Although Khieu Samphan’s defence lawyers called Chau Sokoun to speak of their client’s good character, the testimony of the Cambodia-born Paris resident at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday offered little information about the former head of state.
What it did offer, via video call from Paris, was a peek into the mindset of a cohort of Cambodians who – like Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary a decade and a half before them – came to study in France in the late 1960s and developed their political ideals there.
While studying economics in Paris, Sokoun joined a Cambodian student group that saw the Khmer Rouge as the embodiment of their hopes.
“They meant to have justice in society between the powerless and the powerful,” said Sokoun, who continued to believe in the Khmer Rouge all the way through its time in power, despite receiving almost no information from Cambodia.
Sokoun’s initial support for the Khmer Rouge-Sihanouk alliance against Lon Nol was “easy to understand”.
“The toppling of Samdech Sihanouk was illegal,” he said.
His group learned about the Khmer Rouge resistance from the front’s own radio broadcasts and from reports by Chinese news agency Xinhua. In 1974, they were “delighted” to have the chance to meet Samphan when he visited Romania.
Sokoun had long believed Samphan was one of a “few people concentrated on finding social justice in Cambodia”.
The 1974 meeting strengthened this favourable impression, which remains, he said.
Samphan talked at the meeting about the need to win the war quickly and rebuild the country.
Hoping to help, Sokoun was one of many Cambodians in Paris who, despite knowing almost nothing about events in Cambodia, sought repatriation after the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975. He was not invited to because his wife had just given birth.
Asked if the lack of information leaving Cambodia had surprised him, Sokoun responded: “I was suspicious, but I understood at that time that immediately after the victory was won in 1975, these people had to be bombarded or overwhelmed by a lot of tasks – that they were too busy concentrating on rebuilding the country to concentrate on the outside world.”
After co-prosecutor Keith Raynor confronted Sokoun with statements, including from Samphan himself, that suggested the accused had been involved in ordering the “smashing” of enemies, Sokoun said: “He has always been a person who earns my respect.
“To me, there is no evidence indicating that he was a violent person.”