Enemies of the People .. wider reflections on the Khmer Rouge .. and Vantha’s story

I saw this film again (Enemies of the People – DVD available from October 2011), this time in the company of about 25 friends who were variously persuaded that they could learn something from it and attended the showing which Joan had organised with the local MacRobert Arts Centre at the University of Stirling.  I found it even more moving and striking second time round, although there were even more questions than first time, but this time no Sambath to answer them.   Although there are many positive stories about the Cambodia of today, there is also something compelling about the story of what Cambodia has come through.  We can all learn from that and, more particularly, from the patient researches of Thet Sambath into the minds and motivations of some of the killers.

It is very hard to understand how a generous and respectful people such as the Khmers brought forth the monstrous cruelties of the Khmer Rouge regime.  This was a particularly striking question for those who watched the film with only a limited knowledge of the political context.  They were struck by the polite mannerly way in which the killers whom Sambath interviewed talked about themselves and explained how they had come to do what they did between 1975 and 1979.  In part explanation, I wrote for some of them a potted account of the complex reasons which boiled together in the melting pot events of the late 60s/early70s to produce the Khmer Rouge:

Several factors contributed to the KR’s unique brutality:
*  a naive rationalist faith that ‘ends justify means’ and that human beings can remake society from the bottom up, based on a boiled-down (dumbed down?) Maoist philosophy;
*   a brutalised population, with many child soldiers used to seeing and performing savage acts in the civil war ( which intensified following the American bombing and then withdrawal from Vietnam);
*  the initial popularity of the KR, with their Communist rhetoric of equality and pure dedication to the cause, who replaced the unpopular and highly corrupt Lon Nol military regime installed by the US in 1970 – King Sihanouk (in exile in China) also publicly backed them in the war against Lon Nol;
*   the paranoia of the leading clique within the KR who feared from the beginning that their internal ‘enemies’ (the KR who had been based in Vietnam) were plotting to replace them – this set up a revolutionary paranoia through every level of the KR right down to the grassroots, a constant awareness that there was an ‘enemy within’ and that if you didn’t watch out, you might be the next one so accused;
*   there was a racial element to some of the suspicions and persecutions – the KR identified people with fair skin as more likely to be Vietnamese, or have Vietnamese family connections and therefore more liable to be traitors.  Their language talked of the ‘base people’ (Cambodian peasants) and the ‘new people’ (educated city dwellers, Vietnamese);
*  the KR’s incompetence – they had very poor administrative and communication skills in ‘making things happen’ while in Govt and had, in any event, executed many of the educated Cambodians who might have been able to assist.  So much went wrong during their time in charge, with massive famines in parts of the country / failed engineering projects etc., that this seemed to provide evidence that there were enemies at work, stopping the progress of the revolution;
*  at local level, child soldiers became young men i/c of villages and production teams and used/abused their power, with many excuses available to them if they wanted to kill people who got in their way;
*  ‘groupthink’ – “the KR wants to do something good (create a more equal society) and the people in charge think it is necessary to eliminate our enemies and it is happening everywhere, so it must be morally permissible”;

*   ‘false necessity’ – ‘we had to do what we did or it would have been us next’

*  in any wartime situation, psychopaths with a penchant for brutal violence can more readily become leaders (at local and national levels), as they are prepared to do the kinds of things which can make the difference between winning and losing:  they enjoy conflict and may enjoy killing.

Each of these ingredients contributed to the explosive cocktail that engulfed Cambodia in 1975.

The historic culture of Cambodian people is one of a gentle and respectful courtesy, with enormous respect for elders and those in positions of power and authority.   If it is possible for the Khmer people to do these things to each other, it is possible for any people in any society to do them to each other.  This is one of the great lessons of this period.  Cambodia is still recovering from the destruction of the social infrastructure in those years and not all those in power have had the interests of the people of Cambodia as a first priority, but I suppose that’s politics everywhere.

Since I came back I have also had the great privilege of tidying up my simplified account of the experiences of Chea Vantha, VSO’s senior education manager in Cambodia.  Vantha is a hardworking and committed member of VSO’s permanent staff in Cambodia.  He has strong guiding principles which inform his vision of what is desirable but he also understands that often you have to settle for what is possible.   He has placed, guided and supported many volunteers since he began with VSO in 1994, as Cambodia opened up to the West.  On my last day in Phnom Penh, he and I shared lunch and he told me about his life under the Khmer Rouge.  I copy it below for those who want to read and learn about his character and courage, – a little insight into how so many ordinary Cambodians have picked up the pieces and are making their country a better place for their children to live in.   Vantha has approved this version of his story and told me he is happy for me to share it.

Me with Vantha on my last day in Phonm Penh

Vantha was 13 in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh. Of the 9 children in his family, he was the 4th.  His father was a relatively rich man, since he owned the 3 rice mills in his village.  His parents were very happy when the KR arrived.  The family had moved to Phonm Penh in 1974 to avoid the bombing, although their home village is in Kandal Province, less than 15km from PP.  Vantha attended primary school in his home village and studied in Tuol Tom Puong secondary school in PP during his temporary stay, near the Russian Market.   After the KR took over PP, Vantha and his family were told to return to their village.

In the first few weeks, the KR cadres in the village were happy with the family, as Vantha’s father was helping them to use the rice mills.  However once the KR had that skill, they labelled the family as capitalists and they were shifted upcountry, to Mong Russei district, a rural area on the Pursat/Battambang border.  They were marched to PP and taken on a train to Pursat.  Along with several thousand other families from Kandal, they were forced to set up home in the middle of a rice field area, with no shelter other than what they could improvise.  Plastic was used to provide some sort of shelter and they had very little food – typically there was one measure (the size of a condensed milk tin) of uncooked rice rationed out for the whole family per day.  At that time, in the early days, there were many killings.  Work duties were assigned by the KR.

After a time, Vantha’s parents became more and more concerned about the children becoming malnourished and the deterioration in general health.  They asked the four oldest children to go the ‘teenager camp’, which was in the same general area.  Food rations in the teenager camp were better, as teenagers received a specific re-education regime but had to work hard.    After a short while in the teenager camp, the older three wanted to return to their parents.   Vantha was apprehensive about this there had been many killings and he was scared that they might be killed by the KR.  He therefore stayed in the teenager camp by himself even although his older siblings went back. 

A short while later he was shifted to another camp, too far away for a visit to his parents.  He received little news but then heard they were ill. When he heard this, he asked for permission to go back to see his parents but was told that there was no point in him going as he was ‘not a doctor’ so his visit would be of no use at all.  During this time he was always hungry.   He would eat anything that he could, including any insects, leaves.. even leeches…  He felt that he was just ‘skin and bone’.   Around this time he was moved to a camp in the Cardamon Mountains where he was put onto a workparty that was digging a canal.    This was all happening in 1976.

While there, together with many other teenagers, he was given permission to return back to his home village to collect rice from the rice fields because there were not people to collect the rice..  When he arrived the sight that greeted his eyes was awful;  as bad or worse than anything that might be seen at Choen Ek.  Bodies lay all around, bones and limbs sticking out of pools and pits filled with water.  In the village, he found one older woman who was still alive.  She was almost dead of starvation but after Vantha had fed her bit by bit for a week she was at last able to speak.  It was his older sister.  She told him that his parents and 7 brothers and sisters had died, of starvation or disease.  She had seen some terrible things, including starving people who had been reduced to cannibalism, keeping dead bodies in order to feed the living.  After seeing her restored to health, he returned to his workcamp.   Many people from the area around the camp were executed.   There were thousands of bodies lying about.  His very difficult life got no better.   He found ways to survive, despite the starvation rations and the demanding physical regime.

When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and kicked the Khmer Rouge into the Western border area, they wanted Vantha and the others in the workcamp to go with them to the Thai border camps, but Vantha, in the company of 20 others escaped, travelling carefully over the next 10 days before he was able to rejoin the main road, near Pursat.  Once on the main road, he found himself in a human stream, carrying their possessions as they trudged towards Phnom Penh.  From there, he headed straight for his home village.   The village was deserted but there was rice growing, which anyone could harvest to eat.  His older and younger sister, together with his grandmother (mother’s mother), came to live there.  

Vantha took the opportunity to go back to school, near the Russian market, and cycled back and forward to his home village twice each day (13 Km each way), selling items from the village in order to raise funds for the family. 

In 1975, one of Vantha’s uncles had been studying in France.  He had escaped all the terrible years under the Khmer Rouge and so was now keen, having set up home in Ho Chi Minh city in neighbouring Vietnam, to be reunited with his mother.  Vantha was asked to help her travel to HCM to see her son, but he was not keen to do this, as there were very strict immigration controls at the border.  Nonetheless he felt it was his duty.  However, despite trying to sneak over undetected, the two of them were arrested and imprisoned by the Vietnamese border police, under accusation of being CIA spies.   Having been held in labour camp conditions for two weeks, they were released back into Cambodia at the border, with no food, money or any idea where they were.  They had to try to make their way back to PP on foot, begging food and shelter as they went.  When they reached Prey Veng town, they were arrested again, this time by the Cambodian authorities.  Once again, they were suspected of being CIA agents and were placed in shackles and subjected to difficult interrogation over a period of weeks.   By the time they had returned to their home village, they had decided never to attempt to leave again, despite Vantha’s uncle (who now lives in Manchester City, UK) continuing with his insistent pleas.  

Vantha resumed school again and now was promoted into Grade 10 (at that time the top grade as there were no teachers left, so many had been killed by the KR, to teach higher classes).  He won a scholarship, as he was a very bright orphan from a poor family, and was sent to Russia for 5 years, one year language and four years engineering.  There he met his wife who was also on scholarship.

When Vantha returned he first of all taught at the Phnom Penh Technology Institute, then had a job in the Ministry of Industry, then, after the UN took over (to broker peace and free and fair elections) in 1992, he got a job with UNTAC helping with their computer systems and teaching UN and local staff on computer.  Eventually he was employed by VSO in January 1994 and has remained a stalwart at the heart of the success of VSO Cambodia ever since, rising to be a very effective and knowledgeable Senior Education Manager.

Occasionally Vantha and his wife will remember those Khmer Rouge days and the terrible things which happened and which they witnessed.  They even sometimes sing the songs of the KR revolution which they were taught in the camps and laugh a little and cry a little.  His younger sister has prospered and still lives in the village in a grand house.  His older sister is poorer but well. Her granddaughter now lives in Gravesend, in Kent.     

Vantha experienced some terrible challenges in his life but has come through it, studied hard to get a good foundation and built a good career.  He is proud of his story, how he came through it all and now has a fine family, with children who make him proud.    So many people now do not understand what it was like.

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6 thoughts on “Enemies of the People .. wider reflections on the Khmer Rouge .. and Vantha’s story

  1. Leandra is right. Thanks for sharing this, Danny. There is little one can say or do in response to such a story, except to realise with a fresh sense of humility how trivial one’s own concerns often are. I’m sure Vantha has found a wonderful way, in his work with VSO, to help rebuild such an extraordinary country.

  2. Thank you to Vantha for sharing this moving story with us. What courage and strength to survive such terrible experiences and even more so to give so much back to others.

  3. Thanks Danny and to Vantha for detailing his story. I can not imagine it is an easy tale to retell. So many people seem pretty well together, and it is easy to overlook the enormity of the tragedies that they have experienced.

  4. Pingback: The Trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders – each new delay reduces the credibility of this process of international justice | Danny Murphy's Blog

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