romdoul district, Svay Rieng province – Sunlight dances across the rice fields, and across the backs of farmers hurrying through another harvest. As the day grows old and the shadows grow deeper one can imagine, 30 years ago, armed figures emerging from bamboo groves and drifting across the fields deeper into Cambodia.
These early couriers of communism moved one by one from grove to grove, carrying old rifles and a new dogma, one that embraced farmers and workers and scoffed at the imperialism of the West.
Nearly 25 years after the Khmer Rouge lost control of Cambodia, no one has been able to fully explain just how the country fell into their hands, then fell much further.
Last September, an unwary worker who was widening an irrigation ditch for a neighbor, struck not mud, but metal. He pulled a rusted ammunition canister from the ground and discovered inside it more than 600 pages of documents detailing the early activities of communists in Romdoul district.
Wrapped tightly in plastic and bound with a strap made from banana leaf were minutes of meetings, schedules, prisoner rosters, reports and confessions. In those pages are clues to the personal motives of those men and women who laid the groundwork for communism.
Sometimes typed, sometimes meticulously hand-written, the documents tell of a province in confusion between 1971 and 1974, as disaffected youths, hungry for power and angry at their station in life, accepted the promises made by the communists who were steadily taking control.
There are stories of young men and women, sitting before a tribunal of cadre, confessing their crimes and thoughts against the Angkar, or Organization. They met in small wooden houses or pagodas, in rooms lighted by oil lamps or candles. At least one cadre took notes. There are stories of fear and power and paranoia alongside mundane property listings and the prices for cattle and watermelons.
They help explain how the Khmer Rouge got their start in Svay Rieng. Added together with later interviews of survivors, they tell the stories of Svay Rieng’s ghosts.
“As a member of the Kampuchea Revolutionary Party, I have to release all idealism, materialism and capitalism,” wrote one early believer. “No more rich people looking down on poor people. No more higher-ranking officials looking down on lower-ranking officials.”
The revolution began with thoughts like these, fueled by rhetoric that appealed to farmers and workers.
Romdoul district, called Samrong in 1970, is located in the Parrot’s Beak, a peninsula of rice paddies that juts into Vietnam and points toward Ho Chi Minh City. Villages are mere islands among shimmering green seas of five different types of rice. Except for the occasional thump-thump-thump of threshers at harvest time or the gleeful cries of schoolchildren in the afternoon, the district’s noisiest denizens are cicadas and cows.
But in 1970, these little villages were undergoing massive upheaval. The Parrot’s Beak was peppered with Viet Cong and the US advisors and South Vietnamese that came to fight them. There was also much talk of the coup d’etat that had just unseated then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and installed General Lon Nol.
Villagers were divided. Some supported Lon Nol’s regime, unaware that communists were recording their names and alliances. The Lon Nol supporters were the first to die after the communists took firm control of the region.
Many people who embraced communism believed they were fighting for Norodom Sihanouk. They believed the King had aligned himself with the insurgents, whom he called the Khmer Rouge.
The documents do not clearly indicate Svay Rieng’s first communist. But in early 1970, 13 cadre in Samrong district were issued rifles after confessing their unrevolutionary thoughts before a tribunal. After disavowing any feeling of selfishness and any capitalist leanings, they were allowed to join.
Most of them were between 18 years and 21 years old.
One of the earliest and most successful was Nam Saren. Born Nov 12, 1952, in nearby Prosod district, Nam Saren was a monk before joining the revolutionary movement.
He was the security chief in his district, a peasant turned hard-core revolutionary. His house stood on the site were the documents were found, and many of the notes inside are his.
“I joined the revolution on the date 19 July 1970 at Wat Chhmar,” he wrote later. “The reason that made me join the revolution was that I understood that Lon Nol and [Prince Sisowath] Sirik Matak ousted King Sihanouk from power [and] I wanted King Sihanouk to be in power again. But then I found that the revolutionary struggle today was not about serving King Sihanouk. The revolution does serve the lower classes and the ground level like the farmers and the workers.”
There were other, simpler, motivations for Nam Saren, who by 1973 sometimes called himself Rithy, or “Power.”
“I never joined with any political organization before I joined the revolution,” he wrote. “After I joined the revolution, there was no other job [for me]. I only worked and served the people and the revolution, which was against [those] who suck the blood and the bones of the poor people every day.”
He was referring to the US, Lon Nol, Sirik Matak and Sing Ngoc Than, the leader of the Free Khmer movement helping the US and South Vietnamese in Cambodia.
Nam Rithy was one of the original 13 to receive a weapon in his district.
On Dec 13, 1973, he reported to his superiors on educating the lower classes, who “after learning with the Angkar seem to change, then promise to support the war of the people for our party, to win in the future.”
“I say the [obscenity] rich people and the [obscenity] capitalists do nothing for the country,” he reported. “In the past, some of the [obscenity] rich people drove a motorcycle