Ke Pauk Says ‘I’m Sorry,’ But Blames Killing on Pol Pot
siem reap town – Former Khmer Rouge general Ke Pauk, named by many as a likely defendant in a tribunal, expressed regret for the killings carried out during the 1975-79 Pol Pot regime and said he would obey the will of the government if he is charged with crimes against humanity.
But in two rare one-hour interviews last week, the aging former leader—believed to have ranked sixth in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy—blamed the “mistakes” of Democratic Kampuchea on mastermind Pol Pot, who he said “ordered everything.”
Former US officials, he added, should also shoulder some of the blame for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians because they bombed Cambodia for “200 days and 200 nights” and killed thousands in the early 1970s.
“I agree if the government wants to arrest me,” he said in his home on the outskirts of this popular tourist destination, only 75 km south of Anlong Veng, the feared rebel stronghold he called home for years.
“When I joined the government [in March 1998], I already decided to live with the government. I will not escape or run to the jungle. But I don’t know about my people in Anlong Veng. Because I am their leader, and if they arrest me what about their future? If you decide to live with me, and I do something to you, what would your family think? They would react.”
Ke Pauk played crucial roles in the March 1998 mass defection of several thousand fighters, in the months that followed a ruthless internal power struggle that placed now jailed Khmer Rouge chieftain Ta Mok at the helm, and led to the arrest and eventual cremation of Pol Pot on a bed of tires.
Ke Pauk gained the gratitude of the government and was awarded the rank of one-star general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces—the highest-ranking Democratic Kampuchea official commissioned in the military or government. At the time, in brief comments to reporters he also said he would stand trial if the government asked him to, and placed blame on other former movement leaders.
Though he declined to discuss specifics last week, the aging former leader acknowledged in broad terms that “mistakes were made,” by Khmer Rouge rulers.
“I, on behalf of one leader, am regretful. I am sorry for what some bad actions to the Cambodian people about killing Cambodian people,” he said.
He claimed that he was motivated by what he believed was best for his country, and spoke of the interference of foreigners, and later of the need to protect Cambodia against the Vietnamese. “As a leader, I wanted peace; I wanted unity for the Cambodian people. But there were some things done wrong during that time, so I regret.”
For Pol Pot’s ruling organization, Ke Pauk was the chief of what the Khmer Rouge called the “northern zone,” an area of Cambodia encompassing Kompong Thom province, and portions of neighboring provinces—an area like most other parts of Cambodia where brutal purges resulted in the murders of thousands, according to Steven Heder, a lecturer at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and a noted historian, and Craig Etcheson, a genocide researcher at the International Monitor Institute, among others.
He also is believed to have ranked high on the decision-making Democratic Kampuchea Central Committee, which set the ruthless policies of the regime that killed hundreds of thousands through mass starvation, disease, overwork and summary executions. Genocide scholars have said he ranked 13th, and was the movement’s deputy military commander during their time in power. But two of his children and individuals in Anlong Veng said his actual rank was sixth on the leadership totem during Democratic Kampuchea.
Sitting in his Siem Reap home last week, surrounded by grandchildren and family as music from the 1970s-era US band Santana blared from a stereo, the aging former guerrilla cracked jokes and smiled.
He spoke of the last days under former rebel chief Ta Mok, and told of how he led the mass defection because the brutal leader had crossed too far into repressive, authoritarian rule. Conditions in Anlong Veng are improving, he said. There is a market and the government is building a road. But his people will run out of rice in five months, and he worries about whether NGOs and the government will give enough to avert starvation.
Ke Pauk’s neighbors say he is a nice man, who leads a quiet life, chats about ordinary everyday life, and never mentions politics.
“He is very gentle, firm and friendly to all of us,” said the elderly woman who lives next door. “He comes to my house everyday to buy cigarettes and sometimes he sits all morning until evening.”
But in Anlong Veng and among genocide researchers, Ke Pauk has a different reputation. During the Khmer Rouge regime, he was known as a brutal killer, a ruthless commander and a devoted, uncompromising party loyalist, many say.
“Many former Khmer Rouge people said Ke Pauk killed many people during the Pol Pot regime,” said an Anlong Veng businesswoman who declined to be identified. “I am not Khmer Rouge, but some former Khmer Rouge people trust me and told me secretly.”
Said Steven Heder: “There is considerable evidence linking Ke Pauk to the roundup and execution of former military officers and civil servants of the defeated Khmer Republic after 1975, to the purge of his own communist party subordinates in the central zone in 1976-1977, and then the purge of communist party cadre and combatants in 1978.”
And in April, 1998 Prince Norodom Ranariddh denounced him, claiming that he “is responsible for hundreds of assassinations; he is a mass murderer.”
Perhaps the most damning allegation against Ke Pauk is believed to have been perpetrated with jailed Khmer Rouge chieftain Ta Mok. Genocide researchers and many Cambodians believe Ke Pauk and Ta Mok bear responsibility for one of the bloodiest purges seen during Democratic Kampuchea in 1978—a purge that some believe may have included the home village of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Angered by unchecked Vietnamese border incursions, perceived enemy infiltration and the defection of cadre to Vietnam that included Hun Sen, troops under the command of the pair launched a brutal hammer and anvil offensive against Khmer Rouge-cadre in the Eastern Khmer Rouge zone in Kompong Cham and neighboring provinces, Etcheson said.
Thousands of soldiers from the North under Ke Pauk’s control surged down into the Eastern Zone, while Ta Mok’s Southwestern based forces attacked from the South. Together the armies massacred thousands of innocent civilians, executed virtually the entire leadership of the Eastern Zone of the country, and left huge burial pits of bones strewn along the rivers of Kompong Cham province, genocide researchers say.
The purge resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. The 1978 killings, Heder said, included “ordinary people suspected of aiding East Zone Communists who resisted being purged.”
The scale of bloodshed made the purge notorious. And the workings of the Khmer Rouge power structure suggest such a large-scale operation could not have been carried out without Ke Pauk’s involvement, Etcheson said. But no documentary evidence has as yet been unearthed to prove Ke Pauk ordered his troops to carry out the massacres.
And that, researchers believe, will be the central challenge in prosecuting former leaders like Ke Pauk.
On a recent day, Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, hefted several weighty files onto a table. More then 1,200 telegrams are on file and hundreds were sent to Ke Pauk and were marked as received.
Additionally, some files detail the torture and execution of Khmer Rouge-cadre labeled traitors. The records indicate that copies of those files were sent to Ke Pauk, but whether he received them, whether he approved the eventual killings of the victims and whether he knew remain difficult to demonstrate, Youk Chhang said.
“I think Ke Pauk’s case is one of the most difficult to prove,” he said. “There is a lot of circumstantial, but no direct evidence. Honestly, everybody talks about how brutal Ta Mok and Ke Pauk were, but there is not much evidence against them.”
Heder characterized the evidence against Ke Pauk as “substantial, though probably insufficient in and of itself to bring a conviction in a fair trial, operating according to international standards.”
He added, “A properly-resourced international proceeding could build on the paper trail to attempt to bring an indictment and achieve a conviction, but that would probably require cooperation (and protection) of many witnesses and the introduction of other corroborating evidence.”
Asked about his role in purges last week, Ke Pauk responded: “I refuse to answer that question.”
Asked about Ta Mok’s guilt, who he is believed to have worked closely with, he answered: “I can’t decide on this decision; it depends on the court. If they find him guilty I abide.”
Though details remain sparse on the internal workings of the shadowy Democratic Kampuchea Central Committee—known to outsiders only as “Angkar”—genocide researchers believe there is evidence to show that many former leaders were at the very least aware of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the regime. And in the interview, Ke Pauk seems to acknowledge as much. He said the committee was dominated by Pol Pot and those who led the Maoist regime with him should not be blamed.
“The trial should be done to the dead Pol Pot. It is unjust to the people under Pol Pot because everything was ordered by Pol Pot,” Ke Pauk said, explaining that “I was living under the Cambodian government, so I if I said anything, I would have been killed.”
Ke Pauk also lashed out at the US government for pushing for the tribunal, noting their massive bombing of the Cambodian countryside. The US dropped thousands of bombs in the months leading up to the fall of Phnom Penh, contributing to the mass flight of civilians from their homes that led to famine in 1975.
As the Khmer Rouge tightened their grip on the country, bombs continued to pulverize the countryside attempting to delay the rebel armies inevitable push to victory.
“I decided to join the government for peace, but now the foreigners stir up this issue,” Ke Pauk said. “So what are they thinking? The Americans, what about the Americans? They bombed—200 days, 200 nights.
“So what are they thinking? The problem is not simple. It was not only the Khmer Rouge. So we should not put fire on this issue. The Americans always make demands for a UN Khmer Rouge tribunal. So why not talk about bombing in Cambodia?
“What about the American president?”killing thousands, destroying infrastructure, and throughout the 1980s, the US supported resistance forces allied with the Khmer Rouge, and used its political muscle to help the Maoist movement cling to their UN seat.
From March 1969 onward, US B-52s flew at least 3,630 missions into Cambodia reigning terror on the neutral country in an attempt to destroy Viet Cong bases located inside the country.