CHAM KAR BEI, CAMBODIA — I'm very happy to finish the sadness of war," says Chuk Rin, commander of roughly 300 former Khmer Rouge guerrillas who stopped fighting Cambodia's government in late 1994 in exchange for amnesty and a parcel of land near the town of Kampot.
Oddly enough, Mr. Chuk Rin and his comrades pretty much controlled the same land before they defected to the government side - and even farmed some of it. But they say that private, peaceful ownership is an improvement.
The life of the plantation owner agrees with Chuk Rin. He seems pleased to show off his fields, where he grows bananas, corn, and a Southeast Asian fruit called durian, among other things. "I'm the son of farmers," he explains with a smile.
The legacy of his parents seems much more important to him than that of his elders in the Khmer Rouge movement, who were so anticapitalist they banned money when they ran Cambodia in the late 1970s. More than 1 million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge years, the victims of forced labor, ruthless purges, and a stunning disregard for human life.
Chuk Rin distances himself from Khmer Rouge "hard-liners," a stance that many in the movement have adopted in recent years. According to American journalist Nate Thayer, this July members of the movement repudiated their longtime leader, Pol Pot, at a show trial at the group's jungle headquarters in northern Cambodia. Khmer Rouge factions in western Cambodia have also broken away from the movement in exchange for peace.
Chuk Rin, a middle-aged man who joined the Khmer Rouge around 1970, says he kept fighting for so many years mainly to evict the Vietnamese from Cambodia. Provoked by Mr. Pol Pot's close ties with China and minor Khmer Rouge invasions of Vietnamese territory, Vietnam invaded the country in late 1978, installed a friendly government, and stayed until 1989. "We were fighting for the safety and territory of the whole nation, not just for communism or Pol Pot," Chuk Rin says.
It didn't make for an easy life - the rebels spent more than a decade living in the jungle, at times raiding villages for food.
Chuk Rin is notorious in Cambodia for having kidnapped three Western backpackers traveling by train in the region in 1994. He handed his three hostages over to another Khmer Rouge leader, who killed them despite protracted ransom negotiations.
Now he lives comfortably in a government-supplied cement house, with a Hyundai sedan and a tractor out front, and talks about ways to develop his community and raise the level of education. "I don't want to see Khmer and Khmer killing each other," he says.
"We are surprised to receive all this help from the government and other organizations," adds Chum Nung, another Khmer Rouge defector. "I feel like we should have come out earlier."