< One Cambodian Journalist's Search for Justice

Transcript

Friday, December 09, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Last month, the second United Nations-backed tribunal began trying leaders of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist regime accused of committing torture and genocide between 1975 and 1979. An estimated 1.7 seven million people were murdered, close to a quarter of the population at the time. But in the decades since, only one man has been tried and convicted for those crimes.

Thet Sambath has been trying to change that. An investigative journalist for Cambodia's largest paper, he spent ten years befriending and gently coaxing dozens of confessions from those he suspected were guilty. His crowning achievement? An apology, on camera, from Nuon Chea, the second in command of the Khmer Rouge, the highest-ranking person now on trial.

Sambath's film, Enemies of the People, is his attempt to explain the past to a generation of Cambodians who widely refuse to believe that such brutality was perpetrated by their forebears.

THET SAMBATH:

Because all the Khmer Rouge kept quiet, did not tell the people. When any journalists went to talk to the top Khmer Rouge leader, especially Nuon Chea, he always deny any killing.

BOB GARFIELD:

You spend years ingratiating yourself with Nuon Chea, softening him up, before he was candid with you. As a reporter, was it frustrating to invest literally years to get him to speak the truth?

THET SAMBATH:

At the beginning, yes. I has to be patient a lot because if I just go one time, three times, ten time to get it, it is impossible. I take four years. Then he start to tell everything, yes? I just tried to go to see him every weekend.

BOB GARFIELD:

You drove from Phnom Penh to the north of the country every weekend for four years, years of patience, as you say. But it also took you years of silence, because of - not what you asked Nuon Chea but of what you didn't tell him.

THET SAMBATH:

I didn't tell him about my family members, especially my mother, my father and brother die during that time, because if I told him, Nuon Chea would stop talking to me because he thought that I am not neutral. I try to keep my background very secret.

Even my wife, my children, I never told them about my family member die during the Khmer Rouge, because I am worried that my wife or my children can leak this information outside, and then other people, especially like Nuon Chea and other Khmer Rouge, they know about this problem and then they would stop talking to me, until at the end, I decide to tell Nuon Chea because I saw that the cop was going to arrest Nuon Chea, and then I tell him about that.

Even Nuon Chea, he's surprised about when I told him, because when I am talking with Nuon Chea we are very friendly to each other.

BOB GARFIELD:

You know, there was a film by Quentin Tarantino, released about the time that Enemies of the People was released, called Inglorious Basterds. And one of the characters in the film, her family was murdered by the Nazis, and she finds herself dining a year or so later with the murderer. It's very dramatic, it's very tense. But it was fiction.

Watching you in this film, sitting down and smiling with "Brother Number Two" and his family, it's a chilling thing to witness.

THET SAMBATH:

At the beginning, yes. When I talked to Nuon Chea and other killer, it makes my heart is not so good. Especially when I talk to the killer, they always talk about how they kill the people, how they cut - the way they kill my father is similar, and that make me very sad. But I just keep quiet.

BOB GARFIELD:

You told a New York Times reporter that you came to like Nuon Chea.

THET SAMBATH:

I met Nuon Chea, I talk Nuon Chea more frequently I talked to my brother and my sister, yes? So even Nuon Chea, he also talk a lot to me, more than his relative. He didn't tell his children about what's happening during that time. Even his children are surprised - why his father told me, he didn't tell them anything. If Nuon Chea die, I think the Khmer Rouge, his story finished.

BOB GARFIELD:

The story resides only in the memories of Nuon Chea. Pol Pot has been dead for years.

THET SAMBATH:

Nuon Chea and Pol Pot, they are the same person. I talked to Nuon Chea, he said if Pol Pot still alive, I - took him to see you, and both also, we talk to you.

BOB GARFIELD:

Sambath, I - I asked you about that fictional film, Inglorious Basterds, for a reason. The character who sat quietly with her family's murderer did so because she was looking for revenge. But you seem not to have had that motivation.

When the United Nations tribunal asked you for your raw tape to help them with their prosecution, you said no, that you wanted your film not to be prosecutorial evidence but historical evidence.

THET SAMBATH:

I do not need to get them 10 years, 30 years or 100 year in jail. What I want is let them confess, because when the killer - and Nuon Chea - they confess everything, it mean that they accept their punishment already, yes, and they want to say apologize to all Cambodian victim.

BOB GARFIELD:

What was the reaction in Cambodia to your film?

THET SAMBATH:

Some Cambodian, they asked me to arrange to meet the killer. I said, why you want to meet them. They said, I want to go and hug them and to say yeah, I forgive them.

BOB GARFIELD:

Why would they want to hug these people that were murderers?

THET SAMBATH:

They, they want to hug them because these people, they confess. And then the victim, they understand, oh, these people, they also under oppression, pressure from other Khmer Rouge leaders that order them to kill. If they did not follow the order, they would be killed too. They pity these people.

BOB GARFIELD:

Sambath, thank you very much for joining us.

THET SAMBATH:

Thank you to you too, yes.

BOB GARFIELD:

Thet Sambath is director of Enemies of the People and a reporter at The Phnom Penh Post.