pailin – The man who for years served as the public face of the Khmer Rouge doesn’t feel the need to protect himself from robbers or other intruders. The simple, modest home where he lives with his four children and three grandchildren doesn’t even have a fence around it.
“Security is very good,” Khieu Samphan said. “Most people here still support me,0 so there is no need to have a fence.”
Khieu Samphan, 69, talked to journalists last week for the first time since he defected to the government two years ago, but would speak only about his living conditions and not politics, a Khmer Rouge trial or any other topic that might be controversial.
During his years with the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan was always at the helm of decision making. At various points, he was prime minister of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, liaison to then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and was one of the Khmer Rouge representatives for the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
He was also one of the closest people to Pol Pot and fled with him in 1997 into the jungles as they were chased by Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok during an internal struggle for power.
The last time he appeared in public was in December 1998, when he and Nuon Chea were brought to Phnom Penh after their defection. He briefly apologized for the killings and said Cambodians should “let bygones be bygones.”
At that time Khieu Samphan’s white hair was died black, but last week it was his natural snowy color.
Unlike his former comrades Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan says he is in good health.
“I’m very fine,” he said last week. “I‘m different from Ieng Sary. My health is OK.”
Ieng Sary, former foreign minister of Democratic Kampuchea, is ill and often needs to lay down to rest, according to friends who saw him two weeks ago. He has had three operations in recent years, two on his heart and one on his prostate.
“He can get up but he can’t sit and talk to you for very long,” said Suong Sikoeun, spokesman for the Ieng Sary-led Democratic National Union Movement. “It’s just that he’s very old.”
Nuon Chea is also frail and suffering from blood pressure problems. His breathing is irregular and he is unable to move his right hand.
Like Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan is reluctant to speak to journalists, partly for fear of implicating himself in Khmer Rouge atrocities. With plans for a Khmer Rouge tribunal pending, all three have been named as top targets for prosecution.
Former colleagues and friends say numerous people have tried to speak to Khieu Samphan, but he always turns them away.
“That’s why the (Khmer Rouge) trial is bad,” said In Sopheap, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official during Democratic Kampuchea. “Nobody wants to talk.”
Living in the isolated area of Pailin, Khieu Samphan is always eager to hear of what is going on in his country and around the world. When given a newspaper story about King Norodom Sihanouk’s recent birthday, he read the issue right away.
“I’m very happy to see it is the King’s birthday,” he said. “I’m especially happy to see his picture.”
He is often seen by neighbors reading or helping around the house. He lives a simple life void of politics. “Now I make a farm and help my children with homework,” he said.
When told that his former colleague Thep Kunnal, who is married to Pol Pot’s widow Mea Son, said “hello,” Khieu Samphan said “I’m very happy to hear he is fine. I have not seen him in a long time.”
Thep Kunnal, who called Khieu Samphan his idol, lives in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Malai district in Banteay Meanchey province. He also fled with Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot in 1997.
Thep Kunnal and Khieu Samphan have not seen each other since they were both captured by Ta Mok. They say the past is too fresh and the timing is not right for them to meet.
Khieu Samphan repeatedly apologized for not talking about the past, but said the time will come.
“I’m sorry I can’t talk now,” he said. “When I am ready, I will let you know.”