Ong Thong Hoeung had been living and studying in Paris for more than a decade when he decided to return to Cambodia in 1976.
The fact that his wife Bounnie, who had returned home a few months earlier, had not written puzzled him. But Democratic Kampuchea representatives in Paris had assured him that she was staying at the Pedagogy Institute in Phnom Penh while awaiting a job assignment.
There had been rumors of atrocities committed by the new regime in place. “But I did not want to believe,” he said in a recent interview. “I especially did not want to believe that Cambodians could kill Cambodians.”
So in July 1976, Ong Thong Hoeung and a group of about 40 Cambodians flew back to Phnom Penh via Beijing—at that time it was the only airline route to Cambodia. As soon as the plane landed at Pochentong Airport, they were taken to Kar 15, the code-name for a camp on the outskirts of Phnom Penh established for Cambodians who had lived abroad and returned to Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea.
In the years to come, Ong Thong Hoeung would be transferred from one returnee camp to the next, working from dawn and well into the night, with little food and under constant surveillance.
“Sometimes, Cambodian friends were taken away. But we did not know where,” he recalled.
It was only after Vietnamese forces had rid the country of the Khmer Rouge that, one July morning in 1979, he would finally discover the truth about those disappearances on a scraps of paper at Tuol Tapoung market in Phnom Penh.
A handwritten page used to wrap fried banana bore the signature of a Cambodian friend from Paris, Kol Dorathy. Ong Thong Hoeung discovered that the page had been scavenged at a former school by the name of Tuol Sleng.
He describes this incident, which led him to the Khmer Rouge torture camp of Tuol Sleng, in the last chapter of his book “I Believed in the Khmer Rouge,” the Khmer language version of which will be released in August by Angkor Bookstore’s Angkor Editions in Phnom Penh.
The book was published in French without this last chapter in 2003, and in Italian in 2004. The author is now in search of a publisher for the English version that has been completed.
Ong Thong Hoeung started writing in a refugee camp on the Thai border in the early 1980s. “My intention was not to write a history book, but to tell of the indoctrination, the demolition of the person, the fear, melancholy, hunger, arguments, courage and cowardice of those who, either through indoctrination or opportunism, had become the accomplices of the Khmer Rouge,” he wrote in the foreword.
While a student in France, Ong Thong Hoeung said, “I wanted everyone to be equal…. I believed that society alone could corrupt man, who was born free and good…. The word ‘freedom’ burned within me,” he wrote.
But a work camp in Takhmau district in Kandal province soon crushed those ideals.
“The dream of a fairer, more humane world, of a better future, was just another illusion,” he wrote. “Everything that was human had been destroyed with these stereotyped, pompous, revolutionary phrases. It was all rubbish. In the name of Marx, they were assassinating reason. In the name of scientific revolution, they were spouting nonsense and twisting the truth.”
People reacted differently to such conditions, Ong Thong Hoeung said.
At the Boeng Trabek “re-education center” on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Khmer Rouge leaders would appoint Cambodian returnees to help manage the camp.
Try Meng Huot, a doctor in chemistry who had been a lecturer at the University of Paris, turned against his old colleagues when he was named head of a committee. With his new position he became determined to fit his fellow prisoners into the Khmer Rouge mold, and thereby hoped to raise up in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, Ong Thong Hoeung said.
From the Boeng Trabek center, Ong Thong Hoeung went to the Red Earth or Dey Kraham camp in Kompong Cham province’s Stung Trang district. But he would spend the last months before the Khmer Rouge defeat back at Boeng Trabek’s section B32.
At Boeng Trabek, he said, “I discovered that during [Khmer Rouge camp leader] Savan’s time, Angkar had ordered a dozen or so important figures, including Chau Seng, [Prince] Norodom Phurissara and his wife [Princess Norodom Phlus], to leave the camp.”
Ong Thong Hoeung would later find the name of former minister Chau Seng on the list of people executed at Tuol Sleng. The prince and princess were never seen again.
After recovering Kol Dorathy’s confession from the market vendor in 1979, Ong Thong Hoeung went to the prison where he was hired to translate Tuol Sleng documents for the upcoming trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders that the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government was to hold in August 1979.
These consisted of the confessions obtained from prisoners through torture.
“Suddenly, I found the names. This was…the end of everything
—the darkest period of my existence,” he said.
“To know, to see the photos, to be aware of how the people we loved, so many innocent people, were killed, tortured, insulted.”
But Ong Thong Hoeung’s sorrow went beyond the dead. “For the first time, I had to face my belief, face the problems, face a truth that I did not want to know, which was that Cambodians can kill Cambodians,” he said.
“It was very hard to take at first, and it really hurt.
“We now must admit that Cambodia’s biggest tragedy is Cambodians themselves,” he added.
“This, Cambodians don’t want to see. They always say it’s someone else’s fault. We never say it’s our own fault.
“We are so proud, so virile, so absorbed in our glorious past that it makes us blind. And it is this blindness that leads Cambodia into such tragedies.”
Unlike other nations that turn towards to future, Cambodia remains turned towards the past without a vision for the future, he said.
This lack of vision may not be a recent occurrence. For more than a millennium, Cambodian leaders have been embroiled in bloody conflicts such as those that occurred during the 17th and 18th Centuries, Ong Thong Hoeung said.
“In each period, there have been deaths. And I believe that we can count the dead, but that we cannot grasp the spiritual dead, the intellectual dead.”
Time and again, this may have deprived Cambodia of people capable of defining the country’s identity and creating visions for its future, he said.
In the 1990s, about 100 Cambodians, including Ong Thong Hoeung, filed a complaint against Duch, the Khmer Rouge chief of Tuol Sleng prison, under the 1993 Belgian “Act on the Punishment of Grave Breaches of International Humanitarian Law.”
Duch agreed to appear in front of a Belgian court, but he was prevented by Cambodian authorities from turning himself over to the Belgian authorities, Ong Thong Hoeung said.
For him, the upcoming Khmer Rouge tribunal is important not so much for the truth that he says it will probably not reveal, but for the message it may convey.
“Throughout history, Cambodian leaders have felt they could do whatever they wanted,” claiming that merits accumulated in previous lives entitled them to the spoils of this life, he said.
“We must stop this and say to Cambodians that if you are in power and commit crimes, you will have to answer for it at one point.”
The living also owe the victims of the Khmer Rouge era a trial, Ong Thong Hoeung added.
“We must rehumanize human life. Otherwise we are like beasts: We kill and do it again, kill and do it again.”
Near the former Dey Kraham camp in Kompong Cham, the jungle has nearly reclaimed a tomb where about 200 people from the camp were killed and buried, he said.
“There hardly is any trace of it left. Cambodia is the land that forgets: if something is not written, it is erased and forgotten.”
The Khmer Rouge trial may help keep the memory of that regime’s victims alive, he added.
Although Ong Thong Hoeung lost four brothers and his father during the regime, he says that he feels no hatred for the Khmer Rouge. However, he has no intention of coming to Cambodia for more than occasional visits.
Hong Thong Hoeung’s life is in Belgium where he relocated with his wife, Bounnie, who also survived, from a refugee camp on the Thai border in 1981, and where they have lived with their two daughters ever since.
“When I close my eyes, I see my family dispersed, my home destroyed, everything that I loved destroyed. They shattered my raison d’etre for being Cambodian. And because of this wound, I feel more comfortable abroad.”
But in spite of it all, Ong Thong Hoeung added, “I still love Cambodia.”