Interviewing A Khmer Rouge Police Chief in Cambodia.
Above Photo: Boy punished, Khmer Rouge Crucifixion style, for stealing food in a Khmer Rouge refugee camp. The caption read: “Before this he’d been beaten and would have been killed had third parties not been present in the camp.” (© unknown)
Note: In this article I have used many examples of Khmer Rouge cruelty. In fairness to the former Khmer Rouge official I interview below, he had nothing to do with anything specifically depicted in these images, which are for illustration only.
I had come to Kosa Peak Village in Ratanakiri Province because I wanted to visit what remained of former Khmer Rouge sites and sights lying close to the Vietnamese border. This was the Khmer Rouge’s former jungle heartland, and it’s also where I set my Vietnam War/Khmer Rouge/Backpacker crossover novel, BACK.
Having visited a Khmer Rouge dam and an unexcavated killing pit near the village (see links below), we walked back to the village and I asked my guide would it be possible to meet one of the former Khmer Rouge officials who still lived there.
Much to my surprise, it was possible, and after a short wait I was conducted to a large wooden house built on stilts, beneath which, at an old school desk, sat a small, dark-haired, still-young looking man, who was the new Village Head.
I noticed my local guide had disappeared. He’d looked fearful when I’d last seen him.
Through my interpreter, I politely talked to the village head for a while about the village, as I thought we were working up to ask his permission to talk to one of the former Khmer Rouge men, until the penny finally dropped. HE was one of them. And that was why my guide had suddenly vanished.
Born in a nearby village, sixty year-old Mr. Nin Noy had only recently been selected as the Village Chief of Kosa Peak, but during the time of the Khmer Rouge, from 1977 until 1979, he’d also been the Chief of Police for this same village and two others nearby, when he was in his early twenties.
Once I was over my surprise, we started with some general questions about the village back then. He said it had been laid out in two long rows of houses, each occupied by two or three families. There were only members of the ethnic minorities in the village, and no outsiders from the depopulated towns and cities around Cambodia, presumably because it was too far to transport them.
He said they were difficult times. The Khmer Rouge had a Plan, and he took orders from the higher-ups. If he’d disagreed, or had failed to carry out his orders, he too would have been killed, and he was in constant fear of these higher officials.
I asked whether there had been any one moment when he’d realized the popular communist resistance movement the Khmer Rouge had been, when fighting against the American-backed Lon Nol government, had turned into a crazed genocidal regime murdering its own people. He was evasive on that point, as on many others, and throughout the interview he chose his words carefully, as indeed did I in the framing of my questions, as we maneuvered around the Khmer Rouge Killing Field that seemed to be separating us.
He said Pol Pot’s plan didn’t involve killing Cambodians, but China had a plan that did, and insisted it was carried out by Pol Pot. This kind of revisionist Khmer Rouge bullshit history was frequently spouted at me by Cambodians who clearly have difficulty with the idea that the Khmer Rouge was a Cambodian organization that mass-murdered its own people.
He said Pol Pot had killed many Chinese and Vietnamese in Cambodia. “And Cambodians…” I added, determined to challenge this attempt to distort Khmer Rouge atrocities.
I asked did he know Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge at that time, as people, especially in the south of Cambodia and Phnom Penh, had claimed they had no idea who Pol Pot was until after the war.
Mr Nin Noy said Pol Pot was well known in the East as he had commanded the fighters in that region, so everyone knew he led the Khmer Rouge.
At one point in the conversation, I was suddenly struck by how odd it was to be talking about Cambodian history and the events surrounding the Khmer Rouge regime with a former Police Chief as we sat in the shade of his house, at a low school desk, below a sign that read, “Together, we promote the protection and safety of children both at school and in the community,” especially as the Khmer Rouge had killed anyone who was educated, and they had also abolished schools.
I then asked about his role in the Khmer Rouge.
He said every commune police chief had to choose ten people to kill other villagers. He had to select these ten people in his villages, but he had never killed anyone himself, or ordered anyone to be killed on his own whim; he had just passed on the orders from more senior officials.
Nor did he have any knowledge of what might lie below the mud in the unexcavated killing pit I’d just visited in the rice field.
I expected no less.
I asked did he ever look back on what he’d done in the Khmer Rouge with regret. For the first time in the interview he looked sad, his eyes filled with tears and he said “Yes. Very sad when I remember that difficult time.”
Mr Nin Noy brightened considerably when I moved away from what he had or hadn’t done as a police chief during the Khmer Rouge period, and got onto what it was like fighting with the Khmer Rouge in the jungle against the US-backed forces of Lon Nol in the 1970s. He said Lon Nol’s fighters were poorly-trained, lazy and unreliable, and would often surrender or run away if attacked.
The Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol and American bombing.
He laughed as he remembered an incident when the Cambodian government army came up the nearby Sesan River on boats. They were ambushed and soundly beaten by the Khmer Rouge and, shortly afterwards, the government withdrew its troops from Ratanakiri Province, leaving it to the Khmer Rouge.
I asked his opinion on a topic which continues to divide war scholars even today. Did the US covert bombing campaign against Eastern Cambodia significantly swell the ranks of the Khmer Rouge?
Mr Nin Noy said the American bombing of the eastern jungle definitely allowed the Khmer Rouge to recruit more fighters, but the deposing of Prince Sihanouk by Lon Nol’s US-backed coup gave the Khmer Rouge all the ammunition they needed for recruitment and motivation, as Prince Sihanouk was well loved by the Cambodian people, including the Khmer Rouge at that time. “Nobody but America supported Lon Nol,” he said.
The American bombing of Eastern Cambodia was terrifying. The jungle would shake as many large bombs fell. “Many of them did not explode,” he said. They still have problems with unexploded cluster bombs all over Ratanakiri Province.
He said a large quantity of defoliants was also dropped on the jungle to expose the Sihanouk Trail (interestingly, more commonly called the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ by modern Cambodians).
I asked did he ever encounter US soldiers in the Cambodian jungle, thinking of Special Forces operatives like Jim Bolen’s SOG teams that frequently infiltrated the same jungles where we were now sitting. He replied, “No. I never saw American soldiers. Just their planes, helicopters – and their bombs.”
At the end of our conversation, I was surprised when the issue of a payment or ‘a tip’ came up.
I brushed it of completely. There was no fucking way I was going to allow a Khmer Rouge official to profit from his time in that genocidal organisation, even though he’d apparently done ‘nothing wrong’ during his completely innocent period as a Khmer Rouge Police Chief.
On the way down the Sesan River as we headed back from the village, I sat in the boat quietly reflecting on what I’d seen and heard that day. It had been an extremely thought-provoking conversation with Mr Nin Noy.
As we headed back through the jungle at dusk, we stopped to watched a spectacular sunset mirrored in a small lake containing dead trees, before continuing through a now-damp, cool jungle which was growing rapidly dark. There were no electric lights in the few houses we saw, just candles and wood fires burning for cooking and warmth.
In Cambodia, evil always seems closer at night, and as we rode through the dark jungle I wondered whether all the perpetrators of one of the greatest evils ever inflicted on a modern country would one day be held accountable for their actions.
Unfortunately, I doubt it. But they should.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
A Khmer Rouge-Built Dam in the same village, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/general-news/the-remains-of-a-khmer-rouge-dam-built-by-slave-labour-in-eastern-cambodia/
An Unexcavated Killing Pit in the same village, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/visiting-an-unexcavated-khmer-rouge-killing-pit-in-cambodia/