Since charges of crimes against humanity were laid against her by the Khmer Rouge tribunal on March 3, Im Chaem has traded her farmland for a set of wheels.
According to her niece, who would only identify herself as Chreb, the 72-year-old first sold her 5 hectares near the lake that bears the name of her fellow ex-Khmer Rouge cadre Ta Mok, also known as the “Butcher”.
With the proceeds, Chreb said, Chaem then bought a car and set off – with a driver – from her current home in the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng on March 11 for a “Buddhist ceremony” in her adopted hometown of Preah Netr Preah district in Banteay Meanchey province.
“Now she has nothing. She has sold all of her 5 hectares of farmland for her holidays and Buddhist ceremonies in her old age,” Chreb said last week in an interview in her backyard, adjacent to Chaem’s house. “This time, she’ll probably be gone for a long time, because she used her own car.”
What’s more, Chreb added by phone yesterday, no one has heard from her since.
Though Chaem has maintained publicly that she is innocent and unconcerned by the charges levied against her – which include extermination, enslavement and persecution on political grounds, among others Chreb said last week that she seemed worried the day the charges were announced.
The next day, however, she had instructed her children to sell her farm, saying she wanted to buy a car to take her to hospital if she fell ill, “because she is often sick”, Chreb said.
Though quick to acknowledge her bias, Chreb is just as quick to defend her aunt, adding that with the new charges, “the court hurt her heart”.
“When it comes to the killing, there wasn’t just one [person]; the top leaders joined up to kill people – even [Prime Minister] Hun Sen did too,” she said, referring to the premier’s time as a Khmer Rouge cadre. “The US, France, China and Vietnam should also be imprisoned, because they made problems leading to the formation of the Khmer Rouge.”
If Chaem had been the senior leader she’s accused of being, she’d be rich now – not as poor as she was the day she took her belongings across the Thai border on a makeshift cart when Khmer Rouge remnants were eventually overwhelmed by government forces, Chreb concluded.
On his way back from his farm last week, Chaem’s husband Nob Nhen – from whom she was separated for three years while he was imprisoned by the invading Vietnamese in 1979 – said he hadn’t heard from his wife, but was “furious” that the court would charge her. Nonetheless, Nhen said he was confident she wouldn’t flee.
“The court should stop treating my wife badly by charging her,” he said. “I would not let my wife run away from me or escape to Thailand like she did during the [civil] war era. If she did, it would mean she did [the crimes], so she has to stay at home.”
But, he added, “I hope the government honours its promise before the integration [of remaining Khmer Rouge in the late 1990s], when they told us we could stay where we are without being charged”.
Even Kang Rin, Chaem’s oldest daughter, said last week she hadn’t heard from her mother since she left on her trip.
“I have nothing to worry about from the court charges, because she did not do anything wrong. I am just worried about her health,” she said.
“Since my mom went to her homeland, I haven’t talked to her on the phone,” she added. “Her phone might be out of battery, that’s why it is switched off.”
Court spokesman Neth Pheaktra said yesterday that the case was proceeding under international co-investigating judge Mark Harmon, but Rin said that authorities wouldn’t take Chaem without a fight.
“If they come to pick her up, we will not let them do it easily. We will beat them with sticks,” she said. “But I believe Hun Sen will not allow the case [to go forward]; he is our parent and he never lies to us.”
Chaem was briefly reached yesterday morning, but declined to comment.
“Why do you want to know my story?” she asked, before hanging up the phone.