Former Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan denied having any part in the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians during the Democratic Kampuchea regime, but admitted the regime had performed “systematic killings” in an open letter, dated Dec 29.
Khieu Samphan said that, until recently, he did not believe the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the mass killings.
“Before, I thought [the deaths resulted from] inevitable turmoil because we just emerged from war,” he said.
He confirmed he had written the letter in an interview Tuesday on FM 90’s “Voice of Democracy.” It was his second public statement in recent years regarding his role in the Khmer Rouge. He issued another letter in August 2001.
In his latest statement, Khieu Samphan said he had not known what had happened in Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the former high school that was turned into the regime’s main interrogation center, until he watched a documentary produced by Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh.
“S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine,” an official
selection at the 2003 Cannes
Film Festival, was shown sev-
eral times in early July at the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh.
“I would like to confess that I just realized there was systematic murder and arrests as shown in Mr Rithy Panh’s film,” he said. “From 1975 to 1978, I had never known or learned about S-21 at all.”
He continued: “Right now, I do realize the S-21 was an institution of the state in Phnom Penh, so it could not be said this is an exaggerated or accidental thing. It was a real part of this regime.”
Khieu Samphan also wrote that he had been unhappy with the Khmer Rouge’s plan to remove people from Phnom Penh into the countryside, but he was forced to keep quiet on the issue.
In his 2001 letter, he wrote that he was mistrusted by the regime and had been prohibited from walking from place to place without permission.
In his recent statement, Khieu Samphan also explained he had stayed with the regime because he admired Pol Pot, also known as Brother No 1.
“I saw the fate of the country end up in the hands of a small number of people, but what made me feel warm was that I saw Pol Pot had sacrificed his whole life to take all this responsibility,” he said.
However, Chhem Sip, a former Kampot province development worker who worked with former Khmer Rouge rebels there in the 1990s, said it was impossible that Khieu Samphan did not know about the mass killings and suggested he was trying to clear his name ahead of the highly anticipated UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Earlier this month, Khieu Samphan had appealed for legal aid from the Cambodian Defenders Project in anticipation of the tribunal.
“My guess is that he is trying to prove himself innocent right now,” said Chhem Sip, who is now the country director for World Rehabilitation Fund.
He added that Khieu Samphan is only one of many who should be held responsible for the deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I think all the top leaders should be brought to trial,” he said.
Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, agreed Khieu Samphan should have known about the mass killings.
“To say that you don’t know [about the killings] is to deny the truth,” Kao Kim Hourn said.
But, he said, Khieu Samphan’s letter indicated a positive step for Khmer Rouge leaders to admit what happened during the regime.
“There is some recognition that the Khmer Rouge era made a number of mistakes,” he said. “I think the letter is certainly a major step forward for key Khmer Rouge leaders to assume certain responsibility for what happened.”
Earlier this month, UN officials said the Khmer Rouge tribunal could begin soon after it is approved by the National Assembly.