Much is made of the Khmer Rouge Regime and the crimes committed during it. However
little is spoken about what the leaders thought and did or what their motivation
was. One of the founders of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and a former student
colleague in Paris of Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and other leaders, spoke to the Peter
Sainsbury and Chea Sotheacheath about the movements beginning, the personalities
involved and misconceptions about who is responsible for what. He has asked to remain
The Post: When you arrived in Paris in 1949 with Pol Pot did you contact the French
Yes. We did. Because when we got there we read books and newspapers and we had a
lot of freedom of thought and knowledge.
Here, as I have told you, they didn't let us know about communism. The French didn't
teach us at Sisowat [High School]. They just told us that there was Marxist philosophy.
But, they never let us know what Marxism was. Nor were there books to read.
But, when we went there, we had newspapers. The French Communist Party published
newspapers and we read them. And the French communists helped French colonial countries
to be freed from the yoke of the colonial rule. They helped us a lot such as with
ideas. As we wanted independence for the country and when we saw them helping us,
we joined with their ideas. We loved, we liked and learned [communism]. And when
we learned, we saw that this ideology was good and just. The communist ideology had
justice: it helped protect the poor from oppression. Therefore, we loved it, because
we had been oppressed for 100 years.
The Post: Then, you became a member of communists in France?
[Yes], seven or eight of us became members of the communist [group]. There were many
leaders who had died during [the war] in 1975.
The Post: Was it an exciting time?
I hoped that if we applied this ideology [to Cambodia] in the future our own people
would be liberated from the oppression of the authorities. In fact, there's nothing
bad about communist theory. It's like Buddhism. It is in compliance with the theory
of Buddhism. In Buddhism, [one] only has enough belongings to carry with oneself
When we saw them doing that, [we thought] it was right for our country which had
been oppressed for 100 years. There were several levels of oppression [in Cambodia]:
the French oppressed the leaders and the leaders oppressed the people.
We were mostly children of the ordinary people, not the high ranking officials.
The Post: Did Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and other students from France really want
to help the nation?
Sure. Very sure. At that time  I didn't think that they could be hard liners,
Pol Pot had parents and he also liked singing and dancing and to have fun. He had
not done anything that made us see that he would become a leader. Those who followed
the Vietnamese also knew him, and so did those who followed the Chinese. He was the
first to come back and the first to join the Viet Minh movement. He was a gentle
man who would get along with anyone. I don't know when he changed to be a cruel man.
As far as I knew him when we were young, he was very gentle. Even when he came back
from France, teaching at school, his students loved him very much.
I just note about the three years' [reign of terror] when many died - First, if China
and the Soviet had not had a conflict with each other and, second, if Sihanouk hadn't
been overthrown, Pol Pot wouldn't have been able to take power at that time. Even
in 10, 20 or 30 years, he wouldn't get the victory. Pol Pot took power so quickly
and Cambodia became a communist [country] so quickly that we were too raw [young].
If there hadn't been the two incidents [Soviet in dispute with China and Sihanouk
overthrown], Cambodians wouldn't have been broken apart.
The Post: Did he drink, sing or dance?
No, not singing or dancing. But, he was a happy man [and] liked music. He drank red
wine with a meal, but not as a drunkard or womanizer. He was just like other people.
He didn't do any noticeable things. He was very serious, like Ieng Sary, with politics
when he was young. They lived and slept on politics.
The Post: Why did he become a man who killed millions of people?
Later in the 70s when he entered the jungle and then went to China, maybe he was
influenced by the [Chinese] cultural revolution. As far as killing is concerned,
I don't think it was only Pol Pot. It was more about revenge - the revenge with Lon
Nol [soldiers] for killing their husbands or wives before 1975. I personally saw
a 12-year-old boy cutting [and killing] a 6-year-old boy for stealing a chicken egg
in the potato field. I believe Pol Pot didn't know this. It was in my cooperative.
When he came back, his machete was stained with blood and the [6-year-old] boy was
gone. I presumed that he'd killed him. And I was afraid of the 12-year-old. He was
very brutal. I don't believe Pol Pot, who was an intellectual, let people do this.
During the three years' period, more people died from revenge and the dispute between
the Party's [members] who followed the Chinese and the those who followed the Vietnamese.
I don't know when Pol Pot changed.
I think about Hou Youn. If he followed Hou Youn, it wouldn't have be like this. Hou
Youn allowed the use of money; he opposed the evacuation; and he only wanted to have
exchange labor groups and not to have cooperatives in the countryside.
The Post: Did you think Pol Pot was a brutal man?
I was so surprised myself. I had seen what he'd done for nearly half a century. When
he took power, he considered himself not just the leader of the Khmer communists,
but the leader of the world's communists who had never done [like him]. Lenin wanted
not to have money in circulation, but he couldn't do that. Nobody had been able to
do that. But, he could do so. The reason he could was because he used [human] strength,
he forced people to do it. What was crazy about him was his 'Great Leap' [program]
and he considered ten million Cambodians equal more than one billion Chinese.
But, I won't put the blame on him for the killing. It was both by the Khmers who
followed Viet Minh and the Khmers who followed the Chinese. They all killed and put
the blame on Pol Pot. Those who were under Pol Pot could only control Phnom Penh.
During the three years period, he didn't have the National Army yet. He only had
the Central Army, [while] the regional armies belonged to others. So, he did not
have control of the country.
The Post: What was happening with communism in Cambodia at the time you were
There were Issarak, Issarak Viet Minh, The Chantarainsey Group and many others. [In
France] we had no contact with Cambodia. We were independent among our young [intellectuals].
We just knew later that there were movements here. When we knew that there were movements
here, we asked one of our [friends] to volunteer and come to Cambodia first. It was
in 1951-52. It was Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) who was asked to come first to oversee the
The Post: Why was Pol Pot chosen?
Because he volunteered and he had close contact with the Royal Palace. His elder
brother had been serving in the Royal Palace and he came to study with him. It was
the Chantarainsey movement that he knew. So, we asked him to come to Cambodia first.
He contacted [people] such as Hang Thun Hak and Son Ngoc Thanh. He knew a lot of
people. So, we were overseeing which movement we should come back to strengthen it
to struggle for independence correctly. We were watching which movements were properly
organized. All these movements were being confused with the bandits and smugglers.
That was why we didn't know which ones were good. But, there was a large number
of Khmer movements who had joined the Viet Minh and the Khmer [movements] which were
independent from the Viet Minh. [We were considering] which movements we should strengthen.
But, as far as I know, Pol Pot came first and would join the Chantarainsey group.
A few months later he returned [to Cambodia in Jan 1953]. Then, he sent news back
to France that we would either join Son Ngoc Thanh or Son Ngoc Minh. There were only
two: Son Ngoc Thanh was with the Yuons, but Son Ngoc Minh was independent from the
Yuons and was a Khmer Serei [free Khmer]. So, there was a choice for the two [movements]
which were seriously organized [to liberate] the nation.
We discussed things a lot. Some opinions said we were to go to Dangrek [mountains].
The others understood that we were to come with Son Ngoc Minh, with the Vietnamese,
to pull Cambodians from inside independently from the Vietnamese We didn't trust
the Vietnamese to be honest with Khmers. As for the other side, they said they would
strengthen the movement of Son Ngoc Thanh and then pull those [in the Son Ngoc Minh's
movement] back. I said we couldn't do that or we would only kill each other. We knew
that we were not independent from the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese did everything,
while the Khmers only had the hands and feet and energy. The brain rested with the
Vietnamese. That was in 1953-54.
The Post: What was it like in the jungle?
The leaders at the top were all Vietnamese, while the Khmers remained at the low
levels only. All those who attended the meetings and gave speeches were all Vietnamese.
We were just the organizers.
The first person to join [the Viet Minh] was Saloth Sar. He went to pave the way
[for us]. Then, about ten of us followed one after another till the Geneva Accords
on 21 July, 1954. Saloth Sar went first. He went in 1953, because he came first.
We followed one after another. Some [stayed with the movement] for two years, while
others for one year. I was there for only a couple of months. I came back [from France]
in February, joined [the movement] in March and the war ended in July.
The Post: How did the underground communist movement survive?
I went to teach at a private school called Kampuchaboth. Some were employed. Nuon
Chea worked for the [ethnic] Chinese at an import-export [company]. Saloth Sar taught
at Chamroeun Vichea, also a private school. Chan Saman worked at an import-export
[company] on Monivong boulevard called the Yuveak Peanich.
We were living like this. I was living on the private school. If I had a bicycle,
I gave it to them and the other way round. We didn't care about money. We just helped
feed one another. But, there was an election in 1955. When I was young, I used to
stay with the Democratic Party with [a logo] of an elephant head of Prince [Sisowat]
Yuthevong. So, they let me become a member of the Democratic Party again.
Only then did I resign from the underground [movement], because I came out openly.
They selected me to be one of the candidates for people's representatives [competing]
with the Sangkum Reastr Niyum. But, we didn't win (said laughingly). So, I remained
an open opposition [member] of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum. It was a general election
in August, 1955. I personally resigned the underground [movement] and became an open
[Democratic Party member]. Because if I remained in the underground [movement] and
openly opposed against the Sangkum Reastr Niyum [while with the Democratic Party],
they might trace through the [current job] and find the underground [movement]. If
they said I was a traitor, I would die. I was teaching at the Kampuchaboth school
with Hou Youn.
Then, there was a move [that suggested] in the future we would struggle through the
National Assembly. So, we had an idea to establish a communist party independent
from Vietnam. We were organizing from 1956 till 1960, when we held a congress. There
were very few people then, about 24 or 25 people. We just did it secretly at the
railway station. Maybe on 17th of April, but I'm not sure. I did not participate
because my wife had a baby on the 17th.
We had meetings in the provinces and cities to gather opinions for the congress in
1960. We didn't dare to do it openly. We just had a few people as delegations from
[different] provinces. I just knew that there were more than 20 people, but I didn't
know at whose house. We established this communist party to be independent from Ho
Chi Minh's Indochina Party. Tou Samuth [was the chairman]. After the meeting, we
had a communist party belonging to Cambodia. I didn't participate.
I could just share my opinions in the small meetings that we would struggle through
the National Assembly in the future and that we would not struggle through weapons.
One thing was that we would be under the Vietnamese if we struggled through weapons.
Second, many people had died. The struggle through the National Assembly could take
a long time, but we would not be subject to Vietnam nor were there many people who
would die. So, we decided to struggle through the National Assembly. That was why,
after the congress we asked Hou Youn, Khieu Samphan and Hu Nim and those who had
high degrees to join the Sangkum Reastr Niyum.
Later on, in 1963 those people like Ieng Sary escaped into the jungle. They didn't
want to escape. But if they were here, Lon Nol would arrest and put them in jail.
If Lon Nol were to arrest them, they must escape into the jungle. And many of the
contenders in the jungle had been killed by Lon Nol soldiers.
Sometimes, they were shot at the stem of the palm tree, sometimes under their house
and sometimes on their house. They didn't dare to stay at home after the Geneva [Accords].
Some of the leaders such as Sao Phim ran to Phnom Penh for three years. My group
asked him to only stay at home and work as a carpenter. About 30 of his men escaped
to take refuge in Phnom Penh. Our group in Phnom Penh looked for jobs for them to
do. So, when Lon Nol soldiers knew that someone was a former Viet Minh [agent], they
would shoot and kill them without trial.
Then, you can understand that in the next Pol Pot regime, they would kill people
even though Pol Pot didn't tell them to kill. They just took revenge for their husbands
or fathers and put the blame on Pol Pot.
The Post: In 1963, you didn't go to the jungle. But did you still believe in
I still had my belief, but I had no activities. I was the director of the Kampuchaboth
school with Hou Youn. Hou Youn and Khieu Samphan remained in the National Assembly.
The Post: What was your contact with the communist party later?
In 1963, I didn't know what role they saw for me. But, I knew by myself that after
1963 they didn't ask for my monthly contribution. Then, I presumed that I was not
on [their list]. I didn't know abut Hou Youn and Khieu Samphan but they were in the
Assembly. Because we told each other that if we could struggle through the National
Assembly we should continue to do so. The struggle through weapons was just the second
thing. First through the National Assembly. Second through [the weapons] if we didn't
succeed in the National Assembly. Those who could stay in Phnom Penh should stay.
Those who couldn't should go.
The Post: What happened to you after the KR takeover
In 1975, first a commander from the East by the name Chan Chakrei brought in his
troops to Phnom Penh. I asked to meet him saying that I was a person who had helped
this movement in the past. Because there were a lot of people hiding themselves inside
Phnom Penh working for the movement. I asked Chan Chakrei whether those people should
leave like others or they should continue to help them with their work. Chan Chakrei
told me he could not decide. Two days later, he raised this in the meeting and came
back to tell me. (I was the last to leave Phnom Penh; it wasn't until the 22nd [of
April]). Some of the soldiers knew me. They didn't allow me to leave the house. Two
days later, they told me that the Khmer Rouge didn't agree. They used this term right
away. Because during the second Congress, Sihanouk named all the young [members]
the Khmer Rouge. So, this name came from him. I went to see him [Chan Chakrei] and
he told me that 'The Khmer Rouge didn't agree, Brother.' Then, I thought that maybe
he was ashamed of Sihanouk, because Sihanouk was also struggling. I just understand
now. And he said that there were many soldiers killed when they fought but they couldn't
take any cars, ... not even a watch. They collected everything for the nation. He
was complaining. Then, I realized that Chan Chakrei must have split to Vietnam. And
now I understand that these people joined the Vietnamese [while] the Pol Potists
followed the Chinese. But I don't know why.
The Post: And then what happened?
I went to Prey Veng, my home village, in Ba Phnom. I worked as a farmer in the old
[people's] mobile [team]. All my children and wife were separated. [Some] of my children
were killed at Eastern Zone 1. In 1977, I was evacuated to Maung Russei, Battambang.
Then to the Kravanh mountain. There three of my children were killed. And my wife
The Post: Were there any old networks who helped you because you'd helped them?
They didn't know me. And I survived because they didn't know me. I hid my biography.
I shut my mouth, my ears and everything.
The Post: So, the Khmer Rouge cadre didn't understand marxism?
They didn't understand. They didn't know what human beings were. They just had the
anger with the fact that their wives or children had been killed. Then, they hated
all those from the city. They didn't know that [some] of the city folks also came
from the countryside.
The Post: Was it because Cambodia never had justice and a fair court that
when they had a chance people sought justice themselves?
Yes, that's right. It was to take revenge. People and cadre in the countryside didn't
understand what Marxism was. Not even Buddhism. They believed in Buddhism, but they
didn't understand Buddhism. Even now they just say Buddhism on their lips, but they
don't analyze Buddhism seriously.
The Post: We've talked a lot about Pol Pot. What were people such as Nuon Chea,
Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Ta Mok like?
I knew them when we were young. I don't know Ta Mok. But for people like Ieng Sary,
I saw him sacrificing a lot when we were students. He didn't even finish his studies,
but he sacrificed them to care for affairs of the country. But, a communist regime
is like this: when Mao Tse Tung assumed power, everyone was afraid of Mao Tse Tung;
when Stalin assumed power, everyone was afraid of Stalin and all of his subordinates
followed him. Pol Pot was also like that: all Cambodians were afraid of him, including
Ieng Sary, who was Pol Pot's brother-in-law. Later on, as far as I knew him from
the border in 1980-82, Ieng Sary ... still had the liberal ideas. That was why I
could contact him but not Pol Pot.
I used to meet him at the border, in the camp. We were allowed to meet him once a
year. But, I was honest. He asked me what I saw at the co-operative [during the Khmer
Rouge period]. I said the biggest mistake was the 'Great Leap'. When I went to live
in the camp, I was told to care for the Red Cross and school and I was pleased to
One time, when we were meeting tête-à-tête like this before 1983,
Pol Pot asked me about the three years' [regime]. He asked, "what was the three
years like?" I said: "from the three years, I had one memory left: a cocked
stopped servicing the hens and crowing, and he even bit and scrambled for a worm
from the hen under the house." And I thought it only happened in my village.
But, when I came to the camp and asked other people, they said it was the same for
other provinces. And he asked: "what was wrong?" I asked: "the Great
Leap." The Great Leap was so rapid that they ended up [running] to the Thai
soil. He just laughed and laughed, but it sounded like he was not happy with what
I said. And I was never called up again.
The Post: What do you think of people's perceptions of Pol Pot
Most people said he was a butcher. As far as his theory and leadership are concerned,
it was a mistake. But, his heart was [good], because he used to be a monk and knew
Buddhism. He knew how people in Europe lived, because he had been there. The mistake
was with the Great Leap, which was rapid, so rapid that even the cadre had no education.
The Post: Should all leaders including village or commune chiefs be held accountable
for what happened?
Who were the ones who carried out the killing? As far as I know, about more than
three million Cambodians died. These more than three million [people] included those
[who died] in 1970 until now, today. If we put it in the Khmer way, those Khmer people
who died before 1975 were also Khmer souls and those who died after 1979 were also
Khmer souls. So, we should clearly deal with the Khmer souls who have died from 1970
If we cannot do that, it seems unjust. My estimate is that more than three million
died [from 1970 till 2000].
If so, there should be justice for all the souls for the benefits of the Khmer people
in the future. All the Khmer politics had been made by [foreigners]. I'd never seen
Cambodians make [politics]. I'd seen only [Khmer] hands were borrowed to hit our
heads but not their heads. Our hands hit our heads till all the hair had fallen off.
They talked about crimes against humanity and war crimes . This means before 1975,
there was also a war crime: what happened with the B-52s? You remember that. I am
from Svay Rieng and Prey Veng, where a lot of my relatives were sad. I saw my relatives
taking revenge with people from Phnom Penh. They just waited for people from Phnom
Penh: if they had a chance to kill, they would kill.
Those from the markets and those in the countryside didn't look at each other, even
I'd helped them a lot: I took many of their children to study [in Phnom Penh]. So,
I saw there was more of revenge [by people] than official order [from the top]. That's
why the whole issue is connected between then and now.
The Post: Did you see Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea when they came to Phnom Penh?
No. Since I separated from them in 1961-62, I have never seen them. I also want to
ask them, to ask like you did. I don't understand what sort of person he [Nuon Chea]
was then: was he a human being or a person controlled by the spirit of evil? I just
know they are in Pailin. I don't dare to meet them. But, if there is a proper tribunal,
I will go up and ask him. I will raise my hand to ask. [But] I won't sue them for
the deaths of my wife and children. I just ask so that I can also understand about
them: why did they raise their hands to kill children? They did not do that, but
their regime allowed [other killers] to do that. But, I can't do that. That's why
I've never been at the top position in this life. I never want to do that, because
I know it's difficult. I'd rather be at the low level. I'd rather do what I could
do if they told me to do anything.
The Post: Will a trial affect the current regime?
Yes. It will also affect the current regime. I know something, because Mr Hun Sen
lived at the place where I lived in 1977. He ran to Vietnam. He was also a high-ranking
commander there, in Prey Veng. He was already a major or colonel, quite a top [officer]
from the Eastern zone. And there were a lot more killings from revenge: my elder
brother, my cousins who were policemen [in the previous regime] were killed. It was
just killings. And myself, too: if I had been there a bit longer, they would also
kill me. They had already killed my children. But, it was luck that I was sent to
[another] place where no people knew me. And when the Vietnamese came, I survived.
But, I wouldn't thank the Vietnamese for coming in. This was my thought: a tiger
was chasing after to bite me, but another tiger also wanted to eat me; then, he chased
after the other tiger to bite him, so I survived. I would never thank anyone, [because]
I survived by chance.
While they were busy biting each other, I managed to run away. So, I wouldn't thank