From the disturbing article in your June 23 - July 6 edition about the fatal effects
of Cambodian Communist experimentation with "traditional medicines" in
the Northeast readers might wrongly infer that the "Chinese" involved were
experts dispatched from the People's Republic of China.
In fact, they were Cambodia-born overseas Chinese, mostly from Phnom Penh, who had
been recruited in the late 1960s to look after senior Cambodian Communist cadre who
were trying to hide out from murderous secret police repression in the capital.
The cadre for whom they cared included the late Yun Yat (the wife of the late Son
Sen) and also Nuon Chea. They were dispatched to the Northeast Zone around 1969,
where they were involved in medical training courses set up by Ieng Thirith (Mrs
They included qualified physicians who had studied at the Chinese hospital in Phnom
Penh. After the 1970 coup, they set up hospitals in the Northeast, which for a time
was under the authority of Son Sen and his wife. During this period, they favoured
the use of "modern medicines", which they hoped to get from China, but
faced opposition in this regard from other, Khmer, cadre.
After the departure of Son Sen and his wife in 1972, the Khmer cadre who oversaw
medical care in the Northeast, Um Neng alias Vâng, who was Zone Deputy Secretary,
insisted on greater emphasis on the use of "traditional medicines", and
even physicians were required to grow plants and produce remedies of this type.
At this time, however, some of the overseas Chinese physicians in the Northeast went
to other Communist-controlled zones, and some were sent to China in 1974 to study
advanced subjects, such as cardiology.
They did not return to Cambodia till 1976. Some went to work at hospitals in Phnom
Penh, but were later purged and executed. As for the senior cadre involved, Um Neng
committed suicide in 1978, and Son Sen and Yun Yat were murdered in 1997.
Of course, Ieng Thirith should be able to shed some light on these matters, and might
possibly carry some responsibility for fatal experiments, though establishing whether
this is the case would require further detailed investigation of the exact sequence
of events and lines of authority.
On the other hand, there is no evidence that Khieu Samphan, or for that matter the
late Hou Youn or Hu Nim, were ever in the Northeast, and therefore no reason to think
that they were involved in the experimentation.
- Steve Heder, London