Former Khmer Rouge Soldier Disappointed With Life’s Outcome

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.

pailin, Battambang Province – Im Han has nothing to do now. A soldier for almost three decades, he carried a gun for the Khmer Rouge until the mid-1990s, when he joined the government and was given a tank to drive.

But the government has since taken his tank away and recently he was sitting under a tree in front of his house, absent-mindedly cutting an old bicycle tire tube into strips .

The tank, the long idle hours and the even longer span of years spent living in the jungle—before the Khmer Rouge fell apart and he left the forests with thousands of the dying movement’s soldiers— all add up to a life wasted.

“I have been a soldier for a long time and in my life I have never seen the good. I remember the past and I am very disappointed,” Im Han said.“I expected things would be better.”

Im Han remembers with some pride when the Khmer Rouge allowed him to drive a truck. He was a 14-year-old in Kampot province’s Chhouk district. He had become a soldier for the ultra-leftist movement a year earlier, in 1973, though he says now the politics were lost on him.

“I lived in a remote village that was governed by the Khmer Rouge. Most of my relatives joined the Khmer Rouge and I was influenced by them. I had no choice to join or not,” the 42-year-old said. “We were told we were fighting Lon Nol.”

Im Han smiled, thinking about how he had to stretch himself to reach up over the steering wheel of the large military truck to peer out of the windshield. He drove supplies to depots around the province. He says at least where he was, there was no fighting.

But even as early as 1974— before the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh— Im Han said life was not good.

“At that time the food was not enough. We shared one pot of rice each day between four of us. We just tried to survive,” he said.

Hunger, and the relative quiet of his life, blinded Im Han to the national catastrophe that un­folded as the Khmer Rouge forced their radical and ultimately devastating reforms on the country.

“I had no thinking about the Khmer Rouge. I was still very small at the time and I was trying to eat. I knew the situation for some people was bad, and I guess compared to them I had enough and that is why I tried to keep driving the truck. I had the same rations as before. It was a good job,” he said.

But life even for the truck driver worsened as the regime began to implode under the weight of Vietnamese pressure and its own paranoia.

By late 1978, in the months before the Vietnamese would push the Khmer Rouge from power, Im Han was struggling to get his truck into the jungles and collect wood fast enough to avoid being targeted by his Khmer Rouge bosses.

“We were made to go into the forest two, maybe three times a day. We were very weak and the roads were bad, so it was difficult, but if we did only one time a day, we would be criticized,” he said.

“I was very tired. Even if they had given us enough rice I would have had trouble. But people who could not work were sent to ‘camp,’” he said.

Im Han watched as the criticisms increased and more people were taken away to “study their ability to work hard.” He understood the bureaucratic language of the Khmer Rouge and its sinister unspoken meaning.

“Criticism. You were killed when you were criticized too much,” he said.

Im Han also survived the confusion of the early 1980s, as the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge battered each other. He was sent to the field as a soldier, and blindly followed the Khmer Rouge’s orders.

“I believed the propaganda and the propaganda at the time said that if I went back to my village I would be killed by the Viet­nam­ese. That is why I stayed with the Khmer Rouge,” he said.

Now Im Han asks himself why. The 1996 defections brought an end to the fighting, but they also revealed his former Khmer Rouge leaders to be opportunists willing to abandon both the movement and those who followed it.

“They broke their promises to us while they became rich, and it has made our situation worse,” he said. “We all feel this way.”

Nearly 30 years later, Im Han—a man who changed sides believing it would mean a better life—finds himself in the same situation as the 14-year-old in Kampot, trying to do his job well and feed himself.

“Right now I just want to be a soldier,” he said. “I want to be able to feed my family.”


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