Malai district, Banteay Meanchey province – The swift and brutal 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh by victorious Khmer Rouge forces has become notorious for the devastation it inflicted. But if many people here in Malai had their way, the 1979 expulsion of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese troops would be just as infamous.
“Khmer Rouge people left Phnom Penh to the border trying to search for a new peaceful life but they suffered from hunger, disease…fighting and shooting,” remembered Khem Kheng, who once worked as a cleaner at the regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, scrubbing floors and making beds for visiting dignitaries.
At a forum held here by the Documentation Center of Cambodia on Saturday, she recounted the privations of her flight from the capital, appealing to the Khmer Rouge tribunal to consider the suffering of rebels too.
“Blood did not cover all over the country. Please, I suggest to the court to not only find justice for all Cambodian people but also find the truth about the Khmer Rouge top leaders. The court is not only established to calm the victims but also for the former Khmer Rouge. If the court runs this way, it means vindictiveness ends by being vindictive.”
It would be hard to find many people who disagree with the indictments expected to be handed down this week to four senior Khmer Rouge leaders—Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith and head of state Khieu Samphan.
But defiant Malai, a narrow wedge of Banteay Meanchey province hugged by the Thai border, is populated almost entirely by former Khmer Rouge cadres who are less than thrilled about the prospect of seeing their former leaders and neighbors on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
“People here are liking, supporting and respecting Ieng Sary,” confirmed Dim Sok, the chief of Malai commune, who served in the Khmer Rouge army. He praised the former foreign minister as a great “economist” who had focused his efforts after 1979 on rural development and funneled part of the Chinese aid money he controlled directly to the people of Malai.
“How can they hate him if he brought lots of food and supplies for them?” he asked, explaining that the people of the district had never felt hunger during Ieng Sary’s reign here.
“He had an economic concept and never killed people,” Mr Sok insisted. “You can see he helped build Malai market. People here, they are not happy to prosecute him.”
Malai remains defiant partly because it is so remote. From the provincial capital, the district is a bone-clattering two-hour journey down a deeply rutted dirt road. It is still impassable in the rain, lined with dozens of freshly cleared minefields.
But this area was also perhaps the most important of the Khmer Rouge border strongholds. Once known as Phnom Malai, it served as a de facto capital and key military base in the 1980s, and remained semiautonomous well into the late ’90s.
Along with Pailin, Phnom Malai was controlled by Ieng Sary, and when he defected to the government in 1996 he brought the area’s tens of thousands of residents and soldiers with him, dealing a crippling blow to his former movement.
The district is now governed by Tep Khunnal, the regime’s former ambassador to the UN. He remained with the Khmer Rouge until its bitter last gasp, first as an aide to Pol Pot and later, after denouncing Brother Number One, to Khieu Samphan, a man he once called his “idol”. Now married to Pol Pot’s widow, the one-time communist juggles his administrative duties with a weekend job teaching economics and management at a university in Battambang province.
Nowadays, Mr Khunnal says, the 42,000 residents of the district are focused on business, with little time to think about the leaders who once abolished money.
“Most of the villagers now are thinking only how to produce their agriculture. How much does corn cost? How much does rice cost? And is the road good enough to transport their products?” Mr Khunnal said in a telephone interview on Monday.
The tribunal “is too far from them, because they are now only thinking of producing their agricultural products and earning money for their children to go to university,” he continued. “But they just have a sentimental feeling about the former Khmer Rouge leaders.”
Indeed, almost every participant in the forum had words of praise for Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, and Khieu Samphan, whom they frequently described as “nice” and “polite.”
Kith Peou, 49, spent the 1980s working in a transportation group run by Ieng Sary in the 1980s ferrying weapons and supplies across the Thai border to Malai. She said she supported punishing former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes they may have committed but she had only good memories of Ieng Sary to share.
Ms Kheng, the cleaner, also had nothing but praise for her “nice” former boss, saying she was sure that he, at least, was innocent of all charges.
“He has never done anything wrong,” she said. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs never took people to do hard work.”
Ms Kheng appealed to the tribunal to minimize the four senior leaders’ punishment: “Grudges are eliminated by not grudging,” she said. She insisted that the leaders themselves had never ordered any killings. “At that time, even one police officer also had the power to take people to kill,” she pointed out.
Former cadre Yem Sim agreed, suggesting that the senior leaders may have been scapegoats for hidden culprits.
“I would like to request the government and international organizations not to punish them very strong,” she said. “I lived with them from 1975 on, and they were really nice, they were nice to people. They never made us starve or killed people. They protected our land from enemy invasion.”
Ms Sim, 53, bemoaned the demonization of the Khmer Rouge, which is now so widespread that even her children brandish her rebel status during disagreements.
“When I advise them or fight with them, they say, ‘You were Khmer Rouge, so that’s why you are so naughty,'” she complained.
DC-Cam workers said participants in the forum were some of the most unrepentant they had ever encountered.
“I’ve been to forums in other former Khmer Rouge strongholds but I haven’t ever seen this level of defiance with so many people standing up and saying, ‘Don’t prosecute them’ or ‘Don’t punish them too much,'” said Anne Heindel, a legal adviser to DC-Cam who attended the event.
Even those who were not openly unhappy with the idea of prosecution seemed at least mildly nostalgic about their years under Khmer Rouge rule.
Vann Sophal, 49, proclaimed himself utterly uninterested in the tribunal: “I am just an illiterate farmer and know nothing about that.” But he remembers Ieng Sary’s control of the area with some fondness.
“Back then things were normal,” he recalled, “but we got our own pension every month and we got monthly allotments of fish sauce and prahok and seasoning. Now, after we lose him, we just get by on our own farming work.”
“Now it is a little bit difficult, because previously there were no robbers and we just hung our clothes and things outside without worrying. I didn’t really like it, but we were all in here together.”