Unwavering loyalty for Khmer Rouge in final strongholds

Sitting on the steps of the empty villa of a former Khmer Rouge commander, Cambodian San Roeun passionately defends the mass killers he fought for as a soldier.

Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime swept into Phnom Penh 30 years ago this Sunday, launching a nearly four-year pursuit of an agrarian utopia that would lead to the deaths of up to two million Cambodians.

"People who curse Pol Pot or blame Pol Pot, well that’s up to them," says 52-year-old San Roeun, who lost a leg to a landmine in 1981 but went on to make mines for the Khmer Rouge.

"But I myself do not curse him. Pol Pot was my hero," he says at the villa of former commander Ta Mok.

The regime was toppled by Vietnamese forces in early 1979 but their soldiers fought on in a fierce guerrilla war, finally beating a retreat to remote Anlong Veng district 450 kilometres (280 miles) northwest of the capital before collapsing altogether in 1998.

Pol Pot led a cloistered existence here, in a zone stretching from a plain stripped of trees to fund the resistance up into the lush Dangrek mountains where Cambodia meets Thailand.

The remnants of the house and bunker where he lived protected by guards are perched on an escarpment overlooking the district, their surroundings still littered with mines and, barring the occasional soldier, largely uninhabited.

Pol Pot died apparently of natural causes in 1998, shortly after being captured and tried for treason and murder, thus avoiding a planned UN-backed tribunal that will prosecute surviving leaders of the regime.

The gold-toothed San Roeun, clutching a checked krama — the traditional Cambodian scarf the Khmer Rouge made famous, bristles when asked what he thinks of the tribunal.

"There is no justice if this tribunal only tries the top Khmer Rouge leaders who controlled the country from 1975 to 1979. This tribunal should look beyond, to the period to 1970," he says.

"What will happen to the United States? They dropped many bombs on Cambodia. And former king Sihanouk, after he was ousted (by a US-backed coup in 1970), he appealed to the people to flee to the jungle" to resist the country’s new rulers, aligning his supporters with the Khmer Rouge, he says.

Sihanouk eventually lost many relatives to the Khmer Rouge and stepped down as their head of state while under palace arrest.

San Roeun helped build the bougainvillea-surrounded home of Ta Mok — one of only two leaders jailed awaiting the tribunal — and now acts as a caretaker here.

Behind the house are two rusting cages — "for prisoners", he explains. He has only good words for the one-legged Ta Mok, known as "The Butcher" for his hand in the regime’s deadly purges.

"Ta Mok was a good leader… He advised people on how to respect and love the nation. I myself had lunch or dinner with him and there was no discrimination from him," he says.

Bun Chhat, 46, a former singer for Khmer Rouge radio for 15 years, chimes in with his own praise for Pol Pot.

"I knew him very well because I stayed with him. I never disliked him because he educated me and invited me to do good things… The people who lived near him, the people who knew him well, they liked him very much," he says.

Support for the former regime also remains strong in the dusty border municipality of Pailin, a Khmer Rouge stronghold until 1996.

Kong Duong, today a senior civil servant in the information ministry, was a presenter for Khmer Rouge radio for a decade and is writing a book about working with Pol Pot.

"Nobody knew Pol Pot better than me. I lived with him. I knew his character, I knew what he would eat," the 49-year-old says.

"He expressed his love for people and the country. I believe he was one of the good leaders because he loved his people and country and was against the invading forces."

He concedes, however, that Pol Pot was also a cold-blooded killer.

"If he wanted to kill someone, he would invite the man to talk with him but he would never say, ‘I’m going to kill you’. The man would never know that it was Pol Pot who ordered him killed."

Kong Duong, who has two mobile phones, a gold watch and a gold pen peeking out of his shirt pocket, says the past should be forgotten and funding for the planned 56-million-dollar tribunal should instead go towards rebuilding Cambodia.

"As a Buddhist, I advise that we should say: let bygones be bygones."

Other former Khmer Rouge members in this municipality have not prospered as well as Kong Duong and still bear the scars of stolen childhoods.

Song Eth, a divorced shopkeeper in Pailin who was born the same year Pol Pot began his rule, says she has to accept money from a charity to help feed her three children.

She began carrying ammunition for the soldiers to the mountains when she was 10 years old and continued doing so until 1996.

"Life was difficult because when we carried ammunition to the soldiers, we did it only at night-time and we could not use lights. There were landmines and we were afraid of soldiers," she recalls.

Today, as she swings her youngest child in a hammock, she looks blankly when asked what she thinks of the looming trial of the leaders she once followed.

"I never listen to the radio — I don’t know about that," she says.