Stories from the Past

Khmer Rouge veteran recalls reign of terror

Anlong Veng today: For Dom Chhuny, April 17, 1975, was a day of joy and disappointment. He was 24, a guerrilla fighter, and like all other Cambodians over age 40, he clearly remembers the day 25 years ago when the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge movement marched into Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. Mr. Chhuny heard about the takeover on army radio and rejoiced. During the previous four years, the peasant's son had often risked his life in the struggle to overthrow the U.S.-backed military regime of Gen. Lon Nol. Now it had happened. The Khmer Rouge had won. The only thing that bothered Mr. Chhuny was that he had not been among the victorious troops who marched into Phnom Penh. Three days before, he had been wounded in the left arm by a grenade. So he spent the historic day in a guerrilla hospital a few miles out oftown. But it didn't really matter, anyway. "Everybody at the hospital was happy and cheerful. We laughed and celebrated. Some people were singing. At night, somebody lit candles," Mr. Chhuny remembers.

Pol Pot in his last daysIn liberated Phnom Penh, people were also celebrating. The Khmer Rouge were welcomed with flowers and happiness. Everybody thought this was the end of the civil war and all their suffering. They were wrong. The celebration ended abruptly less than 24 hours later, when the Khmer Rouge terror apparatus swung into action. Under the threat of heavy machine guns, all Phnom Penh's 2 million inhabitants - including the sick and wounded - were ordered to leave town immediately. People with connections to the fallen regime were executed on the spot. In the following days, the process was repeated in all the country's major towns. Many people died during the forced marches under a merciless tropical sun. It was only a foretaste of what was to come. During the next three years, eight months and 20 days, Cambodia was turned into a nightmare realm of death, fear and terror. At the end of this period - engineered by Pol Pot (pictured left) and his Khmer Rouge to expunge all foreign learning and influences and return Cambodia to its pure, ancient past - at least 1.7 million people had died of starvation, disease, exhaustion and, in at least 200,000 cases, summary executions.

Today, the legacy of this terrible era persists throughout the country. Victims are marked forever by their ordeals, some physically, all mentally. The last Khmer Rouge leader, Gen. Ta Mok, was only arrested in March last year. He is one of only two of the movement's top leaders ever arrested. In many former Khmer Rouge zones, old guerrillas continue trying to adapt to a life without coercion and propaganda. At the hospital, Mr. Chhuny and his comrades heard about the forced evacuations of cities and towns. It didn't sound good. "But we didn't care. We were young soldiers. We were just happy to have won," he said. Two months later, when his wounds had healed, Mr. Chhuny discovered the realities. While he had been hospitalized, the Khmer Rouge top leadership had begun transforming Cambodia into its vision of an agrarian utopia. Under the name Democratic Kampuchea, the country had become a vast labor camp where people worked up to 16 hours a day planting rice, cutting trees and building dams and irrigation canals. The incompetence of the new rulers and their fanatical belief that the war-shattered country could be self-sustaining meant that food became constantly scarcer. Cambodia exported rice to China while its people starved.

The secrecy-obsessed leadership was referred to as Angkar - the Organization. Most people never found out who they were, but it was said "Angkar has as many eyes as a pineapple," meaning everyone was being watched. Paranoia in Angkar's top ranks created a fearsome national security system that directed the arrest, torture and execution of thousands of "internal enemies." Many never knew what crimes they were accused of. Young children were brainwashed to spy on their parents. Religion, money and private property were forbidden. With 2,000 others, Mr. Chhuny was enrolled in a mobile work force that was dispatched to various communes where their labor was needed. "It was very hard. During that time, I had nothing but a hoe and a basket to carry earth," said Mr. Chhuny. In 1978 he was called back into the army. Pol Pot had begun attacking neighboring Vietnam, seeking to restore Cambodia's ancient borders - particularly its control of the Mekong Delta - and all forces were needed in the fight against the "Vietnamese aggressor." Battle-hardened and better armed Vietnam gave short shrift to the Khmer Rouge forces. In two weeks, the Vietnamese defeated them, crossed into Cambodia and sent Pol Pot and his cadres fleeing from Phnom Penh into the jungles. By Jan. 7, 1979, it was all over for Democratic Kampuchea, but not for the Khmer Rouge.

Over the next decade, the guerrillas fought a war of raids and ambushes against the Vietnamese-installed regime in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge - allied with loyalists of Prince Sihanouk, who had been ousted by Lon Nol, and Sihanouk's former prime minister, Son Sann - were sheltered by their Thai neighbors. The alliance received military supplies from China and was fed and backed by the United States and other Western countries. It kept Cambodia's seat in the United Nations while Cambodia's Hanoi-backed rulers were internationally isolated. Mr. Chhuny remembers fleeing into the jungle around Kompong Cham in eastern Cambodia. Later, he made his way north and linked up with comrades along the Thai border. In 1990, the guerrillas managed to take the town of Anlong Veng a few miles inside Cambodia. He has been here ever since. And despite the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, the 1992 arrival of the U.N. Transition Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the largest and most expensive mission by the United Nations ever, and U.N.-supervised elections the following year, nothing much has changed in this remote town over the years. Soon after their withdrawal from the peace process in the spring of 1993, top Khmer Rouge leaders made Anlong Veng their headquarters. And while mass defections began to thin the guerrilla ranks elsewhere, Anlong Veng held strong.

Not until the summer of 1998 did the cadres here finally give in to war weariness and defect to the Cambodian government. Pol Pot, who had been overthrown by Ta Mok the previous year and held in house arrest on a nearby mountain, died on April 15, 1998 - of a heart attack, the Khmer Rouge said - and his body was cremated in the jungle without an autopsy. Today, Mr. Chhuny is the second deputy chief in an Anlong Veng that has been integrated into the rest of Cambodia, at least formally. Lacking much contact with Phnom Penh, the town struggles alone to shake off a past that until two years ago consisted of strict rules, oppression and compulsory hatred of imagined enemies. At the school, for instance, where 1,200 children attend classes every day from Monday to Saturday, the 17 teachers are the same ones who taught when the town was run by underlings of Pol Pot and Ta Mok. Then they taught slogans like "bad smelling meat and any enemies within our lines must be absolutely destroyed." Another given then was that to become a good leader, one had to study hit-and-run warfare. Now the curriculum has been changed to subjects like math and geography. This year is also the first that the children haven't had to perform guerrilla tasks after school hours. Before, those under age 10 had to collect bamboo and sharpen it into punjee sticks, while those older had to carry the sticks to the front of the never-ending battle against government troops.

Khmer Rouge practices are hard to shed for residents of Anlong Veng. Only recently have a dozen small wooden huts sprung up along the dusty main road, creating the first market the town has had in years. Before, people had to sneak across the border to Thailand to buy even simple household items, which had to be smuggled back to their homes. The town is still not completely at ease with the recently introduced market economy. Most shop owners are newcomers because few former Khmer Rouge have had the courage to set up shop. Mr. Chhuny acknowledges numerous problems with the social integration of Anlong Veng, but negotiations between Phnom Penh and the United Nations about setting up a tribunal to try former top Khmer Rouge leaders worry him more. He doesn't know much about it, but worries he may be arrested, too. "But if that happens, I know I have friends here who will protect me," he said, referring to the town's more than 20,000 former guerrillas, for whom the war is still not very far away.

FACES BEHIND THE GENOCIDE - The top leaders of Cambodia created the Khmer Rouge reign of terror but later met separate fates: Pol Pot - He was Brother No. 1 and since the 1960s had been Khmer Rouge supreme leader with almost sole power over all decisions. Ousted in an internal coup in July 1997, he died under mysterious circumstances in the jungle near Anlong Veng in April 1998. Nuon Chea - Brother No. 2 in the communist hierarchy, he was the most secretive leader and knew the most about the purges, torture and executions in Cambodia. Nuon Chea defected on Dec. 25, 1998, and now lives peacefully in a remote villa near the Thai border. Khieu Samphan - Nominal president of Cambodia, he was for many years the "moderate" face of the Khmer Rouge. He may have been behind some purges. Khieu was the top Khmer Rouge negotiator at the peace talks in Paris and a frequent visitor to the United Nations. He defected in December 1998 and now lives with Nuon Chea at Pailin. Ieng Sary - Cambodia's foreign minister, he was aware of concentration camps for returned Cambodian intellectuals and purges among them. Ieng Sary led the first mass Khmer Rouge defection in August 1996 and was granted amnesty by King Norodom Sihanouk. He lives in a luxurious villa in Phnom Penh. Son Sen - Cambodia's defense minister, he was responsible for security and had at his disposal several torture and interrogation centers. He was murdered in June 1997 on orders from Pol Pot. Ta Mok - He was the military leader of Cambodia's Southwestern Zone, whose cadres were used for purges in other parts of the country. He later became top military leader of the Khmer Rouge and arrested Pol Pot in July 1997. The last top Khmer Rouge leader captured, he was seized in March last year and is now imprisoned in Phnom Penh. "Duch" - He was the director of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, where at least 14,000 people were interrogated, tortured and later executed. Seven survived Tuol Sleng. "Duch" (Kaing Khek Iev) later converted to Christianity and worked for an American humanitarian group. He surfaced last May and is in a military prison a few streets from Tuol Sleng awaiting trial.

In the Years Of Dying - Human bones bear mute testimony to Pol Pot's Cambodia : Survivors give their accounts

Phnom Penh - Year Zero begins, April 17, 1975. After a civil war that kills 600,000 and topples the 1970-75 Lon Nol regime, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge fighters roll together Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution into a vision of utopian rural society. They clear the cities. Their workers are "new people" without any history or culture. Soldiers burn dollar bills as cooking fuel. Children are co-opted into spying, controlling, murdering their parents and elders. Until the Vietnamese invade on Christmas Day 1978, more than 1,300 Cambodians die daily in fields, ditches, torture centers - at the hands of other Cambodians. The survivors are mostly beyond tears. The catharsis continues.

The Daughter - Meas Bopha's father was a doctor, working at the Russian Hospital. As the forced marches that emptied Phnom Penh in 1975 began, he was confronted by some young soldiers and produced his identity card. "They said: 'Thank you so much, please step this way,' " recalls Bopha, then 9. The doctor took two steps and was shot in the back. As he fell, he turned to his wife and daughter, imploring them to flee. The soldiers shot him in the head while Bopha's mother tugged her away. Her parents had just returned to Phnom Penh after visiting relatives in Canada. Cambodia had been ravaged and the capital was swollen with refugees, but they wanted to be home. It was around Khmer New Year and the long civil war appeared to be drawing to a close. Two days later the Khmer Rouge arrived. "They told us to take clothes for three days," says Bopha. The 80 km trek northeast to Kompong Cham took 16 days. Soon, Bopha was separated from her mother and surviving on her wits. The youngest of seven children, she changed her name, denied everything about her comfortable, happy childhood and told anyone who asked that her father had been a barber. Three times she was marked for death. Once, her judge was a 12-year-old boy who coolly ordered the bludgeoning of two other children in front of her. The trio's crime had been to scream when they discovered a corpse stuffed into the hollow of a tree. Today Bopha is 34 and a partner in a promising Internet business in Phnom Penh. She lost three of six siblings to Pol Pot.

The Worker - Ker Hun, 55, and his wife Chea Sam Oy, 45, live outdoors in the shade of a large tree on a plot of state-owned land beside the Tonle Sap. As in 1975, Hun ekes out an existence as cyclo driver. His wife sells food to workers on a nearby construction site. "It's not a good life," he admits. "But I am not afraid of robbers - there's nothing for them to steal." In 1975 the couple and their three children were sent to Kompong Cham. The family survived intact - a rarity. "They saw my feet and my hands," says Hun. "I think they did not kill me because they believed I really was a cyclo driver. But all of my brothers and sisters were killed, and all my wife's relatives too." In the Lon Nol period, cyclo drivers were often rounded up and forcibly conscripted. "Nobody does that today," says Hun. "We have much more freedom, but it's been a sad life." He and his wife now have eight children, the youngest just 12. Hun's daily toil is to make $2.50 for their rice.

The Scholar - Sok Siphana, 40, is a secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce. He has a law degree from the U.S., wears a bow tie and suspenders, and usually brims with confidence. Sitting in his office, he fights back tears. "We all survived," he says. "I owe the whole thing to my mother. She had some jewels that she managed to trade for rice. She saved us." Theirs was one of 183 families resettled about 140 km north of the capital in Kompong Thom. Only three families survived intact. One of five children, Siphana could have avoided the horror if he had taken up a scholarship to France. "I refused to go," he says - even though rockets had started thumping down in the city early that year. Siphana, who spoke better French than Khmer and wore glasses - traits that could have meant death - spent nearly four years digging ditches. A sister's husband had worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the couple was evacuated just before the city fell. "I took them to the U.S. embassy and even touched a helicopter," says Siphana. A few days later, he was forced to flee. As he went along his journey, Siphana picked up four discarded books: a Harraps French-English dictionary, a James Bond thriller, a book on Freud and the memoirs of a Romanian refugee. Each day he would tear out a page of the dictionary and use it to wrap lunch scraps. "It was an escape to another world," he recalls of his secret reading. "I didn't realize I knew English so well until I got to the Thai border." After the Vietnamese arrived, Siphana's family urged him to go to the Thai border to scout the situation. On his first day there he was found by an official sent by his sister from the U.S. embassy in Bangkok.

The Orphan - Noy Chhomya, 34, was the youngest of seven children. His father worked in the Ministry of Commerce and his mother was a teacher. A brother who was a pilot was the first to disappear in 1975. Chhomya's father died the following year from overwork. The boy was taken from his family and put to work collecting buffalo dung and digging dikes. His other two brothers and three sisters were either executed or starved to death. He believes his mother died from grief in 1977. "I felt very lonely, but I struggled to survive," Chhomya says. "I have numerous bitter stories relating to the Khmer Rouge, but I try to bury them. I face them only for building my life in the future." In 1979 Chhomya was one of thousands of Pol Pot orphans who straggled back to Phnom Penh. Now a teacher, he earns $30 a month and recently married a colleague, Ros Tila, who wasn't orphaned. They live in a two-room house at the Rose One Orphanage, which they share with 57 other orphans. Many of them work in schools, hotels, nongovernment organizations, even the police force. They draw strength from their shared past misfortune. The orphanage once housed more than 500 children. Today the area is earmarked for redevelopment. Power and electricity already have been cut, and the orphans face the prospect of their surrogate family being dissolved.

The Mother - The widow Yem Yon, 57, lives quietly in Daun Sor (the Village of White Old Ladies) just outside the capital. In 1975 she was pushed out of the city to Kandal province, then to a commune in Pursat province. "I was seven months pregnant and treated like a slave," Yon says. Put to work digging irrigation ditches, she was given only rice meant for pigs. "We could not avoid the killing," she says. "My boys were sick and forced to work. It killed them. My husband once went to beg some rice and they used the plate to beat him over the head." Her husband vanished. Of her seven children, five died from overwork and two from sickness. "My children were put in a hole with 24 other bodies," she says. "Others were thrown away like dead cats." Yon was accused of being rich because her husband had been a soldier who chauffeured a customs official. She says they weren't wealthy, justcontent. "We had a very happy family life. My husband used to let me go for picnics on the riverside." She had no inkling of the disaster about to engulf her. "I was very surprised by the Pol Pot regime - I never dreamed of anything like it. I have had a very sad life since 1975. If somebody dies, I don't cry anymore. I have cried enough."

The Merchant - Bouy Kok, 68, describes himself as a dignitary at the Champuskaek Pagoda near Phnom Penh - arguably Cambodia's richest temple. Lists painted on the blue walls honor donors who have contributed anything from $2 to $70,000. Prime Minister Hun Sen donated $11,000. Many visitors believe that the pagoda is a font of wealth and good fortune. There are two schools for 1,000 children on the grounds. Kok, who was a prosperous fish merchant in Lon Nol times, knows all about the pagoda's dark past. The grounds were used as a detention center. In the middle, a shrine with glass windows brims with skulls and bones from the 18,000 people Kok and others believe were executed and dumped in the killing ground at the back. Less than a kilometer away, Kok survived. "I tried to work very hard at farming," he says. "I was waiting to die." Five members of his family simply vanished. "I do not know what happened to them. Every class of person was in the camp: children, officials, monks . . ."

The Monk - "A lot of people died inside this pagoda," confirms its abbot, the Venerable Am Lim Heng, 35, a respected Pali scholar. He was a child in Kandal province whose family somehow survived intact. "I just knew that bad things came from the Khmer Rouge," he says. "Many people had to live on rice gruel and their bodies swelled up. A lot of those who died here were Chinese. There were also some Westerners, but their skeletons have been taken away." The abbot finds it hard to explain why Cambodians now flock to the Champuskaek Pagoda. "After 1979 many were scared to enter, but nobody is anymore," he says. "They come to be blessed. We keep to the old ceremonies as this is important for the older people. A lot of people believe that by visiting they will prosper. People from all political parties come. The Buddha is for everybody." As he wraps swatches of betel, the abbot carefully avoids political questions. But the bones outside beg them. "We wanted Pol Pot alive to ask him about the killings," he explains. "Buddhist tradition is to cremate, but if we did that now there would be no evidence. The dead have already been reborn and are grown up. What they are now depends on what they did in their previous lives. This is an unusual case."

The Cadre - People don't forget such things. Few can forgive. When Vietnamese troops swept through the country in early 1979, chasing Pol Pot's cohorts to the Thai border, ordinary Cambodians turned on low-level cadres. Some were bound and hauled up coconut palms, then dropped headfirst to the ground. A witness in Moung Aussey, Battambang province, reports seeing 2,000 corpses, including piles of Khmer Rouge footsoldiers, in the months following the Vietnamese arrival. Yet many escaped untouched. Bopha, the doctor's daughter, knows that Penh, the sadistic killer of one of her brothers, is now a rice farmer living peacefully in Kompong Cham. At 15, Penh had been a provincial chief. His revolutionary credentials were confirmed when he murdered his mother. Before the rout, another young cadre, Yong, 14, presented himself as a suitor for Bopha. Her mother, living nearby, was appalled. The youth controlled 20 villages and could extinguish each and every life as the whim took him. He, too, had earned his stripes through matricide. With the Vietnamese invasion under way, Yong was seized by villagers and tied to a stake. They slit him open and pulled out his liver. "He never cried out," says Bopha. She is still puzzled by that. Finally, the villagers cut off his head and impaled it on a stick.

The near deserted streets of Phnom Penh, just days after the Vietnamese recaptured the city from the Khmer Rouge. This picture was taken by Marcus Thompson/Oxfam. (click to enlarge)

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