In a modest wooden home near the Thai border in Battambang province’s Kamrieng district, former high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadre and war crimes suspect Ta An lies on a mat, an empty intravenous drip bag dangling from the thatched roof.
Now aged 78, Ta An faces accusations including genocide and crimes against humanity for presiding over widespread executions and purges in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Case 004, according to leaked court documents cited in international media outlets.
Dressed in a heavy green army coat that covered a dusty yellow button-down shirt and blue athletic shorts, the now-frail figure evoked disquieting sympathy as he spoke while lying on his back, at times clutching a fleece blanket with cartoon characters on it, too feeble to sit upright.
When he vomited into a pot, his cousin rubbed his back. His wife, Prom Ra, served a bowl of plain steamed rice to ease his stomach.
“My father, he gets sick a lot. One time, he fainted at the farm, and if the villagers had not seen him, he would have passed away already,” his son Mao Phorb said.
“I’m very worried about him. He’s too old, and the court wants to take him away. I want to live with him during his old age.”
But Ta An revealed a vitality beneath his age and sickness as he spoke, often passionately, about his past. He folded his hands across his chest, but could barely keep them still.
If the court comes to take me... or the King of all devils [comes for me], I will not be afraid, because I am an honest person
“If the court comes to take me to the court, or the King of all devils [comes for me], I will not be afraid, because I am an honest person,” he said.
Ta An came up through the ranks of the Khmer Rouge in Ta Mok’s notoriously brutal Southwest Zone, which covered Kandal, Kampot and parts of Kampong Speu and Takeo provinces. Ta Mok, who he called “my first boss”, ruled over what was considered a “model” region for the rest of the country.
Ta An worked under Ta Mok in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district, roughly 20 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. In early 1977, he was transferred to the Central Zone – Kampong Thom and parts of Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces – where he became secretary of Region 41 and second-in-command to zone secretary Ke Pauk.
A wave of executions from the top to the bottom of the Khmer Rouge ranks and a policy designed to eliminate Cham Muslims was carried out in 1977-78 in the Central Zone. Ke Pauk is believed to be the only cadre based there prior to the purge to have survived the killings.
From his sick bed, Ta An admitted that the Khmer Rouge purged their own ranks, but claimed he was “not responsible for the killings”. Instead, he implicated his superior, Ke Pauk, who was never arrested and died in 2002.
“All those people were killed already before I went to work there,” he said. “I just went to Kampong Cham in 1977, and everything was finished. The reason they took me there was because they said all the officials there have betrayed Angkar [the party], so they took me to work with Ke Pauk. So how can I know? They killed before I arrived.”
But Ta An’s alleged role in the Khmer Rouge may shed more light on the regime’s brutal policies and internal power struggles than he is willing to let on.
The purges may have begun in late 1976, before Ta An arrived, but they gained pace once he and other cadres from the Southwest zone swept into the area, according to Khmer Rouge historian Ben Kiernan.
Ta An said that when he arrived in Kampong Cham, “only Ke Pauk and Mr Chhor” were there, most likely referring to Ke Pauk’s deputy at the time, Chhor Chhen, alias Sreng.
Chhor Chhen was sent to S-21 on February 18, 1977, and later executed. He was followed by dozens of other officials as Ke Pauk sought to consolidate power in the zone.
Between mid-February and the end of April, 112 civilian officials from the zone were sent to Tuol Sleng prison, Kiernan wrote. Thirty-five “important culprits” from the zone party branch were sent to S-21 and executed in 1977.
The scope of killings in the Central Zone is immense. The tribunal’s co-investigating judges, who are charged with sending a case to trial or dismissing it, recently revealed a list of 12 crime sites in the Central Zone related to the case, including prisons, killing fields and forced labour projects.
Between 145,690 and 254,690 people are estimated to have been killed at just seven of the sites, according to data from a mass-grave mapping project conducted by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.
Nevertheless, Ta An said he “never killed any people” except during the war against the right-wing Lon Nol regime.
Ta An argued further that the Khmer Rouge tribunal was ignoring what preceded Pol Pot’s reign, claiming that he joined the party out of devotion to King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
He viewed himself as merely responding to Sihanouk’s call, who announced an alliance with the Khmer Rouge after he was deposed by Lon Nol in the 1970 coup d’état.
“The court that has taken some Khmer Rouge people to be detained in prison is very unjust because they did not find out clearly what caused the civil war,” he said.
“Where is the balance? The King, who we respected as much as the Buddha, lost power. So, we are Khmer citizens. I could not ignore that, I don’t care about the court’s accusations. What I did was just to protect the King’s power. So where is the justice for me?”
Unlike the Khmer Rouge leaders indicted in the first two cases at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, which is charged with prosecuting “senior leaders” of Pol Pot’s regime and those “most responsible” for its crimes from 1975-79, Ta An is not widely-known.
Trials against him and four other suspects in Cases 003 and 004 at the tribunal face opposition from Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang and the Cambodian government. Both argue that prosecutions of so-called “mid-level” cadre could provoke political instability or plunge the Kingdom back into civil war.
The co-investigating judges, meanwhile, have said there are “serious doubts” as to whether Ta An and the other suspects in Case 004 fall within the court’s jurisdiction, a move observers have viewed as a precursor to the case’s dismissal.
Others have argued that failing to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for perhaps tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of executions and deaths would be a vast injustice to Cambodian victims.
“Case 004 is significant because it addresses tremendously grave crimes that fall outside the scope of Case 002 and would provide the public a more accurate picture of how criminal leadership policies were executed on the ground,” said Anne Heindel, a legal advisor at DC-Cam.
The two suspects joining Ta An in Case 004, Im Chaem and Ta Tith, also face war crimes accusations for their alleged roles in purges and executions in the Northwest Zone.
Southeast of Battambang city, on a muddy road that winds through several shaded villages and across fields of rice paddies punctured by palm trees, lies Wat Samdech, named as a crime site in Case 004 by judges at the tribunal.
The refurbished pagoda in Sangke district boasts the names of prominent benefactors from the region, including Interior Minister Sar Kheng, on the wall of a new building.
Wat Samdech is one of 17 Case 004 crime sites named by the judges in the Northwest Zone, which included Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Pursat provinces.
The girls selling Phnom Penh beer and instant soup at the pagoda’s entrance do not know how Wat Samdech was used by the Khmer Rouge, they say.
But not far down the road from the pagoda, which lies in Tapon commune’s Samdech village, two women resting on a raised wooden bed by the side of the road know what happened. They lived here during the Khmer Rouge.
“I don’t know how many they killed, but there was a long line and they killed them one by one and pushed them into the pond,” 67-year-old Chin said.
If the suspects do not fall within the court’s jurisdiction... the inconsistency would be irreconcilable
The prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs. “I was afraid they would kill me, too,” she said.
Sang, a 76-year-old woman with graying, wind-swept hair, who donned a brightly-coloured plaid krama, said the prisoners at Wat Samdech were mostly “new people” not from the village – those who were forced from their homes in the cities or “tainted” by education, capitalism, foreign influence or the old regime.
The Khmer Rouge cadres at the pagoda-turned-prison had guns, they said, but used the metal axle from an ox-cart to bludgeon their victims before dumping their bodies into a pond, which was later filled in. An adjacent puddle, now boasting water lilies and lotuses beneath a rickety wooden dock, was kept free of bodies; it was used for drinking water.
Chin said Wat Samdech’s main building was “filled with blood” – smeared across the walls and the floor – when she saw the inside after the Khmer Rouge fell. Piles of bones lay near the pagoda.
Chin said she still feels fear when she thinks about what she saw at the pagoda down the street. She and Sang provided only their given names, saying they said they were afraid to talk because the Khmer Rouge might hunt them down and kill them.
They also said – after a brief hesitation and exchange of looks – that no cadres lived in the area anymore. These women, with their wide, mysterious smiles, also worried that the court would come to take them away. “I’m afraid to go to jail,” Chin said.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 people were killed at Wat Samdech, according to DC-Cam. A small stupa, bearing a glass case filled with the bones and skulls of only a few of the dead, lies near the pond in their memory.
M’lee Lang, whose chest bears tattoos beneath a dark orange robe, became a monk at Wat Samdech nine years ago. He said he has yet to see any court officials come to the pagoda to investigate.
A Lon Nol soldier during the civil war, M’lee Lang, 73, was ordered to fashion knives in a factory in Ek Phnom district’s Prek Norint commune under the Khmer Rouge. He came to Samdech village after the regime’s fall, and saw “a lot of bones” in pits next to the pagoda.
“I was so sad,” he said. “The court should punish [Khmer Rouge leaders] to 10 to 20 years at least, because a lot of people were killed. If not, then all survivors are without hope.”
But when asked if the court should have more trials, including for those potentially responsible for the executions at Wat Samdech, he said “five” is enough, referring to Duch, the head of Tuol Sleng who was convicted in the court’s first case last year, and the four leaders who stand accused in the court’s second case: Brother No 2 Nuon Chea, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, head of state Khieu Samphan and Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith.
M’lee Lang said he had seen enough “revenge” already.
“The Khmer Rouge district governor was killed by local people in revenge [for killing their own families] after 1979,” he said, adding that other cadres were killed during the 80s.
Between 50,630 and 64,863 people were killed at 11 of the Northwest Zone Case 004 sites named by the tribunal’s judges, according data from DC-Cam. A total body count in 19 out of 30 sites in the case for which DC-Cam has data would range from 201,320 to 336,553.
Duch was convicted in the tribunal’s first case of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions last year for his role in the killings of at least 12,272 people as chief of S-21.
Heindel, of DC-Cam, said Duch’s role in the party hierarchy was “no higher” then the five suspects in Cases 003 and 004. “The gravity of his alleged crimes was no greater. If the suspects do not fall within the court’s jurisdiction as those ‘most responsible,’ the inconsistency would be irreconcilable,” Heindel said.
“If Cases 003 and 004 are dropped on the spurious basis that the suspects are neither ‘senior leaders’ nor ‘most responsible,’ the message many Cambodians will take away is that only the top most leaders shoulder blame,” she said.
“Perversely, instead of providing accountability for Khmer Rouge crimes, the [tribunal] would exonerate nearly everyone involved.”