Sunday, June 21, 2015

MEETING AN EX-KHMER ROUGE SOLDIER

My driver Non is an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier!
When I’m traveling overseas and need a taxi or motorbike taxi, I always look for the oldest driver I can find. Old men usually drive safer than younger men, and they are less likely to cheat you. 

My Cambodian driver today is Non. He's 65 years old and short, with salt and pepper hair. When he smiles I see a blackened socket where one of his teeth should be. Despite his need for dental work, I chose well today, he's been a good driver. But it’s a good thing that he only has a 120cc motorbike. Non is so short, that he’s not tall enough to handle anything bigger. 

He's bringing me and my translator back from the former rebel village of Svay Samsep. Since it's a hot day, we stop at a highway cafe for a cold drink on our way back to Neak Luong. While we enjoy our drinks and chat, that's when I learn the truth about Non. 

He's an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier! 

Non was originally from a village called Snoul, about 10 miles away. He was from a farming family, and after his father died, he moved to Neak Luong. At the age of 20, he became a Buddhist monk. 

When the Prime Minister, King Sihanouk,  was removed in a coup, he decided to fight. He wasn't drafted, or forced to pick up a gun. He chose to go to war on his own, a surprising choice for a Buddhist monk.

“I go by myself,” he says. “Sihanouk called me. To go to the forest, to the hills.” Sihanouk's radio broadcasts urged young men like him to join up with the communist Khmer Rouge. Like thousands of other rural folk, he blindly followed the king. 

Non tells me he was a Khmer Rouge soldier for 2 1/2 years, although he refers to that time as when he was 'fighting for King Sihanouk'. He once saw the old king, back in Mondulkiri during the war. Sihanouk had not yet been betrayed by the Khmer Rouge, and he was rallying the troops. “He said every soldier must try and try again, to take the country back,” Non recalled. “We must make peace for the people.” 

Making peace by going to war doesn’t make sense now, but it did to his loyal subjects back then. Sadly, neither Non nor Sihanouk knew that the group that they had joined would turn genocidal and kill over a million Cambodian civilians, including some of the king's own family. Just like Sihanouk, young Non was duped.


Sihanouk (center) regretted joining the communists
Non's Khmer Rouge unit fought in the same area where we had traveled through earlier in the day, around Phnom Cheu Kach. Fighting there was so intense, that those hills are still full of landmines and unexploded munitions today. I ask Non if he was scared when they used to get bombed by B-52 bombers. 

“Scared or not scared, no problem,” he says. “I love my country. If I die, that’s ok. I’m very happy to die for Cambodia.”

He admits to killing just one person during his time as a Khmer Rouge. The man he killed was a government soldier.“I killed one in battle, but I didn’t want to, because he was another Khmer,” he says. “I had to fight. I had to shoot, but I didn’t want to.” Given the massive number of civilians killed by the Khmer Rouge, I don't know if I believe him. 

Non left the Khmer Rouge when their first war ended in 1975, and like everyone else in the country, he became a farmer on a forced labor commune. As he was of marrying age, the Khmer Rouge leader of his commune later selected his wife for him. He was in his 30’s, his wife in her 20’s. For a blind marriage that was arranged by cult-like communist radicals, this one worked. Non and his wife are still together today, with six sons and two daughters. 

Non's wife also came from a poor family, which made her a good fit for the Khmer Rouge. “My wife is illiterate, she didn't go to school,” Non tells me. “Pol Pot Regime made her a nurse.” She’s still a nurse now, and even delivers babies. With so many illiterate nurses, it’s no wonder that the health care system in Cambodia is still a disaster. 

I ask Non when life was better in Cambodia, before the Khmer Rouge, or after their era. He angles his answer back to his beloved king again.  

“I love the family life during the Sihanouk Regime,” he says. “Now it’s bad for living. There's government corruption. The poor have problems; the rich and the foreign companies have so much.” 

These complaints sound exactly like those used by the Khmer Rouge to attract recruits back in the 1970’s. So I ask him, “If the king asked you to go to the hills now, to go fight again, would you go?”

His answer is chilling, and there's no hesitation on his part. “Yes. Sihanouk is a very good leader. He take care of the people.” It seems that Non didn't learn anything from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge years. Much like the Nazi's, he's content to just follow orders. 

So I've been sitting here, having a chat with an Ex-Khmer Rouge, one of the most murderous regimes in history, and he has no regrets. And I bought him a soy bean milk too. 

I head back to Neak Luong, and then on to Phnom Penh. On the way, I think about this ex-Khmer Rouge soldier, and his lack of remorse for joining them. I guess for some people, ignorance is bliss. 


*Added Note* The above discussion with the Ex-Khmer Rouge soldier, took place before King Sihanouk's death.

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