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We Didn’t Start the Fire My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia

Sam Rainsy With

David Whitehouse


Contents

Introductory Note. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii Chronology. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ix 1. Expulsion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 2. Sam Sary. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 3. Life in France.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23 4. The Fall of Cambodia. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31 5. After the Khmer Rouge. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43 6. Return as Finance Minister. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63 7. Going It Alone. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89 8. Coup d’Etat. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101 9. Corruption and Land Grabbing. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111 10. Vote Early, Vote Often . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141 11. Exiled Again. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159 12. Putting Out the Fire: The Future of Cambodia. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169 Epilogue . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195 Appendix . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 199 Notes.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201 Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 205 v


1

Expulsion

We are not depending on either the West or the East to help us through. But we know that in this day and age the opinion of the international community cannot be ignored. No country can survive by itself. No country can be an island unto itself. We know that. And we want to live in a world where each country is linked to the others through bonds of humanity. —Aung San Suu Kyi, The Voice of Hope

The day the police raided our house, they brought a stretcher and a length of rope with them in case they found my father. Norodom Sihanouk, the prince and head of state, had just spoken on national radio to accuse my father of plotting against Cambodia. The National Assembly had unanimously voted that he should be arrested. It was January 20, 1959. I was ten years old. The reason for the stretcher was clear enough. The reason for the rope, I later discovered, was to inflict the same posthumous humiliation as that suffered by Dap Chhuon, a political leader convicted of treason against Sihanouk. After being shot, his body was dragged through the streets of Phnom Penh at slow speed by a military vehicle. A loudspeaker on top of the car blared that this is what happens to traitors. The blood-covered corpse slowly disintegrated until nothing recognizable remained. That was what they wanted to do to my father, Sam Sary. There were dozens of police cars and vans parked in the streets around our house. Men shouted orders as their dogs barked and barked. Our family, 1


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consisting of our mother, In Em, and five children, of which I was the youngest, were all pushed into a room while the police searched the house. They couldn’t find Father, which made them furious, but they seized the house. In fact, Sam Sary had left home a few weeks before. With our house confiscated, we had nowhere to go. We were put up by two of our great aunts, Has Nou and Has Nourn, in a house resting on pilotis, or wooden piles, that stood on the banks of the River Mekong. All our movements, including daily trips to and from school, were under government surveillance. I would sometimes see the Chrysler and Corvette cars that had been seized from our family driving around the streets of Phnom Penh. They had new registration plates marked “bst” which stood for Biens Saisis aux Traitres or “Property Seized from Traitors.” Mother lost her job as a teacher at Norodom College after the raid. Father was caricatured in the national newspapers as a dog with a human head. We were taunted at school by other children, some of whom would chant in the street about Sam Sary the dog. Erstwhile political allies of my father disappeared, and previous friends of the family were no longer willing to receive us. This to me was shocking enough to make me forever cautious and reluctant in trusting people who present themselves as being friends or allies. My brother Emmarith paid perhaps the highest price. He had been in love with a young lady and his feelings seemed to have been reciprocated. Now, her family wanted nothing more to do with him. We were all grateful to our great aunts for having accepted us. But we had lived a life of luxury and now conditions were hard. My older brothers had to bend down to enter the dark room that my family shared with our great aunts. Mother would put up a wall of sheet metal or a curtain to try to give everyone a space in which to work. Our toilet was a rainwater basin outside. We continued to celebrate birthdays, which came to serve the purpose of binding us together and showing that we had not been defeated. We would eat duck on these special occasions, our sole treat. Despite my mother’s efforts, I was disoriented and terrified. I would calculate how to escape quickly from any building that I found myself


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in. If they tried to arrest me, I decided that I would try to run to the French embassy. Little did we know that our nightmare had only just begun. On August 31, 1959, a parcel addressed to Sihanouk was opened by Prince Norodom Vakrivan, assistant director of the royal household. The package exploded and Vakrivan died instantly. Sihanouk believed wrongly that it was my father who had attempted to kill him. Dozens of arrests ensued, including that of Mother, our paternal grandfather Sam Nhean, as well as uncles, cousins, and others that were still close to the family. Sam Duol Nan, a brother of my father, was abducted by the military and simply disappeared. A family friend Savanary and my cousin Su Vathay were shot after being held in prison for several months. This was despite the fact that there was no evidence against my father, still less against my mother or any of the others. Twice a day on my way to and from school I would pass the prison on rue Pasteur where I knew Mother was being held. Tears would well up in my eyes as I walked along the street. She was physically so near, perhaps only a few meters away. Only walls and barbed wire separated us. She had been taken away from us, just as my father had been, for reasons that were beyond my comprehension. I feared that I had lost her forever. After six months, my brother Emmarith was allowed to visit her. Mother was being held in a cage that measured three square meters. There was no daylight. Once a day, she was allowed to walk in a space that measured ten square meters. Some days she was allowed to take a shower, sometimes not. Emmarith reported that her spirit was unbroken. He began to take her food. Mother quickly began to ask for luxury foods and alcohol, like duck and whisky. She used these to bribe the guards for better treatment, or to avoid worse. My sister Emmarane looked after me while Mother was in prison. She had been a maid of honor when Sihanouk put his father, Suramarit, on the throne in 1955. She was still a child herself and wanted to be playing cards or hide and seek with her brothers, but suddenly the responsibility of caring for me had landed on her. The months passed. We remained in a state of suspended misery. In the summer of 1960, we wrote a letter to Sihanouk to plead our mother’s


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case. A civil servant somewhere decided that it should be pushed up the prince’s list of correspondence. We were summoned to see Sihanouk at his palace. Our letter was publicly read out to a watching crowd. We had to join hands and approach Sihanouk to beg for clemency. “Children, children,” he greeted us. Then he feigned astonishment and flew into a theatrical rage when we told him about our mother’s ordeal. He demanded to know who could have put a woman of the quality of In Em into jail. This, rather than anything resembling a court system, was how justice operated in Cambodia. Decide for yourself as you read these pages whether much has changed in the years since. When we got home after the audience at the palace, Mother was already there. Just how far she had been mistreated in prison remained a closed subject. She never spoke about it after her release, and we didn’t dare ask her. She found us a small house and even managed to buy a Renault 41 car. Normality of a sort returned. We lived in reduced circumstances in our new home but, thanks to the tireless efforts of our mother, who worked to support us, were able to go to school to study, and to function as a family. She somehow even found time to take English lessons at the British Council. My academic results were good enough to see me reenter the Descartes High School two years above my age group. I had left after a prize that I had earned on merit was taken away and given to someone else because of my father. In between, I spent time at the Sisowath School. The fact that I was able to achieve these successes in such conditions is testimony to my parents’ strong values, and in particular to the sacrifices made by my mother. I think the strength of character of our parents would have enabled us children to succeed in any setting. Mother did everything she could to protect us from further reprisals. To this end, she sought and was granted an audience with Queen Kossamak, the wife of Sihanouk’s father, King Suramarit. When she received my mother, the queen took an orange from a bowl and held it up in her hand. “Do you see this fruit?” the queen asked. “It looks very tasty. But I can’t eat it. Do you know why? Because it could be poisoned. So I can’t have it, unless I want to risk a servant’s life by having them taste it.”


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This seemed to imply that Sam Sary and my family were still considered responsible for trying to kill Sihanouk. Mother’s ordeal was, indeed, far from over. She was obliged by Sihanouk to insult her husband publicly, and even to divorce him, in a bid to protect her family. We had no news of our father. Some days we thought that he was dead. But then the fierce public attacks that Sihanouk would launch on him persuaded us that he was still alive. We were still the family of a traitor, and still ostracized by many that had been pleased to call themselves our friends when Sam Sary’s star had been rising. But one of my teachers at school found a way to comfort me in my isolation. He read out to our class a text written by my grandfather, Sam Nhean, on the importance of spirituality. When Cambodia was part of French Indochina, Sam Nhean was one of the first Cambodians to succeed in climbing the civil service ladder that was almost exclusively reserved for the Vietnamese. He was a fervent promoter of Buddhism and became a postwar minister of culture. He suffered in prison with my mother, and the experience may have contributed to his death in 1962. As the teacher read to a silenced class, I was transformed for just a short while from being the son of a traitor into the grandson of a wise man. In January 1965, while speaking on national radio, Sihanouk ordered our family to leave Cambodia immediately. Radio was his favored method of communication, as the lack of a right of reply was effective in sustaining a climate of fear. Only Sihanouk had a voice with which to speak, and, without notice or forewarning, he had spoken. Emmarane was a few months away from getting the qualification that would have opened the way to a career in the upper levels of the civil service. Emmarith had just passed his baccalaureat and had won a scholarship to study in the us. Emmara, my oldest brother, was already in France by now, studying commerce. One of Emmarane’s teachers was a French interior ministry civil servant called Jean Giordan. He had been sent on a teaching placement to Cambodia. As soon as he heard the news, he told Emmarane that we should go to the French embassy and seek political asylum. But there was no time to get there. The police had already come to the house that Mother had built for us, using the last of her savings, just a few months before.


We Didn’t Start the Fire