Meas Mut hung in a shaded hammock at his expansive, secluded home in Battambang province’s Samlot district, wearing only drawers and a white short-sleeve shirt, a well-worn book of Buddhist teachings in his hands.
The former Khmer Rouge navy commander, now 72, sat up to accept the greeting that had pierced the languor of his mid-morning. He pulled a pair of olive-green trousers off the wooden floorboards, buckled his belt and gestured toward a thick, polished wooden table with high-backed chairs.
Meas Mut, who has been named by activists and in media reports as a suspect in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s third case, appeared agitated by allegations he had heard against him, but defiant nonetheless.
Wrapping a thick wad of tobacco into green tree leaves, he demanded to know what evidence existed against him and insisted that his prosecution would reignite Khmer Rouge resistance.
“If the five of us flee into the jungle, how many people will follow us?” he said, referring to suspects in cases 003 and 004.
After his defection to the government, Meas Mut became deputy commander of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Region 5, headquartered in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Samlot. He said legal action against him would rouse old sentiments among the former cadres who had been integrated into the army.
“Don’t try to remind us of the past,” he said. “The civil war can happen again. That is the reason why the government must choose to protect the nation – or follow some foreigners.”
Meas Mut criticised the court, arguing that it should hold the United States to account for its illegal, eight-year bombing campaign in Cambodia. Otherwise, the tribunal was merely a ruse in the service of foreign interests, an attempt by the US to avenge its original failure to defeat the Khmer Rouge.
“What the [tribunal] did is because the Americans want revenge against the Khmer Rouge who beat them during the fighting of the past,” he said. “Even though I’m old ... if they come to arrest me, we will not allow them to. We will go to the jungle and fight back.”
Rising through the ranks Meas Mut said he joined the Khmer Rouge to protect the country from foreign threats after the 1970 coup of the US-backed Lon Nol regime, which deposed King Father Norodom Sihanouk and pitched Cambodia into civil war.
“I did not create the war,” he said. “I am a victim that was forced to join the war.”
In Takeo province’s Tram Kak district, Meas Mut married Khom, the oldest daughter of the infamous Southwest Zone secretary Ta Mok, according to historian Ben Kiernan.
Kiernan claims that Meas Mut and Khom introduced communal eating in Tram Kak, Cambodia’s most “ideologically advanced” district, as early as May 1973.
Meas Mut rose to party secretary of the district and then deputy secretary of Region 13, which covered the southern half of Takeo province, including Tram Kak, Traing, Kiri Vong and Koh Andet districts.
Khom replaced Meas Mut as district secretary in 1975 until her death by illness in 1977.
In 1975, Meas Mut retained command of the 3rd Southwest division. He became party secretary of Sihanoukville and commander of the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea’s Centre Division 164, which included control over the navy.
In a statement in May, international co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley, revealed that the prosecution’s submission in Case 003 included requests into purges in the East, Central and New North Zones, as well as such crime sites as: S-21 and S-22, Wat Eng Tea Nhien security centre in Sihanoukville, the Stung Hav rock quarry forced labour site in Preah Sihanouk province, security centres in Ratanakkiri province and the capture of foreign nationals off the coast of Cambodia and their illegal detention, transfer to S-21 or murder.
The alleged crimes included murder, extermination, torture, unlawful imprisonment, enslavement and persecution.
The RAK was responsible for both external and internal security, the latter of which included “smashing” spies and “internal enemies” within military and party ranks, according to a July 1975 directive cited in the Case 002 Closing Order.
The army itself saw heavy internal purges. At least 5,600 RAK soldiers were sent to S-21, according to the tribunal’s Case 001 judgment. A military report sent from Meas Mut’s Division 164 to Brother No 2 Nuon Chea and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, cited in the Case 002 Closing Order, states that 120 Vietnamese had been detained and shot over a three day period in 1978.
Meas Mut denied involvement in any killings, and said whatever he had done was justified by his responsibility to defend the country against foreign enemies.
“Do they have evidence to accuse me, or not?” he said. Meas Mut asked if the evidence was the bones in Cambodia’s killing fields, and if so, he wondered how the court could determine whether the bones belonged to foreigners killed on Cambodian soil, Cambodians killed by Vietnam, or those killed from the American bombing campaign.
“They should find the real evidence in order to accuse me.”
At peace “I do not feed even one dog for protection,” Meas Mut said. “If I did wrong, I would not be able to sleep because maybe somebody would throw a stone at me or kill me with a knife. But I am living safely.”
With the tribunal expected to dismiss its investigations into cases 003 and 004 due to an alleged lack of jurisdiction, it appears likely that Meas Mut will be able to continue living undisturbed, reading Buddhist teachings in his hammock.
Prosecutions in both cases are opposed by the Cambodian government and national prosecutor Chea Leang. Investigating judges have closed their investigation into Case 003, rejected requests by Cayley for further action in the case, and stated that there were “serious doubts” whether the suspects in Case 004 were within the court’s jurisdiction.
These are welcome signs for Meas Mut. A pagoda he began building in 1999 is nearing completion. Although Buddhism was abolished under the Khmer Rouge, he said, its spirit “remained in the Cambodian mind”.
“One life is not alone, so we have to have a good relationship with other people,” he said. “One main thing that all people who live in this world need is happiness ... If you give someone happiness, other people will give you happiness in return.”