In what were once the last remaining strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, reactions to yesterday’s life sentences for former senior leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were mixed, as old cadre reflected on questions of responsibility for the crimes of the regime.
About 200 locals turned out to a live screening of the verdict held at a pagoda in Oddar Meanchey’s Anlong Veng district, many of them former cadres who were part of the mass defections to the government from the area in the late 1990s that spelled the death knell of the Cambodian communists.
Before the screening, staff from the Documentation Center of Cambodia took pains to reassure those present that the court was only going after those in positions of responsibility.
After the verdict, the prevailing feeling among former cadre was one of ambiguity – grudgingly accepting the decision and blaming top leaders, while simultaneously defending the regime that they fought for.
Ngin Kheng, 37, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, said he had paid little attention to the court previously, but had been curious as to how the leaders would be sentenced.
“All the leaders, what they did politically was only for their nation,” he said, before assailing them for not taking responsibility for the ghastly consequences of those decisions.
“I was so angry when I listened to the radio and I heard that Khieu Samphan had written in his book that he was not involved [in the crimes] and he wanted to be set free. If he, as a top leader, can say something like this, what about us at the lower level?”
While he would be willing to go to jail for his own actions, Kheng said, leaders should not be abdicating responsibility to those who received their orders.
“I feel hurt by this. When those leaders had the power and we did something wrong, they regarded us as the enemy. But when they lost power, they are suddenly not responsible for what they have done?”
Chin Vorn, who served in the navy under the Lon Nol republic and later joined the Khmer Rouge army, said he backed the verdict, but cautioned that the court should not seek further prosecutions.
“I think the court’s decision is right. They are the leaders, so they have to be responsible for what they have done. They did wrong, so they must stay in jail,” the 60-year-old said.
In Phnom Proek district in Battambang, which was held by the communists until 1996, the verdict was not so readily accepted.
Keo Kha, 52, who served as a nurse from 1977-79 under the Democratic Kampuchea regime, said she felt sympathy for Chea and Samphan.
“I want them to be acquitted and [released] from jail. They have already been in jail for many years. They are already too old. This is my feeling,” she said.
Kong Touch, a 60-year-old farmer who left his position as a Khmer Rouge soldier in 1987 because he did not want to continue to fight the government, took a more nuanced view.
“If we are talking about [the verdict], it is difficult, because there are so many other reasons associated with [what happened] . . . In that period, there was so much trouble . . . It was extremely troubled,” he said, reflecting on the regime that he served for 17 years.
“Good people were also arrested, whether they committed any mistake or not. It was too complicated, so we can’t understand. The society was too crazy… [But] I understand the judges’ reasons.”
REFLECTIONS ON JUSTICE
Tao Chan Sokhom, 57, civil servant
The life sentences against them are not serious enough when compared to the criminal acts they committed during the regime. But I am happy, because the judgement is in accordance with international standards. Ten members of my family died during the regime in Kampong Siem district in Kampong Cham. Every Cambodian person who lived during the Khmer Rouge regime understands how bad it was. I think that the court has done a proper job, and the two leaders of the Khmer Rouge must peacefully accept their verdicts and be satisfied.
Hem Hathsaream, 40, vendor
I think that life in prison is meaningless and a waste of money. [Killing them] would be better. They killed millions of people, but they are old now, therefore life in prison doesn’t impress me. I am too young to remember the KR regime, but members of my family said that my brother-in-law was killed, and my father- in-law was forced to kill himself by running his head into a palm tree in Prey Veng province. Therefore to me, there is no justice and the trial was meaningless. This is only my point of view.
Ros Sidin, 30, entrepreneur
Even though I did not live under the Khmer Rouge regime, I think that life in prison is appropriate enough for me and my family to accept it. It is justice for us. Life in prison is the most serious punishment available, because in Cambodia there is no death sentence. My parents were always telling me about the Khmer Rouge regime, therefore, I knew that many members of my family died during the regime, but I don’t remember exactly how many.
Kong Bora, 57, retired civil servant
As I am Cambodian, I think that the tribunal’s verdict and life sentence against the former Khmer Rouge leaders is good. The court has done a good job and is a model not only for Cambodia but the world. The verdict brings some justice to me and my family and Cambodian people who were the victims of the Pol Pot regime for three years, eight months and 20 days. I suffered during the regime and have been waiting for a long time to see this verdict. As a victim, I am happy to see that the criminal cannot run away from the law. My elder sister, my sister-in-law, my two nephews and other family members were killed during the Khmer Rouge era.
Eam Thuok, 72, vendor
I don't know much about the trial, but if the court sentenced them to life in prison, it is justice to me, as my husband and my four children were killed during the Pol Pot regime when they were being evacuated to Battambang province. I don’t know about others, but for me, [the verdict] is acceptable and I’m happy to see the criminal leaders in prison. In my heart, I wanted them punished so other leaders will dare not commit such crimes against their own people.
REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA AND KEVIN PONNIAH IN ANLONG VENG; AND KOAM CHANRASMEY AND GRIFF TAPPER IN PHNOM PROEK