That the Khmer Rouge system of justice – as exemplified in brutal security centres like the infamous S-21 – was notoriously harsh is well known, but what is less well known is that at times it seemed so even to Khmer Rouge stalwarts like ex-regiment commander Oung Ren.
According to Ren, the draconian measures put in place by the ultra-Maoist Democratic Kampuchea regime were so unbelievable that he himself once intervened in the case of some villagers who said their children had been caught stealing.
“After I received the information, and upon [the division commander’s] return from the field, he came to my place, and during the time that we were talking, the issue came up that the people’s children had been arrested for stealing potatoes,” Ren said.
“My request to him was to release them for these minor offences,” he went on. “He told me that he would consult with the upper echelon. Two or three days later those people were released, and I met them in front of my house, and they came to thank me.”
But Ren was more reluctant to discuss the role he may have played in sending people to be punished than he was in discussing his role arguing for clemency.
A report to the upper echelon read in court, and purportedly bearing Ren’s name, stated he and other soldiers were “chasing” after people destined for re-education at the work site at Prey Sar. Ren, however, maintained that he was simply passing information up the food chain.
“In fact, I myself never made any report or request myself to Duch for the removal of any person. If something happened in the division, I only had the authority to report to [my commander, and he] would report to the upper echelon,” he said.
“For instance, in a co-operative ... if a plough is broken, did it come to the knowledge of the general staff without the report of the village chief?” he asked rhetorically. “And how would he know without the knowledge of the crew chief? So I reported to[my commander], and he reported to the upper echelon.”