In Pailin, the former communist stronghold, calling yourself ‘Khmer Rouge' doesn't automatically come with a stigma
The deputy governor of Pailin, Mey Mak, delivers his opening statements at an open forum on the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Friday.
WE are not ashamed" to have been Khmer Rouge, Ken Pon, 51, announced during a public forum Friday. "I am proud of what I have gone through. They were true nationalists."
Ken Pon was just one of around 150 Pailin residents who came together Friday for the Center for Social Development's most recent Khmer Rouge tribunal forum.
Part of an ongoing effort to inform Cambodians about the tribunal's work - and to foster national reconciliation - the forum was patterned on similar events held throughout Cambodia.
The daylong forum offered participants the opportunity to ask court officials about the tribunal's history and mandate, and share their views and experiences.
But in the open dialogue sessions, it became clear that many residents from the former Khmer Rouge stronghold still look fondly on the old regime.
"It was surprising because at every public forum before, many people hated the Khmer Rouge," said Sotheary Yim, who works for CSD's public forum unit.
"At this one, they seemed much more supportive."
CSD Executive Director Theary Seng said ambivalence towards the court was to be expected, considering that many Pailin residents knew Khmer Rouge leaders personally "as good people and as nationalists".
Pailin Governor Y Chhien once served as a bodyguard for Pol Pot. Until their arrests in 2007, tribunal defendants Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan had lived freely in the area. "It's a different composition altogether," Theary Seng said.
In his opening statement Friday, Deputy Governor Mey Mak claimed Pailin residents had more pressing concerns than a court to try former Khmer Rouge.
"People are not interested in the [tribunal]. They are more interested in the war at the border," he said, referring to the conflict with Thailand over Preah Vihear temple.
But as the day wore on, more and more participants came forward with questions and comments - many saying that they thought the Khmer Rouge had been disproportionately blamed for the country's ills.
Compared with a forum CSD held in Pailin in 2006, people seemed much more willing to voice their opinions and concerns, according to Sokunthy Chuon, deputy director of CSD's public forum unit.
"The ECCC had not been established yet and participants were more afraid to ask questions," he said. Now that arrests have been made - and court officials have emphasised that only the most senior leaders will be tried - people are less reticent, she said.
Around a third of the forum participants Friday had recently traveled to Tuol Sleng, the Killing Fields and the ECCC complex. What they saw might have also prompted them to engage more meaningfully at the forum, Theary Seng said.
"They may have started to think, ‘Wow, all these things we thought were conspiracies maybe actually happened,'" she said.
And that process led to more questions. "Why would the Khmer Rouge kill their own people?" forum participants wanted to know. "Would the American bombings be considered genocide as well?"
After officials gave their answers, Theary Seng asked the audience what they thought when they heard the term Khmer Rouge. In the rest of the world, people are scared of the Khmer Rouge, she explained. "It's not a sweet word, not a good term."
Ken, who was a soldier for the movement, said he knew some people thought the Khmer Rouge "have red eyes and eat human flesh".
But he said, in his experience, the Khmer Rouge tried to develop the country and were guilty only of a flawed ideology, not genocide.
"I want those who are scared of the Khmer Rouge to try to understand the Khmer Rouge," he said.