Tuol Sala Village: The Rights of The Poor Should Not Be Forgotten

By: Ly Sok-Kheang
June 27, 2020

Justice, in the courts and at the grassroots level, was one of the remarkable topics of discussions at a community forum held in Tuol Sala village of Anlong Veng district on June 27, 2020. Other topics included: the significance of peace, security, and prosperity in the village. The Anlong Veng Peace Center of DC-Cam held a forum focusing on these subjects for the first time since the outbreak and spread of the deadly coronavirus. The participants were, therefore, asked to adhere to social distancing rules and to wash their hands with alcohol brought by the Anlong Veng Peace Center team.

As is typical, the forum is meant to connect and engage the villagers in order to raise an awareness about the history of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), the decline and, ultimately, the termination of legal proceeding against senior Khmer Rouge (KR) leaders at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, widely called the KR tribunal, and the challenges encountered by villagers and their wish to have their voices heard locally and nationally. This month, eleven villagers (4 female) participated and shared their life experiences concerning genocide and war.

Om Man, 71 years old, and Hem Khin, 75 years old, made time to attend the forum. Their experiences and perceptions were so valuable that the participants decided to build off them and kicked off their own discussion.

Man introduction himself to the group by going into detail about his early life with the KR revolution (1972-73). His work with a mobile unit lasted about 3 years, then he was transferred to a cooperative, where he was a palm sugar producer. Concerning the abovementioned concept of ‘justice,’ Man, like everyone in the forum, did not hesitate to say that when injustice prevailed during the KR regime, our lives were considered worthless and, thus, we were vulnerable to many of the KR’s arbitrary decisions that claimed our lives. Man said: “people’s lives could be taken if someone was merely suggested by any one, particularly, any member to be a bad element. We were no different than a dog that is killed because someone simply claims it was mad.” Man compared Cambodians’ life experiences to fishes being already caught in a fishing net. The rest of the participants nodded in agreement and uttered that they had no alternative but to continue their struggle for survival.

Echoing Man, Khin said that no one knew in advance that the KR’s rule (1975-1979) would cause the death of nearly 2 million people. Khin said his father and brother-in-law were executed for no reason. Khin said that he abandoned his work at a rubber plantation in Balung town of Ratanak Kiri province and entered the forest to join the KR revolution in response to Samdech Ov’s (Prince Sihanouk) appeal on the radio after Lon Nol’s coup on March 18, 1970. He added that the revolutionaries prevailed and occupied the provincial town in hopes that Samdech Ov would be put back in charge. However, this was merely wishful thinking as the KR took total control of the country and murdered nearly two million Cambodians. There was no court of law to adjudicate justice for normal citizens during that time.

The collapse of the KR regime in January 1979 brought Man a certain degree of relief but this relief was mired in false, outrageous accusations on him being affiliated with the KR. Man said that when the Vietnamese army arrived in his village gun shots were heard on a daily basis. The village became of place of tug-of-war between the incoming army and the remnants of the KR forces. Man was so fed up with the allegations that he decided to leave for Anlong Veng in 1982 or 1983 under the guidance of Rem, a former KR soldier in Division 980.

Having resettled in Anlong Veng after the war and since the final reintegration of the KR movement in 1998, Man admitted that he had one chance to observe justice. For him, it was, despite being imperfect and improper, a grassroots approach to justice. He and his wife, Hean Mao, were asked to gather together with the masses in Anlong Veng to observe the trial of Pol Pot, the former Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea. Approximately 400 or 500 villagers showed up without knowing anything about nature of the gathering. It was believed that Pol Pot had no advanced notice of the trial as well. The gathering started with a series of condemnations concerning Pol Pot being responsible for the death of Son Sen, former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defense of Democratic Kampuchea, and his entire family.

When asked about what ‘justice’ means to them, Man and Khin defined it as “rightfulness, no biases, no corruption, and no contaminated elements.” Out of the 11 participants, Khin was the only one who had the chance to attend an actual court-hearing at the KR tribunal in Phnom Penh. He said: “I am very supportive of the trial as the regime committed numerous extrajudicial killings including murdering my family members.”

All the participants, rich or poor, and powerful or powerless, believed that everyone should be equal before the law. On this point, Man’s remark was referring to land grabbing as an example. He commented that because the poor are always vulnerable to injustice concerning this issue and others, their rights should be well protected. All the participants further concluded that we all cherish peace, security, and the value of unity as we all have already endured untold hardships and suffering during the war. Man emphasized that: “I don’t want to sleep in the rain anymore, and I also don’t want to see more injustice in the forms of flagrant abuses of individual’s rights in this and the next generation.” In addition, Khin also concluded that: “In order for our country to not return to the brutal past, Cambodians need to unite, be in solidarity with each other, and to be tolerant of others. It is particularly essential that each citizen knows what is right and what is wrong. History is relevant to the present.”

TEAM: Sout Vechet, Mek Navin, Hean Pisey and Ly Sok-Kheang
REPORT: Ly Sok-Kheang
DONOR: United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

Community Forum inside a public hall in Tuol Sala village
A villager sharing his thoughts on the presented topics
Hem Khin, chief of Tuol Sala village
Om Man, second from right, sitting in the back row during the forum