Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge

Inside the Politics of Nation Building
By Evan Gottesman

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Evan Gottesman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300105134

Chapter One


In February 1979, around the time of his forty-sixth birthday, a small, unassuming peasant named Heng Chi recalled that he had once been a judge. It was a distant memory, clouded by exhaustion and hunger, constant fear, and the half-dead state of mindless slavery. In a sense, it had already been forgotten. "All that time, I pretended that I had been a construction worker," Heng Chi explains. "I told my children to forget their own names." Assigned by the Khmer Rouge to an anonymous and isolated patch of rice fields known as Cooperative 15, he and his family kept their background secret for three years and ten months.

Heng Chi's life vanished on April 17, 1975, the day Khmer Rouge soldiers marched him out of Phnom Penh, along with his wife, their three children, and hundreds of thousands of other confused and terrified Cambodians. For days he and his family walked amid this stream of people, watching what happened around them until a clear picture emerged. As Cambodians were discovering, the revolution intended to eliminate all remnants of the country's political, economic, and cultural life. Judges, teachers, bankers, soldiers, and politicians were subject to execution. In the fury of the moment, only a lucky few realized what was happening before it was too late. Heng Chi was lucky-lucky enough to successfully erase his own identity and invent a new name and a new past. He was prepared-for the rest of his life, for all he knew-to work as a peasant in the rice fields.

Battambang, the northwestern province where Heng Chi and his family had been sent, was one of the last areas of the country to be reached by the Vietnamese forces that swept into Cambodia at the end of December 1978. Planning their retreat to the Thai border, Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadres throughout the province attempted to take as many Cambodian civilians with them as possible. The civilians, in response, seized whatever opportunities the invasion offered to flee. In the confusion, Heng Chi and his wife were separated from their children.

Grief-stricken, weak, and malnourished, they could barely move. Heng Chi's wife was so sick that she could travel no more than a kilometer a day, but there was fighting nearby, and they had no choice but to flee. Days later, they arrived at the first crossroads, a former middle school in neighboring Siem Riep province. Vietnamese soldiers periodically drove by on their way to and from the front. For twenty days Heng Chi and his wife asked for rides to the provincial capital. At night they slept in a field near the school.

It was already March by the time they reached Siem Riep's provincial capital. The town, evacuated by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, now served as a base for the Vietnamese army and a few Cambodians selected by the Vietnamese as provincial officials. Prevented from entering, former residents squatted on the outskirts of the town, where they searched for rice left behind by the Khmer Rouge and sold recently unearthed gold and family jewels for food. Not for several more weeks did Heng Chi and his wife find another set of Vietnamese soldiers to drive them south in the direction of Phnom Penh.

With Phnom Penh also off-limits, they headed to the town of Takmau in Kandal province, just outside the capital. There Heng Chi finally spotted a family member, a cousin, who offered to bring the couple back to his village, where they could settle. For the next year he worked in the rice fields, oblivious to the new regime and its plans. "All I knew was that I'd lost my children," he says.

In March 1980, Heng Chi returned to Phnom Penh to seek medical care for his wife and to find a state job. One of only eight jurists to survive the revolution, he soon found work at the Ministry of Justice. His initial experiences were not encouraging. Serving under a former Khmer Rouge official whose past had earned him a reputation for cruelty, Heng Chi was assigned to explain to a new and largely uneducated corps of state officials the provisions of a communist constitution drafted, in large part, by Vietnamese advisors. Not surprisingly, he remained suspicious of the new regime. Life, at that moment, was defined by small favors-an allocation of rice, a house, physical security-and by despair, conflicting emotions that only deepened when, one day in June, one of Heng Chi's children arrived in Phnom Penh with news of the others' deaths.

The invitation to return to the civil service was, for Heng Chi, as it was for many other educated Cambodians, a sign of relative normalcy. Chaul steung tam bat, chaul srok tam brates, say the Khmer. "Enter a stream; follow its turns. Enter a land; follow the [laws and customs of the] country." As Heng Chi had feared, the ideology to which he was now expected to adhere was not that of the prerevolutionary era. But, in contrast to the Khmer Rouge-whose revolution had been geared to destroying the educated-the new leadership issued a reassuringly familiar promise: support the regime and you shall be rewarded. Cambodia's second revolution, installed by Vietnamese communists, had brought with it a resumption of the traditional arrangement between ruler and technocrats, a relationship of adaptation, co-optation, and perhaps some subtle influence by the technocrats over the direction of the country. The new regime demanded acquiescence to Vietnamese occupation and to communist policies. In return, Heng Chi was offered the chance to teach the minister of justice, the former Khmer Rouge official, the meaning of law.

Many educated Cambodians refused to make these compromises. One young man who would soon choose a different path was Thun Saray. Just a few months short of a degree in economics when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, Saray was unable to hide his education and was sent, along with his brother and his wife, to an "education camp" in the eastern province of Kampong Cham. There he spent ten months engaged in menial labor under the intense supervision of the Khmer Rouge. All students were suspect, and those among them deemed to be the "enemy" were killed. Saray, however, offered no indication of disloyalty and the Khmer Rouge found no evidence against him. Ordered to construct a dirt road, he worked quietly. "The pen of the revolution is the hoe," the Khmer Rouge cadres reminded him. Meanwhile, his wife, who had been released earlier, gave birth. Their daughter was born in a chicken coop without walls and without a roof, "in nature," Saray recalls, "like an animal."

When he was released, Saray was sent to a cooperative three kilometers from his wife and infant daughter. His wife begged the village chief to let her see her husband, giving him her remaining possessions until he relented. Saray's reunion with his wife was a stroke of luck; just a few days later, they were marched north out of Kampong Cham to Kratie province, where they remained for the rest of the Khmer Rouge period. By Saray's reckoning, the trip to Kratie saved their lives. Although his status as a student (as opposed to a member of the civil service) had initially meant the difference between detention and execution, the Khmer Rouge soon launched a furious purge in Kampong Cham in which thousands of Cambodians were killed with little regard to such distinctions.

The fall of Kratie to the Vietnamese army provided Thun Saray and his family the opportunity to leave their cooperative and head for the provincial capital. After a few days' rest, they attempted to return to Phnom Penh but were prevented from entering the city by Vietnamese soldiers. Saray then took the family to Kandal province, where he soon found work at a small district office. For the next three to four months he helped the new regime "educate" local Cambodians on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in exchange for a salary of rice. It was also at the district office that Saray first met Vandy Ka-on, a thirty-six-year-old French-trained sociologist who had survived the Khmer Rouge by feigning mental incapacity. Ka-on was just as suspicious of the new regime as Saray and had not identified himself. It was difficult, however, to remain anonymous. To gain the support of the population, the Vietnamese had permitted a number of prerevolutionary officials to become village chiefs, one of whom, a former army colonel, recognized Vandy Ka-on and set him to work.

In May 1979, Vietnamese and Cambodian officials contacted Ka-on and asked him to participate in a trial for Khmer Rouge leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. Ka-on invited Saray to join him, and despite the misgivings they shared about Cambodia's new leadership, they joined in the one project in which their interests and those of the regime coincided. As surviving intellectuals, Ka-on and Saray understood that they were helping to legitimize a political show trial, and yet they applied themselves to their assignment: drafting what was called the "Investigative Report on the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary Clique's Crimes Against the Phnom Penh Population." Saray interviewed other survivors, collected Khmer Rouge documents, and, three months later, when the tribunal convened, testified. It wasn't much of a trial, he says now, "not in terms of fair procedure." In his own testimony, moreover, Saray was required to parrot the new regime's political line, referring to the prerevolutionary "imperialist, feudal, and bourgeois regimes," to the Khmer Rouge's "long struggle against the American imperialist aggressors," and to the "traitors who sold out our country to the Chinese imperialists." Despite these pressures, Saray, who lost his father, a brother, and all his sister's children to the Khmer Rouge, does not regret his role. "The important thing was to prosecute them," he explains. "They killed so many people."

The trial was Thun Saray's last concession to the new regime. Like tens of thousands of other Cambodians, Saray's two younger brothers responded to the Vietnamese occupation, the imposition of communism, and the threat of conscription by fleeing to the Thai-Cambodian border. Tempted to follow, Saray was ultimately dissuaded by a friend who had made part of the journey and had returned with stories of soldiers and border guards and of bandits willing to cut open a traveler in search of swallowed diamonds. "I'd survived the Khmer Rouge. The most important thing was my life," he recalls. "I had a wife and a child." Living for years outside the umbrella of state employment, the family survived on his wife's meager earnings in the illicit private market.

Meanwhile, Saray worked at a quasi-independent research institution, the Institute of Sociology, which he helped establish with Vandy Ka-on and which was tolerated by the leadership only because Ka-on had accepted a series of high-profile, powerless positions. While under scrutiny by Cambodian and Vietnamese officials, Thun Saray and Vandy Ka-on professed their loyalty to the new regime at the same time as they wrote articles and distributed publications that gingerly tested the boundaries of acceptable discourses.


On the morning of December 2, 1978, in a small clearing inside a rubber plantation just east of the township of Snoul in Kratie province and just over the border from Vietnam, the future leaders of Cambodia emerged. Calling themselves the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation (KUFNS, or the Front), they assembled before several hundred Cambodian refugees who had fled to Vietnam and who had now been trucked into Cambodian territory for the occasion. With what official accounts later described as "boundless enthusiasm," the Cambodians watched as a short, balding, inconspicuous-looking man stepped forward and began to speak. "Dear and respected compatriots, dear cadres and combatants, dear compatriots abroad. Throughout the long period when Kampuchea was under the yoke of colonialism, imperialism, and feudalism ..."

The speaker, Heng Samrin, had only recently defected from the Khmer Rouge. Described in the Front's official pronouncements as a "former member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea for the Eastern Zone, former political commissar, and commander of the 4th Division," the newly selected president of the KUFNS had nothing but praise for the Khmer Rouge revolution. "Our people won the glorious victory of April 17, 1975, totally liberating our country, opening for the Kampuchean people a new era, the era of independence, freedom, and socialism."

Cambodia's troubles, he continued, began "a few days after liberation," when "the reactionary Pol Pot-Ieng Sary gang and their families" launched their destruction of Cambodia. Samrin ticked off the gang's crimes: the "razing of towns," the severing of the "sacred sentiments of people" toward family and neighbors, the "abolition of money and markets," "forcible cooperativization," and "camouflaged concentration camps." "Everywhere," he concluded, "our people have witnessed massacres, more atrocious, more barbarous, than those committed in the Middle Ages or perpetrated by the Hitlerite fascists." "Worst of all," he said, were the purges in the Khmer Rouge Eastern Zone, from which he himself had fled and which had claimed the lives not only of civilians but also of Samrin's revolutionary compatriots. "How many cadres, Party members, authentic revolutionaries and patriots, and cadres and combatants in the armed forces who had contributed to the liberation of the country and proved absolute loyalty to the motherland have been killed en masse at all levels and in all places for the sole reason that they did not approve of the reactionary and barbarous policy of the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary gang."

Heng Samrin had two messages to deliver, one to Cambodian civilians and one to Khmer Rouge cadres. To ordinary Cambodians, those forced "to live in misery as slaves," he promised inclusion and tolerance. The Front, he said, "unites all nationalities in the country and rallies all patriotic forces regardless of political and religious tendencies-workers, peasants, petty bourgeois, intellectuals, Buddhist monks and nuns." After the overthrow of Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia would be a very different place. "All Kampucheans have the right to return to their old native land, and to build their family life in happiness. All Kampucheans have freedom of residence, the right to stand for election and to vote, freedom of thought, association, and religion, and the right to work, recreation, and education." The Front, continued Samrin, planned: "To abolish the compulsory 'work-and-eat-together' system.... To put an end to the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary policy of seizing the people's rice and other property.... To establish banks, issue currency, restore and develop the circulation of goods.



Excerpted from Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge by Evan Gottesman Copyright © 2004 by Evan Gottesman. Excerpted by permission.
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