Forgiving and forgetting

Former navy chief of the Khmer Rouge, Meas Muth
Former navy chief of the Khmer Rouge, Meas Muth, reads the newspaper at his house yesterday in Battambang province. Heng Chivoan

Forgiving and forgetting

Once a senior figure in Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime, former navy chief Meas Muth, who was charged last week with war crimes and crimes against humanity, claims to have found forgiveness through religion.

Muth, who faces charges of “murder, extermination, enslavement, persecution on political and ethnic grounds, and other inhumane acts”, now enjoys a reputation in his home village as a kindly father who will do anything to help his fellow man.

Faced with increasing health problems, the 77-year-old spends much of his time on his sprawling estate in Battambang province’s Ta Sanh village.

Currently in the process of building a pagoda on the grounds of his home, Muth sees religion as a means of escaping his notorious past.

“In about 23 years' time, I will have lived for a century, so what I am worried about recently is finding the money to finish the pagoda construction, and at noon [every day] I am trying to read the Buddha’s book and think about the Buddha’s words,” he said yesterday.

Now better associated among his neighbours with philanthropy than mass murder, Muth says most recently he sold his own truck to purchase materials that are being used to build a hall for local monks. Sitting on a hammock in a small outhouse that rests in the shadow of his large wooden home, Muth explained that Buddha’s teachings have taught him to “forgive everything”.

“Before, I was angry with the Americans for throwing bombs on my head; I was so angry. But now I have found happiness, I forgive all,” he said.

With charges laid against him last Tuesday by Khmer Rouge tribunal international co-investigating judge Mark Harmon, Muth could soon be brought face-to-face with the past he is trying to evade.

While espousing his forgiveness of others, Muth, who is accused of killing foreigners captured in Cambodian waters and purging his own soldiers, had little to say about his own crimes.

“I decided to stop talking about the ECCC or anything to do with the Khmer Rouge,” he said bluntly.

“I used to record my voice on tape to describe everything about me but now … I have decided to stop talking about this, because I understand about what the court is doing,” he said. “If I speak out or don’t speak out, it’s meaningless; all the accusations are not true, so what they’re doing is just revenge for what they lost during the Lon Nol regime.”

Local villagers and monks, who have become close with the former Khmer Rouge leader, were also reluctant to speak about his past, and said Muth’s age was reason enough for his crimes to be forgiven.

Schoolchildren cycle past one of Meas Muth’s community projects
Schoolchildren cycle past one of Meas Muth’s community projects yesterday in Battambang province’s Ta Sanh village. Heng Chivoan

“If we’re talking about the law, they have to sentence him, but if we think about morals, they shouldn’t, because he is old,” said a villager, who gave his name only as Rorn and who works with Muth planting cassava.

People in the local community, he added, regard Muth as a father because “he manages everything for people here. He has provided farmland, land for housing, [and] pagodas for the people. He is a very good person and people love him.”

Another villager, who declined to give her name, said she feared the impact Muth’s arrest would have on the community.

“If he’s gone, will villagers here have farmland? Will villagers here have a good standard of living? Will villagers have a pagoda?” she asked, adding that seeing Muth at the pagoda every day showed he deserved redemption. “He is [a] very good man. Please do let us know if the court is going to arrest him,” she said.

Samlot district’s deputy chief monk, 83-year-old Prey Tann, echoed the villager’s concerns.

According to Tann, Muth has constructed four pagodas in the district, and, without him, he fears construction on the latest one may remain incomplete.

“I think if the government arrests him and brings [him] for sentencing in Phnom Penh, Tasanh Chas pagoda will not get completed, because it’s only him that tries to construct this pagoda,” he said.

For now, details of whether Muth will be arrested remain unclear, particularly given the strident government opposition to the cases. On the day the tribunal announced the charges, court legal communications officer Lars Olsen said “it has not been possible, within a reasonable time, to get any arrest warrants executed”.

Heather Ryan, a court monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said that if the investigating judge issues an arrest warrant, the judicial police have an obligation to carry it out.

But Olsen would not confirm yesterday whether there were plans to arrest Muth, citing confidentiality.

Meanwhile, Muth says he doesn’t want to know about the charges. “Recently, I am pretending to be a deaf person; I don’t want to hear about the ECCC.”

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