Editor’s note: As progress toward a Khmer Rouge tribunal moves forward, The Cambodia Daily is running a series in which the people who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime share their stories. Subsequent stories will appear in future issues of The Cambodia Daily.
The last time Seng Lytheng saw his pictures was in Pol Pot’s jungle headquarters near Anlong Veng, some time in 1997.
There—in black, white and color—was the photographic and video record of the Khmer Rouge’s rarely glimpsed top leadership.
“I saw them in his office by accident,” says Seng Lytheng. “I was very excited to see them, but also very sad.”
The pictures chronicled the reclusive Khmer Rouge leaders during the regime’s glory days. In 1997, more than two decades after its triumphant march into Phnom Penh in 1975, the regime was shrunken and reviled.
Seng Lytheng, the only photographer allowed to shoot the top leaders, said he was proud of his work and grateful for his special access to the innermost circle.
“I was given permission and the responsibility to take the only pictures of the top leadership, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Son Sen,” he says.
Yet he did not take the photos and videos with him when he left Anlong Veng that day.
“I knew they were very important, but the situation forced me to do this,” he said. “The political situation was not safe, and if I was found with them, my life would be in danger.”
He has not seen them since, and does not know where they ended up. He wants to see them again, and yet he doesn’t.
“If I see them, they would make me sad. I never thought the movement would come to this, with its leaders split and some killed. I hoped, during the resistance, that we would win.”
Seng Lytheng was Pol Pot’s nephew, and lived with him from 1967 to 1969, when Brother Number One was in hiding in the forests of northeastern Cambodia.
“At the time, I was 15 years old, and [Pol Pot’s wife Khieu Ponnary] gave me five riel every day. She bought clothes for me and taught me mathematics,” he said.
He knew his uncle was in the movement, but not that he was its leader. Seng Lytheng joined the Khmer Rouge himself in 1969, and was promptly arrested by Prince Sihanouk’s police and sentenced to 20 years in Prey Sar prison.
He was released in a general amnesty less than a year later, and returned to the movement. In 1973, he was summoned to the central headquarters, trained as a photographer, and given the job.
“I took Pol Pot’s photo when he met with soldiers, when he talked to the people, and when he met in the jungle with other leaders,” Seng Lytheng recalls.
He remembers a big meeting at Stung Trang district in Kompong Cham province, when Pol Pot exhorted about 400 people to rise up against Lon Nol and the US military. “He asked people to provide rice, meat and vegetables to the [rebel] troops.
“He told them what we were doing to liberate the country from American imperialism and to eliminate corruption, to get rid of feudalism and capitalism and eliminate the oppression of the poor. He promised everyone equal rights.”
The message was well-received, Seng Lytheng said, although the people did not clap or make a big demonstration. Pol Pot did not like big displays, and took pains to make his manner simple and friendly, he said.
During the time he worked for Pol Pot, the Supreme Leader gave him no special breaks because he was a relative. Family was never mentioned, in fact, as Pol Pot did not want to be accused of nepotism.
Seng Lytheng thinks he got the job in part because Pol Pot knew his dream was to be a photographer, but mainly because the notoriously suspicious leader trusted him.
Like others who were close to Pol Pot, his nephew does not believe he intended for so many people to die. If his uncle ordered any deaths, he believes, it would be only “the intellectuals and top leaders in Phnom Penh.”
Pol Pot had given up his teaching career and devoted his life to the movement, Seng Lytheng said. Killing innocent people, “would mean he was destroying his own movement.”
Seng Lytheng chronicled the regime in photos from 1973 until the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was driven back toward the Thai border. For the next four years, he was not allowed to take pictures.
But in 1983, he was trained in video technology, and allowed to shoot again. Pol Pot, however, did not allow himself to be photographed after 1983, his nephew says.
For years, the exposed films and videos were sent to China for processing. China returned the material after the 1993 elections.
“After they were sent back, they were kept in Kbal Ansorm in Anlong Veng,” Seng Lytheng said. He stayed with his uncle until 1997, leaving just before the murder of Son Sen and his family caused the final rift between Pol Pot and Ta Mok.
“Today, I don’t know where they are,” he says of his photos. “I don’t know what happened to them after Ta Mok arrested Pol Pot.”