No senior member of the Khmer Rouge has ever been convicted of the atrocities that occurred during their 1975 to 1979 rule, when at least 1.7 million Cambodian died from disease, overwork, starvation and execution. Some estimates place the death toll at over 2 million.
Chhouk claims the ambush was an act of war, and not a breach of the law. ‘It was a war, not a kidnap or a robbery,’ he said.
As a feared Khmer Rouge warlord, Chhouk Rin was renowned for his charisma and battlefield prowess. But those days are gone. Now his time is spent battling illness and trying to overturn his conviction for a crime of which he says he is not guilty. Gone are the military fatigues, as he stepped from the darkness of his wooden home in the southern Cambodian province of Kampot, his hands held together in traditional Khmer greeting.
Pulling up a plastic chair on his concrete porch, he huddled slightly to protect himself from the relative cold. Reportedly a fan of karaoke and cock fighting, Chhouk appeared thin and fragile, with an abscess on his lower lip.
‘Some were starved to death, some died of disease, and some were shot,’ he recalled when asked about the Khmer Rouge. ‘All is different now as AIDS kills a lot of people.’ Clad in a loose green and white striped shirt, a toeless foot exposed through cheap plastic sandals, he said he is no longer well enough to drink alcohol and opts for tea instead.
Last November, Phnom Penh appeals court upheld Chhouk’s conviction for a 1994 train ambush, in which ten Cambodians were killed and three Western backpackers were taken hostage and later executed. Chhouk had previously been convicted for murder, terrorism and illegal detention, relating to the events. He arrived at the appeals court too late to hear that his November appeal had been rejected, he said, and remains free despite his life sentence.
The conviction, Chhouk says, has left him ostracised by the Cambodian government, which contains numerous Khmer Rouge defectors, including the Prime Minister, and reduced his stature in Kampot. ‘I’m like a bad smelling fish. If [politicians] touch me they will become bad smelling too.’ He said. ‘I used to be a leader. . . Nowadays I depend on the people in the [Phnom Voar] area.’
Chhouk was convicted for his role in the train attack after he confessed to sending 200 of his soldiers to participate in the ambush, and delivering the three backpackers – Briton Mark Slater, Australian David Wilson and Frenchman Jean Michel Braquet – to his Khmer Rouge superior. The three men, all in their 20s, were found buried in shallow graves several months later.
Chhouk does not accept the charges against him. ‘There is no evidence to charge me,’ he said. He claimed the ambush was an act of war, and not a breach of the law. ‘It was a war, not a kidnap or a robbery,’ he said.
Chhouk filed his final appeal at Phnom Penh Supreme Court December 15 but does not believe Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt legal system is able to deliver justice. ‘Foreigners and local people think the Cambodian court is not reliable at all,’ he said. ‘Even a simple person thinks it’s not reliable.’
Gary Benham, Vice Consul at the British Embassy, declined to comment on whether or not the Cambodian legal system was sufficiently thorough to achieve a just result for Chhouk. ‘We are just hoping that the case proceeds in a correct manner,’ he said. The embassy has been following the case and will be present for Chhouk’s final hearing.
Although Chhouk rejects his conviction, he said he would be happy to defend the Khmer Rouge at the UN tribunal, which he hopes will happen later this year. ‘I don’t worry even if I am summoned to the tribunal,’ he said. ‘I would be happy to stand in front of the court to explain the Khmer Rouge to foreigners.’
‘Yes, sometimes there were mistakes,’ he said of the regime, under which 1.7 million people died. ‘But [the Khmer Rouge] were right most of the time. ‘Some countries didn’t want the Khmer Rouge to be independent, so the Khmer Rouge said, “we don’t need you.” We wouldn’t follow anyone or serve anyone… But now our country has to beg money from other countries otherwise our country will die.’
The Khmer Rouge also protected the country form neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, he argued. ‘You dared not come in.’ Chhouk called for the UN tribunal to be televised, and stressed the need for international monitoring to ensure justice.
But asked about the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, he distanced himself from the regime, and called for the leaders to be called to account. He pointed the finger at Khieu Samphan, the president of Democratic Kampuchea, who is also living in freedom. ‘I want to know why Khieu Samphan killed three or four million Cambodians,’ Chhouk said.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which collects records on the Khmer Rouge regime to be used during the tribunal, dismissed Chhouk’s defence of the regime. But he voiced a measured defence for Chhouk’s views, arguing that he was a product of rigorous indoctrination. ‘Most of the Khmer Rouge of his age joined at an early age,’ Youk Chhang said. ‘They are heavily influenced by Khmer Rouge ideology and he spent most of his life in the jungle.’
In the wake of his court case, Chhouk has been attempting to keep a low profile, and a wide berth from Nuon Chea, Brother Number 2 in the Khmer Rouge regime. Associating with the former Khmer Rouge leader could bring him further trouble, Chhouk said. ‘If I meet him, people will accuse us of doing something bad again’ he said.
Chhouk still maintains some popular support amongst Khmer Rouge defectors, many of whom object to seeing their leader charged with murder. But he does not plan to resist arrest if the authorities come for him. When the Supreme Court summons him for his final hearing, Chhouk is determined that this time he will arrive on time. ‘You have to believe that when [the appeal] begins, I will be there for sure.’
by William Shaw and Sam Rith