Japanese photographer built career on KR

Japanese photographer built career on KR


Naoki Mabuchi was one the few foreigners to get close to the Khmer Rouge back in the 70s and along the border in the 80s

Naoki Mabuchi is one of few photographers who has met most senior Khmer Rouge figures - including Nuon Chea and Pol Pot. In fact, he was called upon to identify Pol Pot's corpse in 1998. Despite a lack of formal training - he took an 'Introduction to Journalism' course but received a D grade - Mabuchi left university determined to become a photographer and cover the Vietnam War. Denied a visa to Vietnam, he headed to places the war had spilled over to, first Laos, then Cambodia where he lived from 1972 to 1975. "I took photos and Japanese magazines bought them from me," he said. "Suddenly, with no experience, I became a war photographer." As the only Japanese photographer to cover the fall of Phnom Penh, Mabuchi became a household name in Japan. The professor who gave him the D grade invited him round for tea, "which was nice," he says wryly. Mabuchi - who was born in Tokyo in 1944 -speaks fluent Khmer, and has often been labeled a KR sympathizer, but he says he just wanted to cover the other side of the war. He describes himself as "a kind of leftist but not a Communist." But he would be willing to testify for the defendants at the forthcoming Khmer Rouge Trial "to make it look a bit fairer." Mabuchi spoke to the Post's Cat Barton about being held captive by the Khmer Rouge, his dislike of Ta Mok, and the importance of disciplined soldiers.

What did you do when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975?

I went out and took pictures. When the first Khmer Rouge officers came to Route 5 and I went to see them I asked if I could take their picture. One of them asked what nationality I was and I told him I was Japanese. He said Japan was a good country, and so I had no problem from the beginning. Then Lon Nol officers arrived in a Jeep to surrender - they invited the Khmer Rouge into the city, there was no resistance. They drove into town and I stepped onto the bonnet of the jeep as I was taking pictures. Everyone said "Look at Mabuchi, he's leading the Khmer Rouge into town!" They all said I was a Communist - these were the jokes of my Western colleagues.

How do you feel about being labeled a Khmer Rouge sympathizer?

It's true I had no problem with the Khmer Rouge. I became friends with the Khmer Rouge guarding the French Embassy. They were very disciplined. All the foreign people thought they were capturing us, but they were guarding us from any threat. Every war has its rumors and people were saying that when the Khmer Rouge arrived they would kill all the people, all the Westerners, but really nothing happened, nothing at all in 1975.

Were you ever scared of the Khmer Rouge?

There was one moment when I thought they might kill me. I was surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers, all with their rifles with the safety off. I was tied up, and being searched. They said they were taking me to the office, but when I was led into the room there was a thick layer of dust at the entrance. I realized it was not an office and so I thought they might really shoot me. I said in Khmer "If you do something wrong with me you will break the politics of revolution, you will damage the good politics of revolution." Then the leader told me they were not stealing my money, just checking for weapons. So then I relaxed a little. This was in Poipet in 1976. For the first two or three days I was chained up. They unchained me, but I could not leave the house as there was a guard with an AK-47. So I tried to learn some more Khmer from the guard and we became friends - he gave me his gun and went out to see his friends. I could have run away but I didn't as I wanted to go to Phnom Penh and document the revolution. Staying with the Khmer Rouge didn't change my basic sympathy towards them. I think it was my fault I was held captive - I should not just have turned up at border.

When did you first meet Pol Pot and what was he like?

I was working for ABC TV as a camera man and they arranged an interview with Pol Pot in December 1979. We went just across the border in Anlong Veng. Pol Pot appeared very calm, normal, and a gentleman. He might have been acting, he might really have been different, but he looked like a teacher, nothing extraordinary. But in that kind of official interview you don't talk much, we knew he was hiding information to some extent. ABC was invited as a political leak - the Khmer Rouge wanted to announce Pol Pot was still alive and fighting the Vietnamese invasion. We had to ask about massacres and he said that 60,000 people had died from malaria. I think it was a lie. All the Lon Nol government soldiers must have been executed. But we could not go into details: our interpreter was Ieng Thirith, the wife of Ieng Sary. During the lunch break I told Pol Pot in Khmer I would like to stay in the liberated area and cover the war. He said it was too dangerous, there were so many Vietnamese soldiers all over Cambodia, that I'd be killed. I told him that I was ready to die in Cambodia. Then he smiled and said "When we are ready we will let you go in," and finally after three years the invitation came.

What was it like going back to Cambodia in 1983?

I crossed into Cambodia near Anlong Veng. I had 25 of Ta Mok's troops with me, we were being shot at by Vietnamese but it was not scary, they were very trustworthy soldiers. If you go with a group you have to know they are trustworthy and Ta Mok's soldiers were very good, well educated, well disciplined. Along the border at that time there were three factions. Nate Thayer was with Son Sen's faction. They were lousy soldiers. I thought if I go with them I will be killed someday. Nate went in with them and was attacked by Vietnamese. He almost died. I went with the Khmer Rouge many times to different battlefields and I never had any difficulty. If it was dangerous they would put me behind them. Nate got information later that the Vietnamese were trying to capture me, they didn't want my "Khmer Rouge propaganda" to get out. Nate said the Khmer Rouge lost many soldiers to defend me from Vietnamese - I'm not so sure. In 1983 I met Ta Mok. At that time he had two legs, but to tell you the truth I didn't like him. This was the first time that my illusion about the Khmer Rouge changed, I didn't like Ta Mok. But I interviewed him, I did the first interview, a world exclusive.

You met Pol Pot again in January 1998, what did he say then?

I could talk to him but not much as he was under arrest by Ta Mok. Pol Pot was very ill, he couldn't wake up, he was sleeping all the time, but when I asked if he remembered me, he said yes, we met 19 years ago.

He was very sick, panting, laboured breathing, we were afraid he would die during our interview. He said that Cambodia was strong with Vietnamese to the Adam's apple.

I asked him if he saw anyway to sort this problem and he said there was only one way - if all the Khmer unite and fight against the Vietnamese. I asked him about Hun Sen and he said "Hun Sen is 100% Vietnamese." I told him that if he got well I would go back to see him. But he said to me: "No, I'm finished."

What do you think of the Khmer Rouge Trial?

The 1979 Vietnamese tribunal was a communist tribunal judging other Communists - it was a propaganda play. Now, Pol Pot is dead, Ta Mok is dead. What is the use of trying them? It is a political show - okay if you need it for your propaganda. For the international political scene it is a little too late to do now. I mean, what's the use of judging the past? I don't mean that I don't regret what happened.

Many people died, many people were killed, but it happened. Since 1970 so many people died, even before, even during Sihanouk's time, the B-52s . So many things happened what is the point of trying that one little piece of time?


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