H AING NGOR, shot down in the streets of Los Angeles, has proven as controversial
in death as he was in life.
Victim of an armed robbery gone wrong, a contract killing for business or personal
reasons or a political assassination (even by the Khmer Rouge). The theories are
An Oscar-winning actor, author, tireless campaigner against the Khmer Rouge and,
in more recent years, a businessman, Ngor was in the words of several who knew him
a "complex man."
Whether he had enemies prepared to kill him is open to debate. What is clear is that
there were people in Cambodia, and presumably in the United States, who did not particularly
admire or like him.
On the other side, there are many who speak highly of him. In fact, if Post interviews
of some who knew him are anything to go by, Haing Ngor seemed to be a man who inspired
either great loyalty or distrust.
Most people, however, seemed to respect Haing Ngor's harrowing history, the strength
of his convictions, his contribution to Cambodia and his desire to see that its tragic
past not be forgotten.
There seemed a particular sadness that a man who came to symbolize survival against
the odds - the Pol Pot regime which claimed so many Cambodian lives - should lose
his own decades later at the end of another gun in another country.
Ngor was found dead outside his house in Chinatown district of LA on the night of
Sunday, Feb 25. He had been shot twice, in the chest and leg, according to autopsy
results. His wallet was still on him, according to unconfirmed press reports.
"We're not discounting any possibility. It may be robbery. It may be something
else," said police Lt Al Moen. A four detective police team, including two fluent
in Khmer to hunt down leads in the city's large Cambodian community, are reported
to be investigating.
In Cambodia, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen labeled the killing a "political
act". He said the murder was intimidating to Cambodian politicians, particularly
from his own Cambodian People's Party (CPP), with which Ngor was associated.
Born in Samrong Yong village in Takeo province, Ngor was raised and educated there
and in Phnom Penh, and trained as a doctor.
"I have been many things in life," Ngor began his 1987 autobiography entitled
'A Cambodian Odyssey.'
"But nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am
a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That's who I am."
At the end of the book, he wrote: "The Cambodian holocaust ripped through our
lives, tossing us randomly, leaving none of us the way we were. You can blame who
you want, the outside powers for interfering, or our own internal flaws...but when
the talking is over we still do not know why it had to happen. The country is still
in ruins, millions have died and those of us who survived are not done with our grieving."
Ngor spent the Khmer Rouge years trying to conceal his former profession as a doctor.
He was imprisoned on several occasions, and endured extraordinary beatings and torture
- his little finger was cut off with a machete, he was strung up from trees, had
plastic bags put over his head and was subjected to water torture.
He watched his father be led away to be killed for stealing rice. Without the equipment
or permission to perform surgery, he watched his pregnant wife, and their unborn
Escaping to Thailand after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, he was resettled in the
United States. In 1984 he was cast in the "The Killing Fields", his acting
debut, in a role which mirrored his own traumatic survival story. He played the part
of journalist Dith Pran, imprisoned and tortured under the KR regime.
Ngor later recalled thinking, after he was nominated for an Academy award for his
portrayal: "What is so special about acting in the movies? It is a matter of
taking on a new identity and convincing others of it...I knew that my best performances
were over before I left Cambodia. And the prize there was much greater."
Ngor picked up the Oscar for best supporting actor, and was overnight turned into
a celebrity, perhaps the best-known Cambodian in the world.
He contributed to Cambodian welfare groups in the US, and devoted much of his time
to campaigning against any return of the KR. He also visited and worked with refugees
along the Thai border.
His first return to Cambodia, in 1988, provoked controversy among the exile community
back home, with some strongly anti-communist leaders denouncing any Khmers who had
dealings with the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government.
At the Jakarta peace talks in 1990, when the four Cambodian factions including the
KR, were brought together to talk, Ngor lobbied for the KR to be excluded
While Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot's envoy, was accorded VIP treatment at the conference,
Ngor was refused permission to enter, ironically because he had no "credentials"
to be there.
Ngor remained an ardent opponent of the KR after the signing of the 1991 Paris peace
agreements, which initially envisaged the KR taking part in the 1993 elections.
"Never before in history has a genocidal group been allowed to take part in
elections," Ngor, amazed that the KR had been given the chance to participate
in the peace process, said during a Cambodian visit in 1994.
While certainly a supporter of the CPP (whether he was a registered member is unclear),
Ngor did not strike his acquaintances as a political animal.
One Phnom Penh associate said Ngor's celebrity status had led to offers for him to
be a candidate for political parties but he had spurned them all - even, reportedly,
from Hun Sen.
"He didn't strike me as political at all," the man said.
Several people who knew Ngor were of the opinion he choose to back CPP for two reasons:
they had a common enemy - the Khmer Rouge - and for his own business interests.
One claimed that Ngor had openly said that "if he took Hun Sen's side, it would
put him at a good advantage in investing in Cambodia."
Another said: "My own opinion is he was in that party because it was the right
thing for him at that time and for the sake of his business."
While Ngor will go down in history as a KR survivor and an actor, he was in recent
years mainly a businessman. He regularly visited Cambodia - most recently in early
February - to check on investments.
His business interests included a sawmill, real estate including at one stage a small
Phnom Penh hotel, and a company which had vied to build a hotel in Siem Reap.
Some acquaintances saw the sawmill, in particular, as a questionable business for
a person supposed to symbolize Cambodia's survival and nationalism.
"We all know the problems with the forests," said one.
Others spoke of the difficulties and dangers of doing business in Cambodia, and wondered
whether his dealings had anything to do with his death.
Rumors also abound in Phnom Penh over another side to Haing Ngor - his raising of
money overseas for the Haing Ngor Foundation and other organizations for humanitarian
aid to Cambodia. Ngor has at times helped run an orphanage, build schools and care
for flood victims and the like.
One person said that Ngor's foundation "didn't have much support from the Cambodian
community" in the US but he used his name to raise money from other people there
and in Europe.
All the people the Post spoke to had heard suggestions that not all of that money
made its way to Cambodia, but no-one had any evidence of that.
One long-time friend of Ngor's remarked: "Those who raise money abroad are always
accused of that. If you succeed, there is a lot of jealousy. If you don't, you're
damned as well.
"He was a good Cambodian...he spoke mostly of human rights, of building hospitals
Certainly Ngor's lifestyle seemed not to support the image of a greedy man with lavish
habits. No-one the Post spoke to saw him in that way, though there were typically
varying views on his attitude to money.
"Haing Ngor was a very modest man. He didn't dress up in cufflinks... A lot
of people who met him didn't believe he was Haing Ngor at all, because he was so
modest," said one.
"He was stingy. That's what I remember about him," said another.
The circumstances of Ngor's death remain open to rumor and speculation. One friend
of his was adamant that "it was a contract killing, either political or personal",
but added "I have no evidence of that."
Others discounted the political motive, particularly the suggestion that the long
arm of the Khmer Rouge might have hunted him down.
"For political reasons, he would have been killed years ago," said one.
"After the Killing Fields was successful, he was very active [against the KR].
The answer, according to one friend, could be that "if they had done it a long
time ago, people would have suspected them."
Others, who referred to Ngor's emotional and blunt way of speech, believed a business
or personal dispute, or robbery, was a more likely motive.
"It was a shock. I know he liked to talk emotionally, but he was basically a
decent guy," said one.
Another remarked: "He loved life, the prestige and everything he has. He was
enthusiastic about everything in life. He had been saved from Pol Pot...my god, who
wants to die now?
"He did a lot of good things for Cambodia. He certainly was speaking on behalf
of human rights...whether I liked him personally or not doesn't matter - I'm against