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Khmer Rouge atrocities ‘not a lie’: Deputy PM tells of personal hardships at launch of documentation centre

Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin looks at portraits of Khmer Rouge victims at an opening ceremony for the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Legal Documentation Centre in Phnom Penh yesterday.
Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin looks at portraits of Khmer Rouge victims at an opening ceremony for the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Legal Documentation Centre in Phnom Penh yesterday. Erin Handley

Khmer Rouge atrocities ‘not a lie’: Deputy PM tells of personal hardships at launch of documentation centre

Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin yesterday opened up about the hardship he experienced under the Khmer Rouge, telling students at the inauguration of the Legal Documentation Centre (LDC) yesterday that the Cambodian tragedy was “not a lie”.

The LDC, in the capital’s Phnom Penh Thmey commune, was officially opened yesterday thanks to almost $2.4 million in Japanese funding. The centre will house the reams of documents produced from the decade-long Khmer Rouge tribunal, which has tried and convicted senior leaders Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan.

In his first public appearance in his new role at the helm of the government’s task force on the Khmer Rouge trials, a post previously held by Sok An who passed away in March, Chhin added a personal note to the inauguration.

“I experienced hardship during the Democratic Kampuchea regime of building canals and dams; I experienced hardship as well as killings,” he said.

Chhin, a former editor at a newspaper, said he wrote under the pseudonym “black crow” and managed to hide his real position from the Khmer Rouge by showing them an old student card.

He said he was evacuated from Phnom Penh to the East Zone and saw men drop dead from exhaustion. When the communist militia presented him with a letter and asked him to read it, he sensed a trap, and fooled them by pretending to try to read it upside-down.

He volunteered when cadre needed fish, he said, despite not knowing how to handle a net. Eight others in his unit who couldn’t fish were detained, bound together at the ankles with wooden shackles, and tortured. “I could hear the screams of the people who were being beaten, so I was lucky that at that time I survived,” he said.

After the fall of the regime in 1979, he visited the notorious S-21 prison and found that his father-in-law, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, had been detained there for three months and killed.

“This was the reality under the regime – it is not a play or a show or a performance. I am afraid you think it is a show or a lie, but it is true,” he told the students in the audience. “Some inconsiderate people who lived during the regime could say it was an exaggeration. What I say here is not a political message, it is the truth.”

Khmer Rouge victim Sou Sotheavy speaks in front of her portrait to the press about her horrific experience as a transgender woman under the regime.
Khmer Rouge victim Sou Sotheavy speaks in front of her portrait to the press about her horrific experience as a transgender woman under the regime. Erin Handley

Chhin’s comments follow last week’s closing statements at the tribunal in Case 002/02 against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who repeatedly cited “Vietnamese propaganda” as having distorted Cambodian history – a potential symbolic threat to the ruling party’s claim to legitimacy, which stems from its overthrow of the Khmer Rouge with the help of Vietnam.

Chhin said that 3 million people died during the regime, though more conservative estimates put the figure at 1.7 million, and extended his “most profound gratitude” to Prime Minister Hun Sen “for constantly and strenuously supporting the process of the tribunal”.

That support has been called into question throughout the court proceedings, however. Hun Sen has threatened civil war would ensue if controversial future cases against Meas Muth, Yim Tith and Ao An went ahead. The fate of those cases currently hangs in the balance, with the co-investigating judges considering a stay on proceedings due to a purported lack of funding.

Yesterday’s inauguration of the archives, library and “virtual tribunal” was attended by some of the Khmer Rouge’s most well-known victims, among them Bou Meng, one of only a handful of survivors of S-21, and Sou Sotheavy, a transgender woman who was forced to marry a woman and father a child during the regime.

Speaking at the ceremony, former tribunal media officer Dim Sovannarom said the centre would ensure that even when the court was dissolved, “the past remains”.

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