Khmer Rouge killers live in contented retirement as Cambodia struggles with the legacy of Pol Pot.
Many former Khmer Rouge commanders have retired to the villages in the remote jungle surrounding the town of Pailin, in the far west of Cambodia. David Eimer met one of them, as the country prepares for nationwide elections.
Ta An is one of the four most wanted people in Cambodia, according to the UN tribunal set up in 2006 to try those accountable for the estimated 2.2 million people who died during Pol Pot's twisted attempt to remake Cambodia into an agrarian paradise of equality. Pol Pot himself died in 1997, aged 72, while under house arrest by a rival Khmer Rouge faction. Prosecutors believe the fanatical leader oversaw the killing of 150,000 people. They have recommended that he and three other surviving Khmer Rouge commanders, also living in retirement, be charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, murder, torture, rape and religious persecution. "The jurisdiction of the tribunal is such that the senior leaders and those most responsible can be put on trial," said William Smith, an Australian prosecutor at the court in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. "We believe these four people meet that criteria. We wouldn't have put the cases forward to the judges if we didn't believe we couldn't prove them beyond reasonable doubt." But seven years after five of the top Khmer Rouge leadership were formally charged by the tribunal, only one has been convicted: prison chief Duch, who ran Phnom Penh's infamous S-21 camp where around 17,000 people were tortured before being killed, was sentenced to 35 years in 2010 for crimes against humanity. Of the others, one has died, the prosecution of another was abandoned on medical grounds, and only two are still in the process of being tried.
Now, Cambodia is increasingly divided over whether Ta An and his three fellow suspects should be put trial at all. And with the country preparing for national elections next weekend, it has become a partisan debate in which even the victims of the Khmer Rouge are divided by their political allegiances. Chum Mey, 83 and a former mechanic, is one of just three people alive who survived being incarcerated in S-21. He was a prosecution witness at Duch's trial, but is now disillusioned with the snail-like pace of the tribunal, as well the estimated £100 million spent so far on holding the trials. "I feel very disappointed that the tribunal has taken so many years and only Duch has been convicted," said Mr Chum. "If I'd known how much the tribunal would cost, I would have said the money should be spent on developing the country instead." He doesn't think there should be any more trials, despite having seen his wife machine-gunned to death in front of him by the Khmer Rouge. "Once the current cases are finished, the court should stop," he said. "I blame the top leadership, the ones already charged. They were all educated men, yet still they did such bad things. Men like Ta An were also evil, but not as bad. They were just following Pol Pot's orders."
Mr Chum is a supporter of the country's prime minister, Hun Sen, and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Mr Hun himself is an ex-Khmer Rouge battalion commander who has held on to power for 28 years by manipulating electoral rolls and intimidating and imprisoning opposition politicians. He has declared that he wants the UN tribunal – officially set up in conjunction with the Cambodian government – to leave, and insists there will be no more prosecutions. Victims who are not allied with the CPP are less forgiving. "I want the cases against Ta An and the others to go ahead," said Bou Meng, 72, an artist, whose wife was tortured and killed in S-21. "They should be tried for their crimes. If the tribunal won't do it, then the cases should go to the international court in The Hague. Maybe they can give justice to Cambodia." Others too, believe Cambodia's future depends on it confronting its past. "I think the tribunal has had a great impact on Cambodian society," said Peoudara Vanthan, deputy director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which collects evidence of the Khmer Rouge time. "Almost two-thirds of Cambodian people are under 30. The tribunal is a means for them to learn about our history."
Hun Sen, though, is not the only former Khmer Rouge cadre to want a line drawn under the past. Many provincial, district and village chiefs across the country once belonged to the organisation, as did numerous successful businessmen. In the villages and towns in the far west especially, almost every man or woman over the age of 50 was in the Khmer Rouge. All support the CPP and its campaign to bring the trials to an end. "Everyone in this district will vote for Hun Sen and the CPP," said Ta Ran, who spent 20 years in the Khmer Rouge and is the chief of the village where Ta An lives. "Let's forget about the past. I don't want to remember that time." Many people here are actively protective of those who played leading roles in the genocide. When The Sunday Telegraph arrived in the village of Ta Saine in search of Meas Muth, another of the four senior cadres the tribunal would like charged, residents tipped him off about our arrival, allowing him to flee. As the navy commander in southern Cambodia, the 73-year-old was in charge of the division that captured John Dawson Dewhirst, the only Briton to be killed by the Khmer Rouge. After the yacht he was on drifted mistakenly into Cambodian waters in 1978, Mr Dewhirst was sent to S-21, tortured into confessing that he was a CIA agent and then beaten to death. At Mr Meas's imposing three-storey home, surrounded by fields only recently cleared of landmines, his servants said he was in Phnom Penh. Other people gave differing locations. Only when reached by phone did Mr Meas admit he was hiding in the village. "I am here, but I won't meet you," he said. "I want to be left alone."
Pursuing men like Meas Muth and Ta An is regarded as a witch hunt by many former Khmer Rouge. "Lots of people did bad things during that time," said a former bodyguard to Pol Pot now living in Pailin, who asked not to be identified by name. "So why aren't they all being put on trial? I think the tribunal should be shut down. The people are so old it's meaningless." It is the age of those wanted by the tribunal that makes it likely they will escape justice for their crimes. Two of the five leaders charged in 2006 are still involved in the lengthy trial process, but Pol Pot's former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, died in March and his wife, Ieng Thirith, was declared unfit to stand trial on medical grounds. With the decision on whether or not to charge the four further suspects not expected until the end of the year, Ta An and Meas Muth remain free to enjoy their retirement. "All I do is read the Buddhist scriptures now," said Ta An before he ran off into the jungle behind his house. "I just want to live a peaceful, free life."
Labels: Khmer Rouge Tribunal