Page last updated at 02:32 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 03:32 UK

Tribunal views from Khmer Rouge town

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News, Pailin, Cambodia

Former Khmer Rouge fighter Sak Sokhum
Sak Sokhum says he does not know why so much killing took place
Sak Sokhum does not know who to blame for the estimated 1.7 million people who died under the Khmer Rouge.

He was only 15 when he joined the Maoist movement in 1974.

Everyone had to, he says. They were going to save Cambodia from capitalists and the mounting threat from the Vietnamese.

First he was a driver. Later, when the Khmer Rouge had emptied cities and sent millions of people to work in the fields, he became a bodyguard for a mid-ranking commander.

When the regime fell in 1979, he and many thousands of fighters fled northwest to continue the battle.

For years he was a signals operator, relaying information between base commanders and guerrillas in the jungle along the Thai border.

Then he worked in a medical corps. In 1995 his leg was blown off by a landmine laid by another Khmer Rouge unit.

Maoist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979
Founded and led by Pol Pot, who died in 1998
Abolished religion, schools and money to create agrarian society
Estimated 1.7 million died from starvation, overwork or execution
Ex-leaders on trial: Head of State Khieu Samphan; Pol Pot's deputy Nuon Chea; Foreign Minister Ieng Sary; Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith; Tuol Sleng prison chief Duch

When the fighting finally ended in the mid-1990s, Sak Sokhum settled down with his family to work as a welder.

He has regrets about the past, but says it was a war and he had to follow orders. He was happy when fighting ended, he says, because he always expected to die.

Now a UN-backed genocide court is preparing to try five of the most senior Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity.

"The trials are good for Cambodia, because we are all victims of the Khmer Rouge," he says. "It is a good example for the children - it shows that if you do wrong, you must face trial."

But he does not know who should take responsibility for the 20% of the population who died - from starvation, disease, execution and torture - under the Khmer Rouge.

Former head of state Khieu Samphan was a good guy, he says, as was Nuon Chea, deputy to the now deceased Pol Pot.

"At that time, there was killing everywhere. It is hard to say who specifically killed who and where," he says.

Potential witnesses

Sak Sokhum is among thousands of former fighters living in Pailin, a dusty, ramshackle town on Cambodia's border with Thailand.

The Khmer Rouge controlled Pailin for decades, using its gem fields and hardwood forests as a key source of funding.


After the fighting ended, top leaders lived freely in the town until their arrest by the tribunal last year.

Former fighters dominate the local administration. Governor Y Chhean was an ally of Pol Pot. His deputy is the son of former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary.

As victims of Khmer Rouge rule line up to testify before the Phnom Penh-based genocide court, tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath says getting the people of Pailin involved in the process is vital to its success.

They can be witnesses, he says, and whether it is for the prosecution or the defence is up to them. "In order to have a fair and credible trial, we need cooperation from all sides."

Earlier this year, about 200 local residents met visiting tribunal officials. Many were apprehensive, the spokesman said.

"They thought that one day they could become targets of the tribunal. So we explained to them that this trial is not about everyone - only the senior and most responsible people."

"We told them that their cooperation was very important."

'Look elsewhere'

One local resident with strong views on the tribunal is Ven Dara, a politician who lives near the main market.

A picture of her uncle hangs on the wall. It is Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge regional commander whose extreme brutality earned him the nickname "The Butcher".

Ven Dara
Ven Dara says local people want the five former leaders to be cleared

She wants the tribunal to determine responsibility for what happened - but she wants it to look overseas, at the politics driving events in the region at the time.

"If the five leaders are held responsible, it is not fair. We need to look at the international factors - the role of the US, China, Russia, the French, the Vietnamese," she says.

"The Khmer Rouge thought that they were saving the people, but instead they are accused of being murderers and traitors. This is a regret."

She wants the court to move forward so that the five leaders can be cleared and the "real murderers" uncovered.

She is reluctant to acknowledge wrongdoing by the Khmer Rouge. Asked about killings under the regime, she talks in vague terms of direct and indirect responsibility - but does not answer the question.

'Move forwards'

Other residents, though, are more reflective.

O Lan is the deputy director of tourism. He fought for the Khmer Rouge, but his father and sister died under its rule.

"People who joined the Khmer Rouge when they were young, they have regrets," he says. "They don't know how it turned out like it did."

He thinks the tribunal will be good for victims' families, to help them find out the facts. As for blame, that is a matter for the government.

Moung Seng and his wife outside their house
Moung Seng joined the Khmer Rouge because he had nowhere else to go

"Rather than looking backwards, we should keep moving forwards and develop the country," he says.

Moung Seng, a corn farmer, also thinks the past should remain the past.

He was orphaned by the regime, but then found shelter at a Khmer Rouge-run camp in the early 1980s and fought for the movement until the war ended.

He thinks the five leaders should be punished, because "they are responsible for killing their own people".

But five is enough, he says.

And he does not talk about the past with his children.

"We told them that there was not enough food and that people had to work hard," he said. "But no more."

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