On Eve of Arrests, Film Queried Taciturn Khmer Rouge

In full view of a French journalist in 1979, deposed Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary was plied in the first-class cabin of a flight to Sri Lanka with champagne, cigarettes, duty-free perfume and liquor. The de­bonair head of state Khieu Samphan posed in 2004 for a spread of magazine photographs in the embrace of celebrity lawyer Jacques Verges, his future defender.

Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, appearing as ever with a gangster’s bug-eyed sunglasses, welcomed the occasional reporter to his austere shed in Pailin. Party Secretary Pol Pot and his wife Ieng Thirith appeared on film to deny the existence of S-21 or denounce the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia.

From the fall of their regime, the Khmer Rouge leadership entered the public eye to explain themselves and their toppled government. But, with the noted exception of former S-21 Chair­man Kaing Guek Eav, whose trial began this week, rarely have they ever pronounced any awareness and responsibility for what Democratic Kampuchea did, admissions that would be only a short step from guilt itself.

“I cannot qualify the alleged crimes,” Khieu Samphan told filmmakers Bruno Carette and Sien Meta in their new documentary “Khmers Rouges Amers” (or “Bitter Khmer Rouge”), which makes its Cambodian premiere in Phnom Penh today.

“That is for jurists and specialists. But after listening to people and having seen the film of Rithy Panh, I indeed recognize that the S-21 center was an establishment of the state.”

After 30 years, perhaps a somewhat minor concession; yet Khieu Samphan hastens to add that this discovery only came to him long after the fact.

As judicial investigators at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia were preparing their arrests in 2007, Khieu Samphan, Democratic Kam­puchea’s former head of state, and Nuon Chea, Brother Num­ber Two, spoke to Sien Meta and to Carette, who filmed the Cambodian portion of a 2007 documentary about Verges, “Terror’s Advocate.”

Since they were first conceived, the Khmer Rouge trials have labored against the illusory public perception that they can only tell a story everyone already knows. Yet the reticence revealed in the film shows that even the most basic of facts about authority under the Khmer Rouge have yet to be acknowledged by the re­gime’s former leaders or their crestfallen supporters in Pailin and Anlong Veng.

“It was not a detention center,” Nuon Chea says of S-21. “It was a documentation center. It was conducting document-based re­search. But I wasn’t responsible for Tuol Sleng. It was [former Defense Minister] Son Sen who was responsible for it.”

An explanation of the failure of the Khmer Rouge regime is reserved for the trials, he tells the filmmakers.

“What there is to say, I’ll say it. Otherwise I won’t say anything,” he said. “Come and hear me at the trial. I won’t tell you beforehand. It would tarnish my image.”

“Khmers Rouges Amers”— which was selected for the 2008 Paris Festival International du Grand Reportage d’Actualite—will be shown 4 pm Saturday at the Bophana Audiovisual Re­source Center. The 95-minute film is in Khmer with French subtitles.

 

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