News24

Khmer Rouge: US 'helped'

2009-04-06 21:23

Phnom Penh - The man accused of serving as the Khmer Rouge's chief torturer testified on Monday that US policies in the 1970s contributed to the brutal regime's rise to power and said he realised early on that the communist movement would be a "disaster" for Cambodia.

Kaing Guek Eav (pronounced Gang Geck EE-UU), better known by his nom de guerre Duch, made the observation as part of a detailed account of his personal journey to revolution. Early on, he said, he realised that the Khmer Rouge's activities would end up in a "disaster".

Duch (pronounced Doik) spoke as the UN-assisted tribunal began the second week of his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as homicide and torture.

The 66-year-old commanded Phnom Penh's S-21 prison - also known as Tuol Sleng - when the Khmer Rouge held power in 1975-79. As many as 16 000 men, women and children are believed to have been tortured there before being executed.

Phenomenal memory

Duch took the stand last week to deliver a personal statement of remorse, but on Monday began his actual testimony, in which he demonstrated a phenomenal memory for detail, reciting without notes people's names and exact dates of activities from four decades ago.

One of the judges, Jean Marc Lavergne of France, led him through detailed questioning covering everything from personal motives to the guerrillas' administrative structure and conditions at their jungle camps.

Duch testified with enthusiasm and earned a reprimand by sometimes answering questions before they were translated into the court's three official languages of Cambodian, French and English.

Asked by Lavergne to put his story in a historical context, Duch said - without any apparent intention to justify his actions - that he believed the Khmer Rouge would have died out by 1970 if the United States had not supported Cambodia's military-led government following the 1970 coup d'état that removed Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power.

He attempted to describe the confusing politics of Cambodia in the late 1960s and early 70s, as the Vietnam War raged on Cambodia's eastern border and the Khmer Rouge tried to recruit peasants and intellectuals angry with Sihanouk's autocratic regime.

Backing from Nixon and Kissinger

"I think the Khmer Rouge would already have been demolished," he said of their status by 1970. "But Mr Kissinger (then US secretary of state) and Richard Nixon were quick [to back coup leader Gen Lon Nol], and then the Khmer Rouge noted the golden opportunity."

Because of this alliance, the Khmer Rouge were able to build up their power over the course of their 1970-75 war against the Lon Nol regime, Duch said.

Critics of the US policy say Washington agreed to the coup because it felt Sihanouk's neutralist policies benefited the communists in Vietnam, which used Cambodian territory as a rear base and a supply line.

When the coup threatened to take away the Vietnamese communists' sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, they responded by fighting back and increasing military aid to the Khmer Rouge.

Although the tribunal's mandate covers only the April 17 1975 to January 6 1979 period when the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia, Duch's initial testimony covered an earlier period when they were still fighting for power, and he commanded a jungle jail called M-13.

Duch chose to make his story a personal one, telling how he became interested in politics as a teenager and in 1964 "decided to join the revolution".

He said his parents were sympathetic to his desire to fight oppression but afraid because he risked arrest and imprisonment.

"I sacrificed everything to the revolution," he told the court.

A disaster

When he decided to go to the countryside to become a full-time Khmer Rouge cadre, he went to say goodbye to his parents. "My father was shocked," he recalled, but gave him a traditional lucky charm. His friends presented him with a watch. Then he left to take his oath of loyalty to the Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as the Khmer Rouge.

As prisoners and documents were sent to him as head of M-13, he saw that members of the Khmer Rouge were accusing, arresting and killing each order.

"I said to myself 'Oh, this is going to be a disaster'," he testified.

He said he was concerned that Khmer Rouge leaders spoke publicly only of popular reforms, keeping secret their plans for a radical communist revolution.

Duch is the first senior Khmer Rouge figure to face trial, and the only one to apologise for his actions.

Four more senior leaders of the group are also in custody and expected to be tried sometime over the next year. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from forced labor, starvation, medical neglect and executions under the Khmer Rouge.