MY TRIP TO PAILIN
“Two people with the same fate”
By Keo Kounila
About three decades later, I came to Pailin, a former KR last stronghold, to work so hard as a translator or fixer to explore the truth from the Khmer Rouge leaders. Years of listening to and keeping track of the stories told by my mother and other survivors about how hard they worked to survive during the Khmer Rouge regime makes me frustrated and curious to find out why “Khmer” killed Khmer.
I never thought I would come face to face with people I have always thought as cruel and who have committed brutal acts towards the same humankind. Later, I found that most of the people now living in Pailin were “based” people, considered as pure race and well-treated by Pol Pot. Many former Khmer Rouge officials or workers have moved there. They had a close contact with those former Khmer Rouge top leaders. For years, I have had no ideas of who exactly was behind the killing of about two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979 and what motives pushed the mass killing in a small country like Cambodia.
On the bus from Phnom Penh to Battambang, I took all the chances and time I had to think about the prospect of being there, where I would meet people whom in my mind I did not want to see and hear voices from. As time was going so slowly while I was mentally counting each minute and hour, one idea after another comes and replaces each other. After several hours I spent dealing with my emotions and figuring out how I really was, I felt I had to be very energetic on the first day of my traveling and I was, really was.
Annie, an American journalist whom I worked for as a fixer, thought that it would be a scary moment for me to interview all those KR people or perhaps a difficult moment for me to cope with. I questioned myself for sure many times if now I was trembling with fear. Not! I was breathing well and collecting myself for a battle. I told myself I would never be scared of them at all.
Even though I would not be secure, at least it was worth being there, tracking down people who could tell us what made them a Khmer Rouge. There would never be 100% security for us during our lifetime, so why shouldn’t I be taking this adventure to do what I believe?
So I hoped that they would not do any harm to both of us; the cruelty within themselves should pass away as the memories they have and I want to know should be still going on.
I was not aware of what pushed my pulse to be courageous. On the first day in Pailin, I phoned a few former KR officials, now working inside the government. I talked to three of them on phone and they finally agreed to talk to me, though one of them told most of the worst lies that I did not wish to hear.
I thought we are here to listen to them talk, but at the same time, Anne, the American journalist I was working with, said that we had not to believe him easily and had to find the truth for our readers, so we could not publish his words or ideas without obtaining the facts behind them. We journalists cannot afford to let our readers get confused over what we are going to write in the news.
On the second day, we interviewed a former KR radio speaker. He was charming and, as I noticed, was not scared of us. He told us not all he knew but what he knew best.
He worked in the KR radio in Pailin after 1979, very carefully monitored by Pol Pot. He told us that all he said was written and strictly controlled by Pol Pot. In the afternoon, we talked to a cameraman who followed Pol Pot everywhere during the KR regime.
While he was talking about his experience working with Pol Pot, he appeared very pleased with his past work. What I found interesting about all the things he said was ‘he couldn’t see any suspicious thing that people were starved to death.’
He said that everywhere he went, he saw people working in the paddy fields with smiles and laughter on the faces. The people whom he met looked healthy and well-fed. At that moment, I wanted to shout at his face that ‘my grandfather was starved to death, and many hundred of people were starving while you were looking at all those smiling and laughing people, which was a really well set-up site.’
It is hard to tell if he is guilty; he said that after the war was over, he realized with shock that mass killings and death of thousands really occurred. After all the three interviews, I asked a government official in the Pailin municipality to phone another former Khmer Rouge official whom I hard knew about and who is now one of the deputy governors there.
He refused to talk to me no matter how much I persuaded him. I called him twice, of which the second try was done because of Annie’s encouragement. He said that he had been cheated enough by journalists. Of course, because of that I knew that he had had a very bitter or unpleasant experience with some other journalists who came here before. He sounded a little bit angry on the phone at last, but I politely thanked him.
This is a tad bit of what happened during my very first 5-day trip to Pailin as a journalist fixer in Pailin. Travelling from one paddy field to another, I imagined that there would be an end to this. Finding the truth isn’t as easy as counting the number of paddy fields. Its 100 times more complicated and time-consuming. Then again, we are asking ourselves the same question: when can the truth be found?