From Cambodia's Killing Fields to New York, a new film confronts Khmer Rouge

Will the conviction of Khmer Rouge torture chief 'Duch' be the beginning of justice for 1970s war crimes? A documentary that premiers today in New York City argues it could be.

YouTube screengrab
In this image a scene is shown in the new film 'Enemies of the People.'

In the new film "Enemies of the People," the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge leader still living promises to disclose at his war crimes trial details of the mysterious inner workings of the regime.

"I will talk about it at the court to open their eyes," says the notoriously secretive Nuon Chea, pledging to explain the 1970s mass killings that still confound Cambodians.

The documentary won the 2010 Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and began a series of US screenings July 30 in New York (see trailer below).

Mr. Nuon is expected to go on trial next year, following up on the court's initial July 26 verdict against a Khmer Rouge chief jailer, Kaing Guek Eav, or "Duch," who ran a torture facility. Duch was sentence to 19 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Unlike Duch, who was not a member of the ruling clique, Nuon was second in command only to Brother No. 1 Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

Observers say Nuon's case will be more revealing and satisfying for Cambodians who seek to understand better why the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million countrymen in the 1970s, including the brother of Thet Sambath.

Mr. Thet, for one, didn't wait for a court to tell him what he wants to know. Over the past two decades, while the international community negotiated with the government to establish the United Nations-backed tribunal here, Thet was venturing into the jungles of western Cambodia to pose his own questions to Nuon and other Khmer Rouge.

"I want to know what went on inside the Khmer Rouge – why the starvation, why the killing," says the journalist, who teamed up with British coproducer Rob Lemkin for "Enemies of the People." In the film, slated to air on PBS next year, Nuon and other former Khmer Rouge reveal a previously unheard history that contradicts the government narrative.

In the national myth of the liberation, the Khmer Rouge was a monolithic organization that massacred those it imagined to be enemies until regime defectors and their Vietnamese benefactors charged to the rescue. Nuon suggests that the enemies were, to some extent, real. According to Nuon, the Communist Party was engaged in an internal struggle – his group against a powerful pro-Vietnamese faction. Both factions killed enemies, real and perceived.

If Nuon is to be believed, then his court testimony could implicate Khmer Rouge defectors who remain in the highest seats of government today. This may be why the government has been stonewalling the court, say observers. They point to, for example, the refusal of six top politicians to testify despite legally binding orders. Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a regime defector, has said he'd rather see the court fail than prosecute more people.

Even if this version of history brings the viewer closer to the truth, Thet is careful to point out that none of this absolves Nuon of killing innocents. In the film, Nuon admits publicly, for the first time, that he ordered the killing of thousands of political opponents, which is probably evidence enough to convict him for war crimes – if he ever makes it to trial.


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