Editor’s note: As progress toward a Khmer Rouge tribunal moves forward, The Cambodia Daily is running a series in which the people who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime share their stories. Subsequent stories will appear in future issues of The Cambodia Daily.
samlot village, Battambang province – Nothing in Tit Sit’s early life suggested he would end up as a bodyguard for Pol Pot. A farmer from Preah Vihear, just a teen-ager when the country began its slide into chaos in the early 1970s, he joined the resistance at 17 after hearing a radio address from the King that encouraged his people to fight Lon Nol.
“We had to go fight for the father, because we were all the children,” Tit Sit said recently.
The loyalty that sent him into battle for his king was the beginning of a remarkable journey for the simple peasant. In the next years of his life he learned the ways of a soldier and joined a shadowy but emerging group known as the Khmer Rouge.
He learned politics through lengthy talks with a gentle man he came to regard as his true father, the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, someone who became for Tit Sit even more important than the King.
“Pol Pot was very polite. If you had a chance to talk to him for one hour you would feel like you would like to live with him forever,” Tit Sit said.
Not everyone in Cambodia holds dark memories of the Khmer Rouge years. Some, quietly, still regard the time of the regime as a hopeful period when a grand experiment tried to change their world for the better.
The lofty goals of the system failed only after Vietnamese spies infiltrated the organization, Tit Sit claims today. The downfall was hastened by Khmer Rouge who took advantage of the rapid change in power in those days, Tit Sit believes, turning a once-unified movement into a squabbling splinter groups.
Now an RCAF captain based in Pursat province, Tit Sit hobbles gingerly on a left foot that was blown apart by a landmine in 1984. He did not fall when the mine exploded, but leaned against a tree, two toes on his left foot gone, his legs bleeding and his scrotum torn by the blast.
By then he had known Pol Pot for over 10 years, having been personally chosen by Brother Number One to command troops in Pursat province.
Their relationship began shortly after Tit Sit joined the Khmer Rouge. He says today that Pol Pot had a habit of selecting personal assistants and bodyguards from Pursat and Preah Vihear provinces.
He and Pol Pot were together when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.
At first they lived in an apartment near Olympic Market: Pol Pot, his wife and the bodyguards. Their simple furnishings puzzled Tit Sit, who thought city life would bring something more grand. His remniscence are perhaps colored by 25 years of political indoctrination, and it’s hard not to hear something of a spinmeister as he describes the simple wants of Pol Pot.
“I don’t know why he didn’t live in a big house,” Tit Sit said. “He lived in a small apartment. He had common food like common people. This is his common life, every day like that. He was friendly and smiled a lot.”
After five months they moved to a second apartment on Sothearos Boulevard near the Russian Embassy. Here, too, they lived simply.
“When Pol Pot lived in Phnom Penh he never used air conditioning. He used the fans,” Tit Sit said.
The squat row of concrete apartments still stands today. Earlier this year, the block in front ofthe apartments was the scene of a disastrous fire that tore through a squatter’s village, forcing hundreds of people to move to a new village outside of the city. A new park has been opened on the site of the fire.
“I remember all of the places. I remember the places where Pol Pot kept his car, a Mercedes,” said Tit Sit.
His duties varied from day to day, but they sometimes included looking after Pol Pot’s wife, who suffered bouts of mental instability.
He sometimes watched over the King as well after he flew back to Phnom Penh late in 1975, only to be placed under house arrest in the royal compound.
Several of the King’s children were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Tit Sit said he didn’t know anything about the death of some members of the royal family. He claims today he didn’t even much of the horrors spreading across the country.
“I heard about [the killing fields] but I never went near them,” he says today. “I didn’t know about the prison [the infamous torture center, S-21] because I was in a different place. I never went near the prison. I never saw any killing at that time.”
Tit Sit claims that his ignorance of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge was caused, at least in part, by the way information was fed to Pol Pot. Lower-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders who wanted to protect themselves were reluctant to show their failures to Brother Number One, making it appear as if everything was going according to plan.
“Pol Pot didn’t know much about whether people had enough to eat or not,” said Tit Sit. “If Pol Pot had a delegation to visit the country, he would be shown people eating a lot, but when he left people would go back to rice and gruel.”
Back in Phnom Penh, Pol Pot would invite the soldiers to sit and chat with him, or have education time with him, Tit Sit said.
“The relationship was something like a father and the children,,” he said.
At that time, Pol Pot’s statements were nothing other than we must work hard to save the country, to build a dam for the development of Cambodia.
Despite his relatively easy job in Phnom Penh, Tit Sit said he never considered how much easier his life was than most of the Khmer Rouge who were living and working in the countryside.
“At the time I didn’t think I was lucky or not lucky. I was a farmer and I didn’t know if it was lucky,” he said.
His city life ended abruptly in early 1979 with the Vietnamese invasion. Tit Sit said he was in a two-car caravan with other guards fleeing Phnom Penh in January of 1979.
They escaped to Pailin. Two years later Pol Pot asked Tit Sit to take over Khmer Rouge troops in Pursat province, and Tit Sit moved away from the Khmer Rouge leader.
“The last time I talked to Pol Pot was in 1992. At that time, I remember talking to him after the Paris Peace Accords, and at that time he advised that we should work together, to facilitate and work with the government.
“He said to support the election. His last words to me were: ‘We’ve lost foreign support. Follow the elections. Whatever people choose it is their choice. I don’t have the right to join the elections.’
Tit Sit said he asked Pol Pot if he had any sorrows or regrets.
“And Pol Pot said the leaders do some things right and some things wrong.”