The first time Mey Mann met a pleasant fellow named Saloth Sar was during a one-month boat trip in 1949, when the two were headed to France as winners of a scholarship to study abroad.
In France, while Mey Mann was studying to be a construction engineer and Saloth Sar was pursuing a degree in radioelectricity, the two became involved in the communist movement. It was a heady time as they both were swept up in the fight to liberate their country.
Looking back at those times, Mey Mann, now 80, says he never should have gotten involved with Saloth Sar, later known by his revolutionary name Pol Pot. And he never should have joined the movement that became the Khmer Rouge, blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians.
“I regret very much what I did,” Mey Mann said Sunday during an interview at his son’s Phnom Penh home. “I joined the movement because I thought something good would come out of it. But finally, it turned bad and now my name is connected to a bad thing.”
Mey Mann, who lives in Battambang, never held a high position in the Khmer Rouge regime, spending the 1975-79 years as a farmer in Prey Veng and Battambang provinces. It was only in 1980 that he held a position in Democratic Kampuchea, as second deputy director of the Cambodian Red Cross, which was headed by Ieng Thirith, the wife Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary. In 1985, he joined the Site 8 refugee camp along the Thai border.
Most of Mey Mann’s work for the Khmer Rouge came before the revolutionaries took power in 1975. In his five years in France, Mey Mann was part of the circle of Cambodian students that produced some of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, including Ieng Sary. Mey Mann said he saw Pol Pot only a few times a year in France at communist meetings.
“He was very gentle, very friendly and fair,” Mey Mann said of Pol Pot. “But at that time, I didn’t think he would become the leader because there were others who were more active than him.”
Pol Pot was the first of the students to return to Cambodia, in 1953, and was given the task of analyzing the various movements that were established to fight for independence. This included the Vietminh in the Indochinese Communist Party—comprising Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians—and the Vietminh-backed Khmer Issarak Association, according to Mey Mann.
“Finally Pol Pot chose the Vietminh,” Mey Mann said. “When I came back to Phnom Penh, seven other students and I decided to follow Pol Pot.”
Mey Mann went to Prey Veng’s Kamychay Mear district where the Vietminh base was located. Pol Pot and Tou Samouth, who became party secretary of Khmer Issarak in 1960, were also at the base. But there was little to do as the Vietnamese communists did most of the work, and Mey Mann returned to Phnom Penh a few months later.
After Cambodia won independence in 1954 with the Geneva conference, Mey Mann’s communist leader was Pham Van Ba, a Vietnamese cadre who became the first Vietnamese ambassador to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime.
In his public life, Mey Mann worked in a factory and in secret, he worked on communist propaganda and rallied the people, telling them to go to the jungle to liberate Cambodia. He sent medicine, maps and correspondences to resistance forces in the jungle, while Pol Pot hid Vietnamese cadre in Cambodia—a marked difference in Pol Pot’s later attitude toward the Vietnamese.
Pol Pot eventually became paranoid about a Vietnamese invasion, which later led to the long years of fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops.
“I didn’t like what Pol Pot was doing because the Vietnamese were illegal immigrants,” Mey Mann said. “And I don’t know why Pol Pot ended up hating the Vietnamese so much after he helped them. Maybe he saw things he didn’t like when he worked with the Vietminh.”
When Mey Mann saw his work culminate in the April 1975 victory of the Khmer Rouge, he was rewarded by being forced to leave Phnom Penh along with the rest of the city’s population.
“I worked for them for a long time, but in the end, they kicked us out,” he said. “Then many of my friends were killed and my three sons were killed.”
Mey Mann and his nine children were moved first to Prey Veng. In 1977, his family was moved to Battambang, where his three sons were killed.
“I always heard people crying and imploring someone not to kill them,” Mey Mann said.
As the fighting between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge intensified, Mey Mann moved in 1978 to Malai, which was to become a Khmer Rouge stronghold after the Vietnamese ousted the Cambodian cadre in 1979.
In 1980, Mey Mann became a Cambodian Red Cross official and was the Democratic Kampuchea representative to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He saw Pol Pot once a year for meetings until 1983.
In that year, Pol Pot asked Mey Mann what he saw during his years in the countryside during the Khmer Rouge rule and what mistakes were made during that period.
“I told him that we had two major mistakes,” Mey Mann said. “One was we had a principle that we wanted all people to be clean and pure in the same way. Our second mistake was we developed too fast and that’s why the Khmer Rouge had to flee to the border.
“Pol Pot said nothing and just smiled, but I think he was angry,” Mey Mann said. “I didn’t talk to Pol Pot again after that.”
When Mey Mann joined the refugee camp, he disassociated himself from the Khmer Rouge. After the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, Mey Mann began working for UNTAC, translating Khmer into French. In 1995, he worked for a few months as a secretary in the French embassy.
In 1998, he was asked to rejoin his former cadre members as the UN human rights representative in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, where he worked for two years before retiring.
Despite his years helping the Khmer Rouge, Mey Mann believes there should be a tribunal to try his former leaders. He also thinks the scope of the trial should be extended to cover the 1970 to 1975 period and 1979 to the present, when many people were killed.
“The court should not only try Khmer Rouge leaders, but they should also find out who else among the local authorities did the killing,” Mey Mann said. “Many people who worked in the cooperatives still live in Phnom Penh freely and they killed a lot of people.”
On many occasions, Mey Mann said he tried to understand why the Khmer Rouge had turned to the killing fields. He asked Ieng Sary and Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea many times when Pol Pot had changed, when Saloth Sar turned into the leader of a murderous regime, but he never got a clear answer.
“Nobody knows. I don’t know why it happened like that, why they tried the extreme way,” Mey Mann said. “When we were students, we thought in a good way and did everything step by step. I don’t know which year Pol Pot changed his attitude.
“Maybe Pol Pot wanted to follow China and be strict like that. He was too biased to China and needed support from them because he hated Vietnam,” he said. “But Pol Pot forgot that Cambodia has only 10 million people. If China goes the tough way and kills 100 people, they have many more people so it doesn’t have a big affect. But here, that’s a big killing.”