Khieu Samphan, nominal head of state during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea regime, said he honored the victims of his regime during the Pchum Ben festival on Wednesday.
Speaking by telephone from Pailin, Khieu Samphan, 73, said he and his family had gathered that morning to organize gifts for the local monks, as had the families of most of his former ultra-Maoist comrades living in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold.
“I dedicated the food to my ancestors and also to those people who died during the Khmer Rouge regime. I am very sad,” he said.
He added that his wife had delivered the gifts to the monks without him because it was a long way to the pagoda.
Though the Khmer Rouge shuttered pagodas and vilified the Buddhist monkhood as an enemy of the nation, Khieu Samphan said he visits the monks often these days, seeking their advice.
Dok Narin, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Cult and Religions, said Wednesday that about half of Cambodia’s 40,000 monks died between 1975 and 1979 as a result of Democratic Kampuchea’s anti-religion policies.
“Some were killed because they refused to defrock. Some, who were forced to defrock, worked hard and died. They accused some of being [Lon Nol regime] police and soldiers and they killed them,” he said.
“There were also about 3,000 pagodas. There are no exact statistics as to how many were totally destroyed, but some were, and some were used for raising pigs and cows and for storing weapons and fertilizer,” Dok Narin said.
But according to Pailin Municipal Cabinet Chief Mei Makk, Buddhism is thriving among the former Khmer Rouge in their old stronghold.
In fact, Mei Makk said, the Khmer Rouge’s hard-line against Buddhism and the monkhood was partly to blame for the regime’s demise.
“In the jungle, we secretly invited monks to hold the Buddhist ceremony, but Pol Pot refused to allow us to do so. That was why we defected to the government,” he said.
Distancing himself from the regime’s barbarity, Khieu Samphan claimed on Wednesday that he had in fact implored his fellow Khmer Rouge followers not to harm the monks or the pagodas during their rule.
“I had no power. At that time, I was only an intellectual. No one listened to me. It was a communist regime,” he said.
Khieu Samphan said he merely suggested to the monks that they trade in their alms bowls for hoes and contribute to the development of the nation. He said he told them they should not rely on the Buddha to provide rain and that they should dig irrigation trenches and reservoirs.
Following the government’s 2003 agreement with the UN to establish a special court to try senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea for genocide and crimes against humanity, Khieu Samphan has publicly defended his role in the regime.
He published his memoirs in three languages, presenting himself as an unwitting bystander to the Khmer Rouge’s mass killings, despite his high rank, and has spoken more often to the media in a bid to convey his innocence.
Researcher and historian Steve Heder, who has written extensively on the Khmer Rouge, said Wednesday: “The case against Khieu Samphan is certainly weaker than the cases against the others and [his] may be a lower level of culpability than the others.”
However, Heder added: “The building evidence continues to make it increasingly implausible for him to claim he knew nothing about what was going on all around him in Phnom Penh and in the countryside.”
Heder said that, if a proper investigation into Khieu Samphan’s role in the Khmer Rouge were conducted, the likelihood of a conviction in a UN-backed tribunal would be high.
(Additional reporting by Porter Barron)