Stumbling across the photo of his twin brother who died more than three decades ago was the last thing former Khmer Rouge fighter Uch Sokhon expected on a visit to Cambodia’s genocide museum.
“I feel shocked,” the 53-year-old said, gently wiping the dusty glass frame holding a black-and-white image of his brother, immortalised at the age of 20. “But it was a long time ago.”
The picture is one of hundreds of mugshots of condemned prisoners on display at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh, where as many as 15,000 inmates, including women and children, were sent to their deaths.
Sokhon and some 300 other people, mainly former Khmer Rouge supporters and fighters, recently travelled all night on buses from the northwestern Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin to tour the prison for the first time.
The trip was organised by the United Nations-backed war crimes court, which was set up in 2006 to bring ex-regime leaders to justice and aims to increase awareness among Cambodians about the ongoing trials.
Confronting victims as well as former soldiers and cadres with the jail and the court’s work is a key part of bringing closure to the past, a court spokesman said.
“We believe it is easier for people to understand the mission of the tribunal when they see Tuol Sleng and the court with their own eyes,” Lars Olsen said.
Former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was the first to face justice at the UN-backed court.
Walking past the tiny cells that held some of the prisoners, including perhaps his own brother, and after inspecting the torture implements on display, Sokhon says he regrets his own past actions.
“I feel remorse and pain because I also used to be a fighter for Democratic Kampuchea [the Khmer Rouge],” said the teary-eyed civil servant.
Sokhon said he and his identical twin Sokhan both joined the hardline communist movement in 1971 aged only 15 because it was the only way to survive.
But the regime turned against Sokhan when he tried to help a relative who had caused a minor accident with a tractor in February 1976.
“I warned my brother not to help our cousin; otherwise he would lose his position and be arrested,” Sokhon said. “But he said he must help him.
“A few days later I was told that my brother was arrested ... And I knew he had been sent to Tuol Sleng.”
Despite his brother’s detainment, Sokhon continued to fight for the Khmer Rouge – even after Vietnamese forces ousted them from the capital in 1979.
After years of combat, Sokhon defected to the government in 1996 alongside the regime’s foreign minister Ieng Sary.
Cambodian and international prosecutors have disagreed on whether to pursue more suspects and Prime Minister Hun Sen told UN chief Ban Ki-moon last month that a third case was “not allowed” because it could spark renewed civil war.
Sokhon said his own personal journey to face the past was over.
“I don’t want to remember. I want it to end here. But that does not mean I still support the Khmer Rouge,” he said. AFP