THERE could be few better dinner companions than the latest five defectors to the
Chan Youran, Mak Ben, Thiounn Thieounn, In Sopheap and Kor Bun Heng were all key
intellectuals and leaders in the Khmer Rouge.
They are well-educated, articulate, well-read and considerate, but as for them running
a country? Up to 2 million dead Cambodians are testimony to the lunacy of that.
It is both disarming and tragic that those involved in some of the Cambodia's darkest
moments should be such extraordinary people. It seems shameful though that they now
are painting a revisionist picture of their world.
Chan Youran - a law graduate, the holder of a PhD and a former deputy prime minister
in the Democratic Kampuchea regime - is certainly no intellectual light-weight.
He sits down on a couch, nice and close, and starts with a few pleasantries. Then,
in an almost intimate way, explains the group has defected because they want to see
"peace and national reconciliation in Cambodia".
There are murmurs of approval and nods all round as the group echoes the feeling
of peace and harmony that threatens to end with a quick chorus of Bob Dylan's Blowing
In The Wind.
Once the questions turn to more substantive matters their charm functions perfectly
but their memories don't.
No one knew where Ta Mok or Nuon Chea were. In fact no one could quite remember when
or where they last saw the two Khmer Rouge chieftans.
A question to Youran about KR finances is quickly diverted. "I don't know.
Ask the book keeper," he says with a laugh and points at Mak Ben.
Mak Ben, who holds a doctorate in economics from Paris and is a former KR finance
minister, suddenly becomes alive like a clock-work soldier. With his arms waving
in the air he says in panic: "I don't know, I don't know." If Youran had
a smirk at Ben's discomfort, it was a secret one.
But all this had about as much ring of truth as Youran's own answer to a question
about how they felt moving from a strong Maoist peasant farmer philosophy to something
a bit more capitalistic. "We never shared those views, never, never. Cambodia
is composed of many people, not just farmers."
One can only assume that these men have spent up to 30 years trying to change things
from the inside or, in the words of one human rights worker, "They are the world's
Attempts to clarify any issue current or historical were met with the increasingly
aggravating mantra: "We want to see peace in Cambodia and national reconciliation."
Thiounn Thoeunn, a French-trained medical doctor, is at least frank about what he
now wants from life. "I am old, I want to take a rest," he says.
"If my health is OK I will help the young generation by giving my experience."
Then he drifted into the group's current line of "what I want is peace. If everybody
respects human rights, it is best."
But like his colleagues any question that threatens to be controversial is treated
like a live snake. "I am a medical doctor, that is all - I know nothing, I know
"I know only medicine, I do not know about politics."
In Sopheap, a graduate from the top engineering school in Paris - and a happy,
genial man - is initially quite comfortable explaining how much the group disliked
Ta Mok, and even that they would give evidence against him if a tribunal was ever
conviened for the Khmer Rouge's top leadership.
But hopes that Sopheap is the gold mine of information soon evaporate as the obligatory
"all we want is peace and national reconciliation" line comes out.
Kor Bun Heng, easily the friendliest of this affable group, did give the most plausible
reason of why the five had defected from the dying guerrilla group and come to Pailin.
"Well, we know everybody here already," he said, not unreasonably.
Instead of being interviewed, Bun Heng was much more interested in discussing the
1981 South African rugby tour of New Zealand and the New Zealand nuclear free policy,
once he found out there was a New Zealander present.
"I have read several books about your country. There is quite a large Cambodian
community there. What businesses are they in, are they farmers?"
Bun Heng knew all about an apartheid rugby team touring New Zealand 17 years ago
that caused social upheaval in that country.
"But it wasn't too bad, was it?" he ventured. "Not as bad as the social
problems Cambodia has had?"
He was such a convivial conversationalist that one took some time to gag out a reply.
No, the social upheaval wasn't as bad as in Cambodia.
Youran sent his "warmest regards" to Far Eastern Economic Review and former
Post journalist Nate Thayer. There are questions about other journalists and Post
staff: Who was now married? Who worked where?
They also ask fondly after former Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth and his family
who live in New Zealand.
There was plenty of laughter and oohs and ahhs at the answers until it was finally
time to go, another ten minutes of hand shakes and thank yous and just the odd reminder
about peace and national reconciliation.
After that they were gone, the only lingering thought was that if they had been restauranteurs
instead of Maoist rebels, dining out in Cambodia would be a lot more fun and there
would be a lot more customers.