New Khmer Rouge Photos Depict Life of Ease for Ruling Cadre

Mention the words “Khmer Rouge” and one is likely to conjure up images of black-clad men and women, their faces stern, their feet in battered pairs of rubber-tire shoes—and all against a backdrop of toil, starvation and death.

Such an aesthetic has come to characterize the brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from April 17, 1975, until January 7, 1979. But a new set of photographs donated to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) from a wom­an in Pursat province’s Veal Veng district provides another glimpse into the life of ruling cadre and their families.

One of 38 photographs recently donated to DC-Cam depicts Khmer Rouge officials with a group of visitors, believed to be a Chinese delegation. (Documentation Center of Cambodia)
One of 38 photographs recently donated to DC-Cam depicts Khmer Rouge officials with a group of visitors, believed to be a Chinese delegation. (Documentation Center of Cambodia)

The new batch of 38 photo­graphs, which were all taken on color film, portray the life of form­er Khmer Rouge Zone 41 hospital chief To Sem and her friends and family.

Overall, the mood is relaxed. In some, it is jubilant; people gather around a long mat laden with food in what looks like a casual banquet.

Parents pose with their brightly dressed children. Laughter, ease and a strong sense of family also come through in the images. Another picture shows a group of men—some wearing new sneakers—posing with Khmer Rouge officials in the jungle. The men are believed to have been part of a Chinese delegation, though that has yet to be confirmed by DC-Cam.

The significance of the photos, according to DC-Cam director Youk Chhang is that they depict a life often enjoyed by the Khmer Rouge—a life that stood in great contrast to the millions being put to forced labor in rice fields across the country.

“While they destroyed us, they preserved their own families. While they forced us to work, they relaxed. While we starved, they had food to eat,” Mr. Chhang said Tuesday.

“This is what has been missing about the Khmer Rouge. That reality. We’ve been missing the human side of that. We have seen the dark side of the Khmer Rouge. It doesn’t mean the crimes committed are forgiven, but it explains to us that they were people—they hated us and were angry with us and killed us and we wonder why? So we go and ask them why,” Mr. Chhang added.

Among the latest trove, which was given to DC-Cam researcher Long Dany, one photograph is unlike the others: Case 004 suspect Ta An—a man of diminutive stature, stands with two other unknown cadre to his right. His expression seems as if it could break into a smile.

Ms. Sem’s husband, a man called Um Sim, was Ta An’s deputy. Mr. Chhang said the details help to paint a bigger picture.

“Here you can see it’s a family,” he said, pointing to one photograph of Ms. Sem and her children, before holding up the photo of Ta An, who is accused of serious crimes but has not been formally charged.

“But this one stands out, and then it changes your view of [the] photo [when you know who it is],” Mr. Chhang said of the Ta An picture. “Then we found he was a suspect, then that Ms. Sem’s husband was his deputy…. Usually you are attracted to the one that stands out.”

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