Phnom Malai, home to Khmer Rouge renegade Ieng Sary and thousands of his followers,
was opened to the glare of more than 130 Cambodian and foreign journalists Sept 9.
Jason Barber, Ker Munthit and Michael Hayes went along for the
A S the giant cargo helicopter lands with a thump, hundreds of children crowd to look
at the flying monster and the strange barang (foreigners) who leap out of it.
A few green-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers wielding sticks try to keep the kids in line,
but soon give up and join them in staring at the new arrivals.
"I'm scared of the helicopter and the barang but I still wanted to see them,"
confides Vuth, aged 10.
"We were told that guests were coming to visit our place here - guests from
many countries," says Mom Samoeun, 34, clutching a baby.
Phnom Malai seems like anywhere else. Wooden shacks and houses in the distance, people
peering back across a stretch of dirt and grass. Three larger buildings - a school
- sit next to the makeshift airstrip.
On the locals' faces is a mix of curiosity and apprehension. Kids scurry away as
camera-toting foreigners venture too near, while adults stand their ground, smiling
Only the old-fashioned green uniforms of the men with guns - symbol of a decades-old
revolutionary movement renowned for its brutality, extremism and refusal to fade
away - show that this is not just any remote place.
Welcome to Phnom Malai, formerly in the heartland of the Khmer Rouge and now home
to the new "movement" of Ieng Sary, former KR chief turned self-proclaimed
lover of democracy and peace.
The hordes of children around the "Malay Secondary School" - as the sign
read in English - set the scene nicely. Today is show-time at Malai.
At times over the next four hours, it is hard to work out who is on show to whom:
the outside world to Phnom Malai, or vice-versa. If they had cameras, the locals
would surely be clicking away as much as their visitors are.
The star of the day, however, is undisputed: Ieng "Clean Hands" Sary, presently
out-of-sight somewhere, preparing to look the world in the eye, declare that he has
done no wrong and that he wants - pending further negotiation - to come in from the
His audience will be more than 130 journalists, shuttled in on helicopters from Battambang
and the Thai border, including for the first time a contingent of Khmer reporters.
Waves and smiles greet reporters as, loaded onto old trucks, they are driven a little
way down a dirt road. Women and children, dressed in all manner of colors, watch
intently. Soldiers stand in their uniforms, t-shirts underneath, boots or sandals
on their feet. Mao-style caps - often with red badges reading "National Army"
pinned to them - are everywhere.
"These guys really exist," says a Khmer reporter, only half-joking. "It's
like going back in time," mutters a foreigner.
NGET Saroeun - who has spent 24 of his 41 years of age in the KR - leans against
his bicycle, squinting through the sunlight with an expressionless face as the trucks
stop at an intersection of roads.
"I'm extremely happy to see peace and national reconciliation," are his
first words when approached.
They are words repeated ad nauseam in the next few hours: Cambodian needs peace and
reconciliation, Pol Pot is a bad man, Ieng Sary a good one. The locals appear well-versed
in Sary's message.
Beneath the rhetoric, though, there seems real excitement, if slight anxiety, and
happiness at the prospect of peace.
"I hoped that we would one day come to this moment," says Saroeun, his
lined face loosening into a grin. "I hoped that one day I could see barang faces
"This is clearly a picture of peace," he adds, waving a hand around him.
Initially hesitant, Saroeun soon warms to questions. A few KR edge closer to hear
what he's saying, while others mingle with other journalists. Saroeun shyly smiles
at a young female reporter and begins to tell how he joined the KR, not entirely
intentionally, at age 18 in 1972.
Living in Kampot, he tried to avoid conscription in Lon Nol's army by becoming a
monk and moving to a KR zone. Before long, the KR disrobed all the monks, turned
them into soldiers and Saroeun ended up with a gun in his hands anyway.
During the 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea regime, he was based in Phnom Penh but maintains
he was only a "rank-and-file" soldier and "didn't know about the killings
in the countryside."
On his thoughts about the regime then, he says: "I don't know what I thought
at that time. I was a rank and file soldier; I couldn't open my mouth."
Had he considered Pol Pot a great leader? "Yes. We convinced ourselves to believe
what was ordered and told to us. We believed he was a great leader, but I don't know
how to explain that."
And now? "He's no longer a great leader." Why? "Because his regime,
his leadership, left people with only misery."
He agrees the Pol Pot regime committed "a crime against humanity." Asked
whether Ieng Sary bears some responsibility, he replies almost apologetically: "I
cannot answer that question." As for Pol Pot, "let the United Nations deal
with Pol Pot."
He adds: "The longer this war goes on, the more misery and disaster face the
Cambodian people. I hate this war."
He laughs when asked if his life has been wasted: "Yes - half my life, anyway."
"We people here think about our children's future. We want more schools. Without
national reconciliation, they will not be built."
He wants his three children to "get a good education, to become doctors or nurses."
For himself, he would like to visit a brother who lives near Phnom Penh but he has
no desire to leave Malai for good.
"I prefer to stay here because I have a plot of land and I can farm."
There is another, most important thing that Saroeun - and most of Malai - covets:
the right to property.
"Before, they [the hardliners] wanted to collectivize everything. After the
breakaway, everyone can now own a car, a motorbike; their own property. By breaking
away, we do not allow this cruel regime to control our lives."
These are sentiments repeated by others. Except for "peace" and "reconciliation",
the most common words in Malai today are "property" and the hated "collectivization."
One young guerrilla later sums it up, saying he is prepared to fight Pol Pot for
three things: "freedom, individual property and, lastly, for peace."
THERE is little sign of poverty. The houses are wooden, some big and well-built.
In the distance are smaller shacks and, presumably, crop fields.
A villager says we are in a part of Malai called Kandal, less than 500m from the
Thai border and neighboring Ieng Sary's home of Coconut Village. Someone asks where
is Phnom Malai, the mountain itself, and a disappointingly small hill is pointed
to. Many thousands of people live in greater Malai; we see only a tiny fraction of
them and their homes. It's likely that where journalists are allowed - an area along
two dirt roads stretching no more than 3km - is more pleasant than others. There
are more schools here than elsewhere in Malai, a villager says.
There is little evidence of war, bar the occasional soldier with a lost leg, arm
or eye - nowhere near as many amputees as there are likely to be in Malai. Fortifications
and trenches said to surround the region cannot be seen; the much-fought over Dead
Tiger Pass is far in the distance.
The dirt roads are solid, a ground-flattening tractor parked at one spot. Motorcycles
and, particularly, bicycles seem the most common transport, though five or six newish
Toyota Kingcabs are seen. A collection of old trucks lies beside a road, one an old
ambulance and another modified to take a heavy weapon. A tank - a war trophy, presumably
- lies in mud. Half a car, stripped bare, and old tractor sit in a wooden and corrugated
Guerrillas squat under trees, AK47s by their sides. A few have more modern guns.
Families sit by their houses, watching journalists file by. A reporter yells that
he wants to stay for lunch, and a family laughs, shouting: "We only have prahok"
(fish paste). Small children run about, the braver ones practicing their "hellos";
dogs roam about. A man in a cowboy hat rides by on a moto. Life seems normal.
Up the road walks a little man in a white business shirt, a beaming smile underneath
his blue golfing hat. Suong Sikeoun, former counselor in the Cambodian Embassy in
China under the Democratic Kampuchea regime, is "very happy, very excited"
Avidly collecting name cards from those he meets, and sipping at a 7UP can, he seems
an ordinary man. It's hard to imagine him with a gun in his hand or words of hate
in his mouth.
He confirms, with a chuckle, that he was married to Frenchwoman Laurence Picq, who
endured the Pol Pot regime before fleeing to France to write a less-than-flattering
book about the KR.
Sikeoun, who stayed behind, reckons that soon only Pol Pot and a few of his closest
henchmen will be left in the KR.
"They are old men and getting close to their deaths. According to Buddhism,
let them die peacefully," he says forgivingly.
Ever the diplomat, Sikeoun knows his job now is to promote Ieng Sary's newly-formed
Democratic National Union Movement (DNUM).
"Our objective is to help all the Cambodian people...to join hands together
to develop Cambodia," he expounds. "This is why we called it a movement,
not a political party. We want to spread this movement in the country as a whole."
"This is the end of the Khmer Rouge era," he declares, with one proviso
- "if the government and our movement can reach an agreement."
Alongside him is Sam San, looking dapper in a gray safari suit, who speaks a smattering
of English but mainly giggles. What's his job? "Foreigners. Hee hee hee hee
hee," he laughs. When will the Ieng Sary press conference be? "Soon. Hee
hee hee hee hee."
Sikeoun, meanwhile, turns toward an Australian journalist and inquires: "If
all this works out, can you help me to move to Australia?"
DOWN the road, Ieng Sary awaits. KR soldiers, a model of polite efficiency, search
everyone before allowing them through a pair of wooden gates. A female KR in a white
blouse is on hand to search women.
Beyond the gates is a circle of wooden buildings: several old, smaller ones with
thatched roofs, a newer small, round meeting place, a kind of 'diner' - with chairs
and tables and a small glass cabinet of goods such as sweets, pens and water - and
a larger wooden conference hall.
Before the press conference, Royal army Generals Nhek Bun Chhay (Funcinpec) and Pol
Saroeun (CPP) go to see Sary, along with the Secretary of State for Information Khieu
Kanharith and Undersecretary Sieng Lapresse.
Saroeun, himself a former KR, and Bun Chhay, a relative of a senior KR officer, seem
on good terms with Sary. Saroeun calls him "uncle". Lapresse requests a
one-to-one interview with Sary; Saroeun and Bun Chhay advise against it, saying that
Sary is tired and busy.
Back in the conference hall, the circus is set to begin. A couple of Thai men in
safari suits try to organize the journalists, as everyone jostles for position behind
a battery of TV cameras. Photographers stand on chairs; other reporters take up places
at the windows and next to loudspeakers outside.
Sary arrives via a back door surrounded by bodyguards. He sits alone at a table of
microphones, his secretary Long Norin standing beside him. In light gray safari suit
and shiny black shoes, eyeglasses on his face, Sary looks well for his 72 years.
He begins reading a typewritten statement, welcoming his "dear foreign friends"
and "dear compatriots".
He denounces Pol Pot, delivering a communist jab by suggesting the KR leader came
from a well-to-do background while he, Ieng Sary, was from a true "peasant"
Sary tells of how he has always been a "moderate" - indeed, he has long
enjoyed "listening to others' opinions, especially those that are different
from mine" - and developed a "love of democracy" at a young age.
He takes the "I didn't do it, Pol Pot did" defense to the crimes of the
DK regime. To prove his innocence of...well, everything...he even has a 10-page paper
from his very own "Research and Documentation Center". The name seems borrowed
from the Documentation Center, the Phnom Penh office of the US-funded genocide investigation
Sary speaks highly of his new movement, DNUM, and of the need for national reconciliation.
"Split forever" from Pol Pot's KR, he is now the chairman of DNUM. As such,
his "people" would like an amnesty for him, so negotiations with the government
Speech delivered, it's question time. Sary and Norin, who acts as translator, control
the process. Sary listens studiously to questions as they are translated, writes
them down and says he will reply later. After a little while, he begins his answers,
replying to each question as he sees fit, sometimes ignoring their main point.
The way he tells it, he's a man who has had fundamental differences with the "murderous
and dictatorial" Pol Pot clique for over 30 years but - until last month - stayed
He has no remorse, for he has done no wrong. He never killed anyone, never ordered
an execution, never even suggested one.
At one point he refers to his wider responsibility as a senior official in Pol Pot's
regime: "Am I still responsible for the past historical events? I think that
as a leader I must take responsibility for the past work."
He goes on to speak of the "framework of decisions": he was often not consulted
and, without his knowledge, events "proceeded according to the current of the
It's the closest he gets to giving any sort of apology to the Cambodian people. It
doesn't seem very close.
At times, it becomes disconcertingly like any other press conference, and he like
any other politician: defensive of the past, self-congratulatory on the present,
looking grave when necessary, happy when not. He smiles, occasionally jokes and laughs,
happily agrees to remove his glasses for the photographers - and generally says little
of great consequence.
All delivered with a trace of arrogance. It is a performance, and he knows his lines.
OUTSIDE, 19-year-old Van Vet stands leaning against a tree, rifle over shoulder,
looking like he hasn't smiled for a very long time and isn't about to begin now.
"Sa Buy" (happy), he murmurs when asked.
"I've been here since I was born. It's normal," he says about life at Malai,
looking unimpressed at the question.
That normality was disturbed, he says, when KR military chiefs Son Sen and Nikon
arrived here two months ago with orders to impose control and collectivize property.
He doesn't know why the orders were given by Pol Pot, but he says the pair turned
up with 1,000 troops.
The soldiers and cadre of Malai held a meeting, he says, and decided to "resist"
"I was worried and I was ready. I was ready to fight for freedom, for individual
property and, lastly, for peace."
Of Son Sen's fighters, he says: "We expelled them. They went without a fight."
And Son Sen and Nikon? "They were angry. They threatened to come back...If they
fight us, we will fight them back."
Vet agrees that he would be pleased not to have to fight, and to give up his gun
to live a "routine life", before he loses interest in the interview and
glances around him, looking for an escape.
Sary's son, Ieng Vuth, stands by himself sipping a can of Fanta. He doesn't want
to answer questions, saying his father is doing the talking. Government army and
KR officers sit in the shade, swapping stories. A foreign journalist - who was with
anti-Vietnamese resistance forces ambushed behind enemy lines in the mid-1980s -
reacquaints himself with one of the KR guerrillas who had rescued him.
Sary, press conference over, walks over with his bodyguards to carry out a final
task: handing over the remains of another foreigner who, years later, was not so
lucky at the hands of the KR.
Matthias Wolf, 32, German tourist, fell into KR clutches in Dec 1994 and was killed,
according to Sary, on the orders of Son Sen. His body was burned twice.
Sary hands over a small plastic bag of what remains of Wolf to Jacques Bekaert, of
the Order of Malta and de facto German Embassy representative. Cameras flash, Sary
A few more smiles, and a wave, and he is whisked off in a black Landcruiser. Party's
over, it's time to leave.
"THIS is not something I should know," says villager Mom Samoeun, on the
way back to the helicopters, when asked what the KR has been fighting for since the
"The only thing I know is to run when there's shelling. I have no idea who is
our enemy and who is not."
Samoeun, who with her soldier husband and two children used to live near Dead Tiger
Pass but fled here three years ago, just wants peace.
"We were told that the people must continue to fight the puppets and the traitors.
They want to go back to the poor farmer agenda, in contrast to Mr Ieng Sary's position.
"The hardliners came here to take our cars and motorcycles. After that, they
accused Ieng Sary of being a traitor. But the people here, they said Ieng Sary is
not a traitor, he is the man who tries to save our people."
Children stand around, watching the helicopters fly in. They appear well-off. Several
have jewelry; a girl wears a locket bearing a photo of the Thai queen. Asked if they
help their families work the fields, they say no.
Mom, 12, wearing love-heart earrings, a pink shirt and jeans, is produced as the
only child who speaks English. She successfully identifies the watch on her wrist
- "clock," she says - but doesn't know the English words for hair, arm
Chun, 14, in a dirty white shirt and a KR cap, is the only one who ventures an answer
about what he would like to be when he grows up.
"A doctor," he says, identifying a profession purged under Pol Pot's reign.
Twelve-year-old Chea, minus one leg, is by himself. Fidgeting with his blue shorts,
he reluctantly explains he stepped on a mine three years ago while going to have
a swim in a lake. He doesn't go to school, he says, but would like to.
Back in the village center, music blares out from loudspeakers usually reserved for
KR broadcasts. It's a love song, written by a woman called Ros Serey Sothea. One
wonders what she would think about her music finding an audience in Malai; she was
killed during the Pol Pot regime.