by Randy Ford
I was there when …
I don’t know whom to blame but old colonial powers and more recent super powers and in particular the United States. Why not France? I do blame France. How can I not blame France when France brought the West to my little country? But then how can I blame France when France educated me? Except France accepted defeat and went home. And now too many people have died not to blame someone. Then there’s Pol Pot who claims he hasn’t killed anyone. It’s easy to blame Americans who won’t admit that their bombing had anything to do with it. It’s harder to blame Pol Pot who claims he hasn’t killed anyone. And Pol Pot hasn’t been convicted of a crime.
Maybe I should keep my mouth shut. Excuses I could give are numerous.
I speak with authority. I can speak with authority because I was there, there when … Now, we were known for our gentleness. I try to be friendly and gentle. I try to be friendly and gentle all the time. By nature, I’m gentle. We are gentle people. We smile all the time. By nature, we are friendly. My good humor is so infectious and so constant that no one can guess that I have another side. Underneath there’s more than anyone would suspect.
I didn’t know much about Mao, so I didn’t understand what it meant when friends started talking about a communist system purer than Maoism. I was young. Perhaps I was naïve, naïve and young when I started talking about a communist system purer than Maoism. I could use it as an excuse. I could use it as an excuse: to think there is a communist system purer than Maoism. I didn’t know much about Maoism and hadn’t seen firsthand Nixon’s decision to bomb our country. I despised Nixon and didn’t know it. I lived in paradise and didn’t know it either.
I was an excellent student. I always came across as knowledgeable and intelligent, and I spoke passable English (better French). I could pass for French. I am a connoisseur of anything French: French food, French wine, French art, French drama, French music, French words, French words like connoisseur. This was not as helpful as one might think because I could’ve been singled out as an intellectual, and if I were smart I would’ve stayed in Paris. But I felt I had to cleanse my country of imperialism. I felt I owed it to my country to cleans my country of Western thought. I felt I owed it to my country to fight for my country’s independence. Fight for my country’s independence, and what is more noble than fight for one’s country’s independence.
I’m not very tall (five feet three and a half, to five feet four and a few inches), slender but wiry, and very muscular. Time I lived in France, I lived in Paris and Leon. I love my country, but I despised what Nixon did to it. I despised what the United States did to it. I hated bombing of my country. I hated Nixon. I hated the United States. I’ve seen too much, I guess. I told myself, however unconvincingly, that it’s better to keep my mouth shut and try not to show any feelings. I tried. And tried.
I tried to keep a safe distance from people. I lived alone and didn’t get close to anyone … couldn’t trust anyone … couldn’t afford it … couldn’t afford getting close to anyone … couldn’t trust anyone. I changed my name several times. I exchanged my clothing … I was among thousands who wrapped white handkerchiefs around their arms, emblems of surrender, and welcomed communist into our capital. Clearly I intended to survive.
We were called New People. And who were we? New People? As I said I grew up in our capital. A face without a name, an urban dweller among urban dwellers, I had to separate myself from hoards. I didn’t want to starve. I knew I wouldn’t survive as a rural laborer. What choice did I have? I wanted to survive. I wanted to remain an urban dweller. I had to remain an urban dweller. I had to make myself useful as an urban dweller, or else I would be forced to live in the countryside and work as a peasant. I knew I wouldn’t survive as a peasant. I am an urban dweller. Life reduced to basics: if one worked, one ate … if one worked, one lived (no, no, not necessarily}. I knew I wouldn’t survive working in the countryside, and I wanted to survive. And whom could we trust if we couldn’t bank on the person walking or working next to us? So I kept my head down, as I worked for a few days with a hoe. A few days instead of a few months or a few years. If I held my head up I was afraid I’d get it chopped off. I’ve been accused of being an opportunist. Naturally I disagree. I simply wanted to live and didn’t think I would survive out there, and more than anything else I wanted to survive.
I’m still not sure about Angkar. I’m not sure who Angkar was? And I’m not sure that I want to know more than I know. It was not healthy to know too much. It is not healthy to know too much. With Angkar around you could never be sure who your friends were. Never sure … never sure. And I’ll never say if I joined, or why I joined if I joined, or try to explain. Dealing with phenomena such as Angkar, one sees Angkar everywhere. I never had to watch myself so much. I was never sure … never sure. I was always on my toes. I always followed orders. I always had eyes in the back of my head. I was an urban dweller. I knew I wouldn’t survive as rural laborer. I wanted to survive.
I won’t admit to anything. No, I was not part of Angkar. All I can say is that Angkar kept a record of everything. Check records. Would you believe I had no choice? I had to follow orders. I was only following orders.
I want to study in America, want to start a new life over there. I could change my name again. I know how to change my name. Now I’m twenty-six, with a tic in my right eye (a good disguise I hope), and I haven’t accepted my good fortune yet. I’m alive. I survived. That’s something. I doubt that I could’ve lived very long in the mountains because I’m city boy. Even here in Thailand I don’t feel safe. There are so many people who would despise me if they knew … if I were recognized. Thankfully no one noticed when I slipped away. No one recognized me when I crossed our border … has recognized me here. It’s terrible to be a refugee. I know what I face because I know what I did. We are a small country with a long memory, which says it all. But thankfully I’m the last person they would suspect. Here I’m everyone’s best friend. Here I am refugee … a refugee among many refugees … one refugee among too many refugees … a smiling, bowing man without a face.
Victory had its day, a new day: so new that nothing of the old survived. A new age emerged! I’ve heard people say “Communists are ruthless.” How does that sound in Vietnamese? It meant losing our generally even temper. But they lied about us and said that we shot thousands of people. According to them, killings continued even after the order to stop was given. Remember Pol Pot says he didn’t kill anyone.
Victory! It was perfectly magnificent, gentlemen, to see our people come together, working together. We were finally an independent country. Our people came together, working day and night to reconstruct our country. They say Kampuchea looked like an immense anthill. Kampuchea, an anthill? Who says? Perhaps it’s the only case on record when a total population of a country was mustered for one purpose. Our motto was, according to Pol Pot, “When we have rice, we have everything.” But there was a problem: city people didn’t know how to farm, didn’t know what a cow was, and didn’t know what harvesting was. Workers in fields …. Cambodians frozen on film…. a reminder of the penalty of weakness. Frozen on film used as propaganda … used for Western propaganda.
Accusing us of genocide is a spurious attack. Rarely had an experiment go so horribly wrong. But most people died from wind sickness. Wind spirits … evil spirits entering the body and stealing life away. I wish I could say that it wasn’t human caused. By and large, it wasn’t human caused. Wind spirits … an evil wind.
So many died that we couldn’t bury them all. I was there and saw it firsthand … down to bodies half-buried in fields, and yet I can’t recall where I was then. I can’t remember. I can’t remember. I repeat, I can’t remember. I’m lucky that I can’t remember. I was lucky to have escaped death myself. I was lost and lost all contact with my family and rightly assumed that I’d never see them again. It would have raised an unacceptable level of suspicion had I looked for them. Remember, I wanted to survive.
I just heard that Americans had abandoned Saigon and that they were about to do the same thing to Phnom Penh. And I lived in Phnon Penh and couldn’t get out. Of course there were a lot of Peugeots in Phnom Penh. Most taxi drivers drove them, but I didn’t think I could get very far in a taxi. I didn’t know what to do. I however knew when to be prudent … knew when to obey orders. I always obeyed orders. Let me repeat, I always obey orders. I was raised to obey orders. I also knew clichés of communist and knew that in order to stay alive I’d have to repeat them verbatim. Often I’ve had to confess to lies. My own treachery still stuns me. This was when I first heard of purifying communism.
I’ve often wondered why it went so terribly wrong. Maybe it was because Pol Pot wasn’t an intellectual. There remained very few intellectuals: a large percentage were killed at Tuol Sleng, a former high school. I unfortunately became familiar with Tuol Sleng, very familiar with Tuol Sleng … halls and different floors of the buildings … different kinds of rooms and how important prisoners were kept in larger cells. I knew the school before it became a prison. And would recognize the principal if I saw him. I never went to Tuol Sleng before I was drafted. I wouldn’t have gone to Tuol Sleng voluntarily.
I was relatively happy with the Prince … Prince Sihanouk … but had I not renounced him it would’ve been as if I were slitting my own throat. Truth should’ve shown how a contest between the devil and God was steadily and fervently advanced. And yet I must’ve loved him once. I loved Prince Sihanouk once. This was one thing I had to live with. Add to my five-foot-three-and-a-inch frame, most of which my smile neutralizes, a long-handled ax. A simple tool for cutting down trees became a bloody instrument of death. Forget revisionists: allow the dead speak. There is confusion over who guilty are.
Pol Pot was lavishly welcomed in Beijing. Of course it was he … why wouldn’t he be welcomed? Vengeance! What could they say? Tell him to go home. They were polite, you see. They didn’t have to worry about him because he would go home and create a communist utopia, expressly celebrated during Day of Hatred … again purified communism. To tell the truth Pol Pot was a little too dogmatic for them. Believe me he had his own plans. I hope you don’t think that we’re all devils. I never went to Beijing.
I didn’t know anything was wrong. I hadn’t seen it yet. The role of Vietnamese elements, always Vietnamese element and Lao … Prince Sihanouk accused Vietnamese and Lao communists of inspiring rebels. It’s funny to think that it was Vietnamese … better known as Viet Cong … when there were many, many groups involved. Then all of a sudden our prince picked on the Khmer Rouge, when he couldn’t afford to do it. It was a funny position to take while Americans were bombing our villages. I didn’t know much about America bombing our villages then.
I suspect Pol Pot knew what he was doing. He avoided action that would alienate anyone and moved into every corner of the country while waiting for Americans to pull out. And Prince Sihanouk picked on the Khmer Rouge when he could’ve picked on any number of other groups.
I liked Prince Norodom Sihanouk because he was a likable but volatile fellow. I was afraid of communists. I was not a communist. I have never been a communist. To this day I think the prince offered us our best chance for peace. For hadn’t he, throughout the 1950s and the ’60s, preserved our neutrality? I wonder what would’ve happened had his old friend, Lon Nol, hadn’t overthrown him.
One night, many years ago, I was standing in front of the Cine’ Lux theater and saw our prince, with his security in place. He got out his black Cadillac convertible. It had been raining, and I had a hard time finding a pedicab. (By the way, for what it’s worth, walking to the theater would’ve been quicker.) Needless to say, a great number of people attended the premiere, the premiere of our prince’s movie.
Amid this elite group we all recognized our prince. He looked conspicuous in a shabby suit (shabby suits were in fashion then), purchased in those days in Hong Kong. What an honor it was to see our prince and first screening of APSARA, which he wrote, produced, and directed. It was a serious effort (he was serious about it), in which he promoted national solidarity. We all rushed out and bought tickets. As soon as we heard about it, we rushed and bought tickets.
The movie was a fairy tale, about a Cambodia free of dirt, poverty, and disease where the sun shone constantly. The characters drove here and there in fancy automobiles. I however felt sorry afterwards that I had gone to see it. It took me away from my studies and didn’t relate to my life. And I didn’t see my country as a fairy tale. I couldn’t ignore dirt, poverty, and disease.
Some days later a pedicab driver brought me up to the theater where the movie was still showing, and I admitted that I saw it. Of course I wanted to know what he thought of it. “Well, sir,” said he, “it was swell!”
Now did anyone believe our prince? How could anyone that rich understand the masses? But he was undoubtedly still popular. This good prince, I say, was a dreamer but had the worst taste. He depicted the royal family (his family) as living in the fast lane when life for most of us was a disaster (he lived in the fast lane). I believed even then, while naively trusting General Lon Nol, that our prince would somehow survive his downfall.
But where did our prince go? There are many rumors flying around. Is he still in the capital? Is he still holdup in his palace? Since retiring as head of state did he remained in the capital? Is he still holdup in his palace? Pol Pot says that American imperialists and their lackeys continue to hope that our prince and his lackeys will continue to have a great deal of influence. But our prince hasn’t been able to raise his flag.
Lon Nol! Traitor! Enlighten me, gentlemen … tell me why such traitors shouldn’t be shot! I hated Lon Nol because he overthrew our prince, but compared to his American handlers, Lon Nol had a degree of merit. But he, along with the CIA, frequently engaged in assassinations. More importantly coups forced Sihanouk to change his approach. He no longer relied on bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and rich farmers. At the same time hundreds of his supporters were arrested and killed.
To survive I had to perfect a callous response to horrors.
Let’s refer, for a moment, to surrender of Phnom Penh. How like firecrackers small arms fire sounded. Weren’t people celebrating the Cambodian New Year and firing any weapon they had? Then as Lon Nol left for the United States, a hundred battalions took our capital (only a hundred battalions … no more) and evacuation started.
What startled me, however, was that our conquerors started routing people out their homes. And for most part there was no resistance … no resistance. Let me repeat, no resistance.
Carrying their belongings, people ran this way and that. Like scared chickens, they ran this way and that paying little attention that the order to leave was given as an ultimatum. As they joined an exodus most people readily dispensed with trappings of the West. Our society was being cleanse of trappings of the West … cleanse of trappings of imperialism, and purification of communism began.
Execution was a form of political expediency. It was impossible to take control without it. Other means of ruling were less effective. People who refused to leave were shot … were shot on the spot.
They never said kill but used the general word scatter. Smash meant kill. Killed Hou Yuon, who stupidly took a stand against the Party, killed by a bodyguard. Killed Koy Thuon because Angkar no longer trusted him. Killed Chakrey and Chakrey’s wife, Moeung Heng, who confessed she belonged to an espionage network directed by Vietnamese, CIA, and Soviets. That didn’t happen until May the next year. Did it really happen? Chakrey’s coups attempt failed. No government would’ve been tolerant. Chakrey would be a traitor in anyone’s books. Killed Chhouk and then Mao Zedong died. Now Mao was not murdered. As for the others, our leadership gave orders, “kill Lon Nol’s soldiers, kill monks, and scatter Vietnamese!” I always followed orders.
Planned assassination of our prince was doubted by many. Yes, his murder was planned. I would’ve considered his murder a sacrilege because he was still our prince. He deserved our respect. He deserves our respect. We have a place in our hearts for him.
But Pol Pot wouldn’t have killed a chicken (remember Pol Pot claims he didn’t kill anyone). Our leader was a self-effacing, charming gentleman. Never brash or uncultured, as we were, but a perfect gentleman. Pol Pot was a perfect gentleman. All he wanted to do was to gain recognition for Kampuchea. All he wanted to do was cleanse Kampuchea of Western thought. All he wanted to do was cleanse Kampuchea of Imperialism and purify communism.
I entered Tuol Sleng on the 2nd of February 1977. I was little more than twenty-two years old then. This in itself wasn’t unusual. I admit that being young had its advantages in the Democratic Kampuchea. It had been the youth of this country that has sustained it and brought about our victory. From the beginning, we couldn’t count on workers to fuel a revolution, something that disappointed us all. Basically, we could only count on peasants. Peasants had the most potential. We’d say, “Don’t you think we should finish off such and such landlord?”
There are wild stories afloat about Tuol Sleng. We never ate livers of people we killed. We weren’t monsters. We aren’t monsters. None of the lies are based on proof. Hear the truth!
Exodus took place without police brutality. There wasn’t much resistance. Justification for evacuation was clear, and it was easy. It was the best way to cleanse the city of our enemies. Filled with corruption, Phnom Penh was unhealthy. People knew they were better off in the countryside. But who were we to tell them? Surely we’re not as portrayed. I came from teaching at the Faculty of Law and Economics Sciences (1960-1964). We were forced into action. We’re still under attack.
Before taking over Tuol Sleng, Deuch distinguished himself as a schoolteacher. Even back then, he thought all Cambodians with different viewpoints than his were traitors and liars. Now he knew all techniques of his trade, knew how to maximize terror. That was Deuch, who, as we’re apt to say, is one of the greatest interrogators of our time. But at Tuol Sleng, there was little need for torture, and we required confessions from everyone. More often than not, it was simply a matter of timing.
Consult our archives. Out of the 242 important cadres, who were executed there the few months I was there, not more than a few were tortured? Only a handful were. Consult our archives. I am in there.
Bou Phuthang, you may be happy to hear, was assassinated. Man who assassinated him is well known: alias Vorn. According to French intelligence, Phuthang drew Vorn into a deadly game of insulting someone by forcing a rival to defend himself. So Vorn was only defending his honor. French hushed it up. Since Hun Penn was more important than Phuthang, one could predict that he would also be assassinated. However, it never happened. I think that he felt embarrassed that he had to live with security. I think he felt embarrassed he wasn’t assassinated. He died in Phnom Penh, and letters from him existed. They described a personal relationship with Prince Sihanouk. These letters were destroyed.
A late old colonial hand, Denis Giteau, everyday grew more afraid of being assassinated. He believed that he had as much a right to Cambodia as any native. Giteau was a Frenchman, not a Cambodian. But most natives agreed that that sort of thinking had to stop.
A case in point, I think, can be found in what happened to Lon Nol. Lon Nol seized power and then had a stroke, had a stroke and wasn’t assassination As this became known, there were those in and out of government who thought he had to go. But he, however, remained in office for four more years. Nixon liked him, because Lon Nol did what he was told.
Keo Yun’s execution took place as early as January 1975. We had to do something. He came from Brother Number One’s home province of Kompong Thom, where he knew Deuch from Balaing College. It didn’t matter that they were old friends. With all of Phnom Penh deserted, Keo Yun welcomed our victory but to his surprise found himself arrested. Rather than our enemy, he considered himself a friend. To best of my memory, Yun was arrested on April 18. Our suspicions naturally settled on people such as Keo Yun, a capitalist who refused to join the revolution. Clearly, Keo Yun chose the wrong side. Our enemies only got what they deserved. I knew all about Keo Yun. I’ll not take responsibility for his execution, even though I pulled the trigger.
“That,” Deuch said, “is how we’ll begin our second revolution. We’ll require an oath of allegiance from all cadres.” At the time of Keo Yun’s execution, I worked for Deuch.
Reporting directly to Son Sen, Deuch was given responsibility for bringing all traitors around.
Mat Ly, a young student, is fortunate to have been released after interrogation. This remarkable event shows how Deuch had a heart. While I eulogize Deuch, let us not overlook many other people. Many other people approved of Deuch. Such people as Thea, or Meang, or Mat, or Hom, all under thirty. Or Kan, Thea, and Mat, all of whom carried guns. Thea, a twenty-four-year-old, was Pol Pot’s personal bodyguard and entered Phnom Penh with him. It saddens me that some of these people turned out to be less than what they seemed. Piss on these dealers of subterfuge! Shouldn’t they have been brought in line? They were no better than obvious traitors were.
While there are those who’ll always complain about our cruelty, only those who’ve fulfill real tasks are in a position to agree or disagree with us. Zhou Enlai noted extraordinary leaps people will make when influenced by fear. Case of Thea is a striking example: he knew too much about Angkor, much more than anyone else. Remember I shot him.
After what happened to Thea, I realized no one was safe. He told me that he was tired of living in fear and planned to flee Cambodia. He claimed that he wanted to work for restoration of Prince Sihanouk. Actually, he planned a coup. Thea was a traitor. Knowing me as a brother from the same province, he freely confessed to me.
Thea was literate. After the country stabilized he would’ve been useful to the Democratic Revolution. He had mastered social deportment, military tactics, and politics. In spite of all this, he had to be eliminated. Killing him was regrettably necessary.
But not all those purged were killed. I hoped when my time came I would simply be suspended or expelled from the party. I hoped my personal loyalty to Deuch would be my salvation. Thea bounced back with surprising stamina. He survived my interrogation. He held his head up, in spite of being deprived of sleep. His defiance was a reaction to torture. It had no meaning. It had no meaning. We knew that he couldn’t last much longer. At this stage, I carried out the torture myself, and he started to confess. I hit him repeatedly in the head. I wanted to keep him off balance.
During next round, Thea begged me to forgive him and spare his life. Then I whispered something into his ear that sent him through the ceiling. It was my private opinion about what would happen to his wife and his children. From then on, I had my way. And when it came time to shoot him, he lay in a ball on the floor.
I told him, “you’re guilty of treason. You are a coward.” He confessed to me without passion. To keep worms out we had to patch holes in our organization.
Pol Pot said, “to achieve self-reliance and independence, it is essential to wipe the slate clean. It’s unfortunate that the ax had to fall on some of our best people” (to which we might add old friends and young intellectuals). Brother Number One regretted each death.
During a speech before a national congress of the Party, Pol Pot outlined a new four-year plan for opposing the Vietnamese. Only we didn’t have four years left. By that time, much of what Pol Pot said was simply wishful thinking. But between his speech and his everyday manner, he hooked us.
Vietnamese surrounded the city and were moving very fast. Defeat had never been pretty. Shades of defeat were not any different. You may blame this or that, and say another thing publicly. Well, would you believe Prince Sihanouk left on the last plane out the capital? We arranged it for him. At the same time, we heard that Pol Pot and his aides had fled to Thailand. Both events generated a great internal struggle. My prospects indeed seemed grim.
On the afternoon of 6 January 1979, workers were ordered to assemble at Phom Penh railway station, ordered to assemble for immediate evacuation. Perhaps evacuation was not an accurate description of chaos that followed. Unless you were in a comatose state, you couldn’t help but see how desperate people were. Emptying the city to prevent a Vietnamese victory was how we described it. We never acknowledged defeat, but we knew when to run.
On January 7, 1979, we were surprised by Vietnamese troops. There was only enough time to slip through the Vietnamese lines on a motorcycle. Across northern Cambodia toward the Thai border raced our enemy’s tanks but just ahead of them I rode into a most superb sunset. From Phnom Penh, I headed for Mt. Aural in the west. I hoped from there to somehow reach our border.
Vulgar Vietnamese were turning our people into fish paste. They buried peasants up to their necks or set them on fire. It was incomprehensible. When you’ve talked yourself out, you must come back to that. Incomprehensible!
I changed into a peasant’s uniform and thought blue scarves would make it easier for me to blend in. Thousands of people jammed roadways. I wanted to blend in. I disguised myself to escape vengeance. I traveled mostly in the daytime and slept in jungle at night. On reaching the border area, I looked for comrades and regretted that I couldn’t be open about it.
I heard of Pol Pot’s escape and heard that he was in Thailand. This news depressed me. My destiny was determined for me. I wanted nothing to do with him. I knew the mess I was in and didn’t want to see him.
Having escaped certain death, I entered a situation equally dangerous. To stay alive, I drank my own urine. I must here mention starvation. Many people arrived at camps with swollen bellies. They grew to expect it. We grew to expect it.
There were no more fields of rice, just abandoned fields of cactus. Nothing equaled my despair, as I looked for former comrades. I don’t know why I continued to walk in boiling sun, why with a swollen belly I continued to walk through fields of death, why I continued to walk through hell. I became emaciated. I don’t know why I was eager to find a familiar face. I also dreaded it. I trembled all the time.
Let me go back ten or eleven days to when my motorcycle ran out of gas. Instead of sticking with crowds then, I plunged into jungle. I soon lost my way and wandered around for days. I even suffered through pain and delirium from a snakebite.
Exhausted, weak and filled with despair, I found myself strengthened by adversity. There also was no sign of the supreme Angkor. Fortunately, I knew enough to walk toward a setting sun.
Traveling at night required great concentration. I no more descended a hill than I had to climb one again. Stumbling along, I headed back to a road without thinking that it could lead me to danger. I thought of myself as a wild animal. Such a delusion would’ve made my old friends howl. I said to myself that with eyes of an owl and teeth of a tiger, I wouldn’t need to worry.
Invasion of Vietnamese, together with talk of genocide, greatly concerned me. But when a culture succumbs, a nation is dissolved. As a symptom, I’d be the first to admit that I used to find sexual exploits of our prince exciting. I also used to be potent. As our prince took his various consorts to bed, fun for us all began. In those days, we all loved to talk about le sport! And the frenzy of our passions approached intensity of our orgasms. “C’arrive! It’s happening,” we’d say.
The next thing we knew bombs started falling.
Gentlemen, we all knew that killing had precedent elsewhere.
My next stay was at a dangerous place called Nong Chan. It was worse place I’ve ever been. When asked, “where do you come from, Comrade” for a good reason I never mentioned Tuol Sleng. If pressed, I’d say, “Comrades, we know Tuol Sleng was invented. Sensationalism sells newspapers! I’m impatient with sensationalist. Our Chinese friends wished us a speedy revolution, as well as everything else connected with our independence. When pressed, I always say I’m from Nong Chan. No one questions when I say from Nong Chan.
Our laws were exact. Our laws didn’t take into account friendships. Given circumstances, contact of this nature was extremely dangerous. I’ve always known when to hide my identity.
I’ve always stood by my story, though ghosts have contradicted me. Whenever something gets too painful, I take long walks. I go into jungle and get into such a state that it would be dangerous to bother me. Some days I isolated myself entirely.