Senator Keo Bunthouk: "We all want to know why they took people to be killed."
On Jan 15, the Cambodian Senate approved the Khmer Rouge tribunal law, passing it
on to the Constitutional Council for final consideration prior to a formal passage
of the law by King Norodom Sihanouk. In stark contrast to the passive assent given
the law in the National Assembly, the two days of Senate consideration provoked thoughtful
and often emotional debate of the law and its implications.
The Senate debate's most moving and controversial moments came when septuagenarian
Funcinpec Senator Keo Bunthouk, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge's Boeng Trabek "re-education
camp", reiterated Foreign Minister Hor Namhong's involvement in the camp's administration.
Phelim Kyne and Vong Sokheng spoke to Senator Bunthouk about life and
death in Boeng Trabek.
In early 1976, Keo Bunthouk followed her husband, Paris-based Cambodian UNESCO delegate
Ieng Kounsaky, in answering the invitation of leaders of the Khmer Rouge's Democratic
Kampuchea to return to Cambodia to assist in the country's rebuilding.
Instead, Bunthouk, her husband and fellow members of GRUNK, the France-based Royalist
anti-Lon Nol opposition front, found themselves confined in the Phnom Penh "re-education
camp" of Boeng Trabek.
Established in early 1976 to "re-educate" government officials of the Lon
Nol and Sihanouk regimes, Boeng Trabek was divided into a youth section of approximately
150 people and a section in which approximately 50 returned diplomats and former
government officials were confined. At least twenty of Boeng Trabek's inmates died
of overwork or after being transferred to the nearby Toul Sleng torture center.
In 1991, Buntheok was the only one of three witnesses who testified in a Paris court
on behalf of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a civil suit filed by Foreign Minister
Hor Namhong. The suit was in response to the King's assertions in an interview that
Hor Namhong had "...commanded a Khmer Rouge concentration camp...[and was] responsible
for the death and torture of many former members of the anti-American resistance,
notably Prince Sisowath Metheavi." The case was decided in favor of Hor Namhong.
Q: What do you remember of your return to Cambodia in 1976?
A: It was very sad...we arrived at the airport and the people who knew us didn't
dare say hello. They were all dressed in black and didn't say anything. [The Khmer
Rouge] made us work. We stayed two weeks in Phnom Penh and then they sent us to Battambang.
We worked there for five or six months in the fields, then they brought me join my
husband in Phnom Penh. We worked very hard...certain diplomats were with us including
Q: What was life like at Boeng Trabek?
A: We worked hard and didn't eat well. We were there with the Princess [Nanette
Metheavi, sister of Queen Monineath] and others. There were daily sessions of criticism
and self criticism.
Q: Were you aware of the deaths and disappearances of people at Boeng Trabek?
A: We didn't know the people who were taken away were killed. I thought maybe
they were taken to another camp. Only after 1981 [did I learn that] people taken
from the camp were taken to Toul Sleng and lived only about one month. I didn't know
they went to their deaths. I thought they maybe went to a more difficult camp because
I noticed [those taken away] had committed minor faults. I don't understand [their
deaths]...if it was people who had done grave faults I could understand, but it wasn't,
it was people who'd just done minor things...that's what preoccupies me, that's why
I think in all this country [during the KR regime] people were killed for nothing.
I think a lot about this because I pity the people who were killed [who] used to
live and work with me. I know that they did not commit any mistake, so why did they
take them all to kill them...why were children killed as well?"
Q: What do you remember about Hor Namhong's role at Boeng Trabek?
A: He was with us...Hor Namhong was the Director...he made his wife director of
women [prisoners] and his son chief of youth [prisoners]. Hor Namhong criticized
people [at the daily criticism/self-criticism sessions], but we could also criticize
him. I once criticized him for making his wife chief of women and his son chief of
youth. The whole family went to Angka Lev (met with KR party leaders) and the rest
of the camp didn't know [anything]. I realized we didn't know whom he talked to,
who Angka Lev (the KR leaders who Hor Namhong met) was. I have never found out who
Angka Lev was...I imagine it might have been Son Sen or Ieng Sary [but] I don't know.
Q: Who should be held responsible for the murders of Boeng Trabek inmates?
A: Now you repeat this question and maybe Hor Namhong will want to assassinate
me, what will happen to me? I've heard that Hor Namhong wants to sue...the newspaper
that said he was Khmer Rouge. For me, I don't know whether Hor Namhong was Khmer
Rouge or not. I don't know if he chose people [sent to] Toul Sleng, but I noticed
that when there was even minor criticism of someone [by Hor Namhong], two days after
this person [was taken away] and we didn't know where he went. Hor Namhong says that
it was not him [who ordered inmates taken to Toul Sleng], but how could it be? Who
could have taken all those people to be killed? He was director of the camp...why
did [the Khmer Rouge] take [Boeng Trabek inmates] away to be killed?
Q: What was your involvement in the 1991 civil suit initiated by Hor Namhong
against King Sihanouk?
A: I was a witness for King Sihanouk when he said in the [Paris] newspaper that
Hor Namhong was an assassin. Hor Namhong brought two communist lawyers [ to the court]
... the King didn't have a lawyer so the court appointed a lawyer for the King who
knew nothing of the King or Boeng Trabek...he just listened. The other witnesses
[Princess Sisowath Ayravady and Sao Kim Hong] didn't dare show up. The King lost
the case because we were called in last [to give testimony]. Hor Namhong brought
in false witnesses...those who were not in the camp or people who came ...when things
were okay and everybody ate well [in the last four months before the collapse of
the Khmer Rouge regime]. [Those] other witnesses, if they accused me of not having
proved [the King's case], they should bring in the children of the victims [to testify].
Q: Do you believe the KR Tribunal law will be able to deliver real justice?
A: This is a good law to find out who killed people. [Former Khmer Rouge leaders]
have to come and tell us what happened, why it happened. We all want to know why
they took people to be killed. I expect that the trial will be good if it has good
international judges [and because] the international community is watching us. If
the court asks me to testify I will go as I did for the King's case, but there will
be a question whether I have any proof. But there are children whose parents died
in the camp who may know more details than me.