Ex-Rebel Leader’s Freedom Uncertain With Pending Appeal
chamkar bei village, Kep – The party started here on Saturday, and by Sunday it was nowhere near an end.
Villagers were still streaming in to welcome their prodigal leader, recently acquitted Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin. At one point, guests who got up to leave were ordered to stay by the one-time rebel leader’s cousin.
“No one’s leaving,” he reportedly told them. “I’m going to kill another pig!”
The at times raucous festivities had all the trappings of a traditional wedding here at Chhouk Rin’s rural house, with a thanksgiving blessing by roughly a dozen monks, a potluck-style dinner and karaoke singing later in the day.
Yet just a few kilometers away from this humble home run the train tracks that carried three foreign backpackers one day back in 1994—and the mountain where they eventually were held captive and killed.
Chhouk Rin was suspected of ambushing that train, but on July 18 he was vindicated when a Phnom Penh municipal judge acquitted him on the grounds he’d been amnestied from prosecution by the government.
The verdict was based on a law passed just a few weeks before the 1994 train raid that granted immunity to Khmer Rouge soldiers who defected to the government within six months of its passage.
Chhouk Rin joined the government in October 1994, when he says he turned the kidnapped hostages over to his superiors and led an attack against Khmer Rouge holdouts. He wasn’t arrested for his involvement until this January, and he then spent six months in prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
The weekend-long party marks the first time in months Chhouk Rin has seen many of his friends here, where he for years helped lead what is considered a model village for integrating former rebels back into mainstream society.
For his part, Chhouk Rin does not yet look completely comfortable here, as he mills around making sure all the guests are being fed.
The man who built a road to this remote village and worked with a local NGO to help Khmer Rouge defectors become self sufficient says he fears he will not be able to live up to his comrades’ expectations. The government has appealed his acquittal, and there are no guarantees that Chhouk Rin will remain here for good.
“All the villagers are asking me to bring things back to the way they were before,” he said as he sat down to chat Sunday afternoon. “I have so many plans. But some of them are just dreams right now.”
He says he spent his time in prison transcribing these dreams into his life story—“from the time of my birth until now”—so his supporters and his children will know what kind of man he is.
“Someday you will read it,” he tells friends with a distant look.
One friend recounts how she climbed through the window during his one-day trial, and Chhouk Rin’s eyes glaze over. “I am very, very happy right now,” he tells her.
As he talks, he is surrounded by villagers who sing songs under a large tent and hardened soldiers who sit quietly on the sidelines—one of whom said he danced for the first time on Saturday night.
“This is just the best thing, to have him back,” said former Khmer Rouge rebel Neak Vi Chet.
Yet despite the rush of emotions, Chhouk Rin is stoic when the conversation turns to the trial.
“I was not afraid of anyone, because I did not commit any crime. And even if I did commit a crime, I would take responsibility for it anyway,” he said.
Then he is asked how he felt when he faced the parents of the three slain tourists—Briton Marc Slater, Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet and Australian David Wilson—at the trial.
“I felt sympathy for them. I know the feelings they have,” says Chhouk Rin, who said he lost a child during the Pol Pot regime and his first wife right around the time of the slayings.
“But it was unfortunate they had to point their fingers at me.”
As more guests arrive, the commander again becomes preoccupied with accommodating everyone. But he answers one final question: Whether he is satisfied with being acquitted on a legal technicality rather than his innocence.
“I have many obstacles in my head. I will try to clear my mind,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Whatever they think, I know I am still not guilty.
“But sometimes, I still think about that.”