his people, and a village committee had just met to finalize plans for an ambitious festival that would start three days later.
A former Khmer Rouge commander who turned government soldier and community leader, he left with his driver and briefcase in good spirits, his villagers say. At a Kampot town hotel, he karaoked with Military Region 3 Commander Keo Samuon and National Military Police Chief Sao Sokha, employees there confirmed this week. They hefted countless drinks in the air with the ease of military men well schooled in the art of carousing.
Some three hours later, Chhouk Rin stood drunk and sick on the side of the road to Phnom Penh near Am Sauy village, according to his driver. Two military policemen approached from behind, grabbed his arms, and told his bodyguard he would not be needed anymore. Chhouk Rin was going to jail.
“They brought Chhouk Rin to another car,” said bodyguard Cham Sareth, a stocky, former fighter, who watched his blissfully intoxicated boss disappear into a heavily armed convoy. “He was not sad or angry. During the night, he was very drunk. I was very surprised.”
Government officials dispute that account of events on the evening of Jan 17, insisting Chhouk Rin was “not so drunk.”
But one thing is certain: Chhouk Rin now sits in prison. And on the sprawling development he led—once held up as a model of reintegration and social harmony—confusion, fear and grief have for the moment replaced the hope and contentment that have reigned here in recent years.
For years, the villagers of Chamkar Bei village have seen powerful military officials confer with their leader, who received the rank of colonel in the government army. For years, they have watched prominent politicians build small improvements for the community and donate free rice—some were even given free land, they say.
For years, important men came to the development to celebrate their annual festival to honor those who died in combat—the very same festival they were planning the night Chhouk Rin went for drinks and never came back.
Now those same politicians and military commanders appear to have turned against them. Development has stopped. Rumors of more arrests are rife. And plans for a peaceful, democratic reaction to the arrest—a petition and a protest—are being thwarted by local officials who have set up roadblocks and issued veiled warnings.
“I am very worried about safety for Chhouk Rin and for the village here,” said Soun Set, 52, a former unit head under guerrilla commander Nuon Paet until defecting to the government army in 1994. “We are worried about the rumors, and we don’t know where they are coming from.”
Said Cow Yan, a resident of the development: “All the people, we like him so much. Right now, we miss him. We don’t want him to go away. We want him to stay and develop a good community.
“He is a very good man, what he said, he did. Everybody is very sad. We do not understand and we don’t know what will happen,” he said.
Chhouk Rin will face a court for allegedly leading a bloody 1994 train ambush that ensnared three Western backpackers and killed some 13 innocent Cambodians.
The attack was a brutal act of terrorism that resulted in a worldwide media attention and a tense two-month hostage standoff. But shortly after the train ambush, Chhouk Rin turned the hostages over to a superior, led his men over to the government side, and played a key role in a successful assault on a previously impregnable Khmer Rouge jungle stronghold.
Chhouk Rin’s defection was unprecedented. Aid groups and government officials anted up with thousands of development dollars, and Chamkar Bei village was recognized a successful social experiment in societal reintegration.
But for the backpackers, it was too late. They were found shot and buried in a shallow grave. And the governments of France, Australia and Britain have been exerting diplomatic pressure for justice ever since.
His arrest has been widely applauded in diplomatic circles.
“The Australian government has consistently said it wants to see all those implicated in the deaths of the three backpackers brought to justice,” Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader said Thursday.
In Chamkar Bei village, the arrest was met with tears. After the arrest, Cham Sareth went first to the house of Chhouk Rin’s wife to deliver the news, then to the home of the village chief.
“People cried and made big noise,” he said. “We were sad all together. His wife did not say anything, she only cry. People came from all directions run to my home, ask me questions and cry. I am still very worried about the future of the people living here, very concerned about the village. But I cannot do anything. We are all his people here, and there is no leader with his ability.”
Rin’s sister, Chhouk Sary, 35, said she is worried about his health, since he has had chronic dysentery since he was a child. “I have much regret, and I am very worried about my brother all the time. But I can’t do anything, only worry.”
Today, few villagers interviewed said they plan to go back to war.
But they want to respond. Hundreds have affixed their thumbprints to a petition protesting the arrest to the Ministry of Justice. Hundreds planned to travel to Phnom Penh to hold a rally in front of the ministry.
But last week, the military set up roadblocks on the road from Chamkar Bei village to Phnom Penh, villagers say. Villagers say government officials have forbid them for traveling to Phnom Penh to protest. They have been told they may not send a letter. Government officials say it is against the law
“I will not allow the people to do this,” said Chhit Sokhon, third deputy governor of Kampot province, “because it abuses the law and arresting Chhouk Rin is the law. I will not allow a demonstration. If there are demonstrations, I will crack down.”
Keo Samuon, the top region 3 commander, said the protest idea has been stirred up by opposition politicians, and said: “If they are trying to protest, they will abuse the law and they all will be wrong.”
So the people of Chamkar Bei Village are waiting, and searching for direction. Plans for a road have ground to a standstill. Building materials next to the site of a planned market have disappeared. Rin’s plans for a sports league that would have included volleyball, football and boxing have been scrapped.
Some say soldiers on neighboring land have been moved in since his absence and are occupying land on the development. And the usual steady stream of visiting VIPs are nowhere to be seen.
“Since they arrested Chhouk Rin, it is not like before,” said Nhak Vichet, Chhouk Rin’s personal aide since 1984. “A lot of people used to come back and forth. Since he was arrested, we see a lot of police from outside the village and they will not allow people to come in and out without asking where do you go.”
Rumors in the village are rife. And many fear they too will be arrested. Several interviewed offered forth photocopies of two letters sent to Chhouk Rin after his defection, one from Prince Norodom Ranariddh, one from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The letters welcome him to join the government, guarantee his rank, and encourage others to join as well.
Several villagers say Chhouk Rin said he has another letter signed by the co-prime ministers in 1994 guaranteeing he would never be arrested.
“His wife spoke to Prince Ranariddh, and then he spoke with him and he promised amnesty, forgiveness and same rank,” Nhak Vichet said.
But none could produce the letter, and government officials were skeptical. “As far as I know Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh never signed anything,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said. “Only the King can grant amnesty.”
Even so, the villagers say they have no plans to go back to war.
“Me and my villagers do not have a plan to struggle with authorities,” Nhak Vichet said. “We had war for a very long time and it was very bad. We don’t want to do that again. But we didn’t think he would be arrested. He did everything for his own people. All the people here, we want him to come back.”
He also defended Chhouk Rin, arguing that the order to ambush the train and take the hostage came from Pol Pot, because foreign governments were aiding their enemies and it was necessary to “crush the foreigners one by one.”
For their part, military officials say they were simply doing their duty.
“They do not understand the law,” Keo Samuon said. “This case follows the complaints of the three countries and the victims’ families. We can forgive him if the victims are our Cambodian people, but the victims are foreigners and they want to know about our law and what we will do with the crime that affected the people.”
Of the arrest, he explained: “We invited him to have a few drinks and sing two or three karaoke songs and then arrested him. He was not so drunk. We did not use many troops to arrest him because it would not look good, so we just asked him to drink and sing songs.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)