Hailed for encouraging mass defections among his former guerrilla comrades in
the south, hated by Western governments who want him behind bars, Chhouk Rin was
formally commissioned a Royal Army officer on Dec 28. He told Jason Barber,
Ros Sokhet and Matthew Graiger about his life, his battles and the
CHHOUK Rin should be dead. After 24 years with the Khmer
Rouge, he bears his credentials as a fighter - a lucky one - on his body.
Dozens of scars, gouges and mutilations cover him from head to toe. Ask
him how many times he has been injured, he replies uncertainly: "I can not
remember, it's been so many times - nearly 100 times?"
He rolls up his
left trouser leg, revealing an angry, inch-wide and deep gash from knee to
groin, the relic of a battle almost 20 years ago. "Automatic gun," he says by
way of explanation.
His right thigh is almost identically savaged, and
half his left foot is missing from a landmine blast.
He bows his head to
show scars, the tiny to the big, from battles remembered or forgotten. His hands
bear almost perfectly round spots where bullets have passed through them, and
other scars work their way up his arms. His cheek bears a puckered blemish where
a bullet shaved his flesh.
He points his finger like the barrel of a
pistol, jabbing it up and down his body, tracing where bullets and shrapnel have
When Colonel Chhouk Rin-who has fought the Vietnamese and a
series of Cambodian regimes, served as a Major under Pol Pot's "liberated"
Cambodia, helped command more than a decade of terrorist missions from one of
the KR's strongest bases and, most recently, abducted three foreigners to their
deaths - tells you he knows how to fight, you believe him.
He talks with
pride but without a trace of arrogance.
"I have studied in actual
war.... I cannot say I am skillful, but I can solve problems," he says
Today, the former commander of Regiment 402 of the Democratic Kampuchea Army
(Khmer Rouge) "solves problems" for the Royal Government of Cambodia.
lieutenant colonel in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces - he lost half a rank
from that of a full KR colonel - the most celebrated and controversial of recent
KR turncoats has already had a formidable effect among his former
He is credited with helping to clear two key rebel
strongholds in southern Cambodia, including the Phnom Vour base that was home
for most of his fighting life.
He now lives with his wife and five
children in a decrepit villa - its front wall blown up years ago - just across
the road from a beach in scenic Kep town.
A quiet, reserved and clearly
intelligent man, Rin, a non-smoker and drinker, welcomes you to his home with an
apology for having no chairs.
Spreading a mat on the floor, he takes off
his officer's cap but leaves his sunglasses on, explaining he has sore eyes. He
listens intently to questions, and measures his answers.
Now 39, he
tells how he joined the Khmer Rouge at age 16 in 1970 after hearing ousted King
Norodom Sihanouk's appeal for fighters to resist the Lon Nol regime.
Born in a village in Kompong Trach district, Kampot, to a poor farming
family, he was the eldest of three brothers and one sister.
he joined the rebels along with four friends - he is the only survivor - by
contacting a KR recruiter in a nearby commune.
"I was happy to stop my
study and go to war. I was not afraid of being killed while still young because
we wanted the King to return to the country."
Asked about the first battlefields he saw, he replies: "There are a lot of
stories. We cannot talk about them all now. I will talk in brief"
interrupted by a neighbor, another former KR, shouting to him "I'm still sick
but better. Thanks, we will be friends for all of life".
Rin, pausing to
remember where he was, continues to say that the "contending movement to
liberate Cambodia was difficult" in the early 1970s.
Lon Nol's army had
help from United States-backed South Vietnamese forces, whose firepower far
outweighed that of the KR resistance.
"At the beginning there were
(President) Nguyen Van Thieu's troops from (South) Vietnam. There were tens of
helicopters coming to fight our forces.
"My force cooperated with the
Viet Cong to liberate Kompong Trach.......[but] my troops had to withdraw
because there were helicopters and artillery attacking us.
liberation movement was under the name 'The National Reconciliation Front' with
the King as its president. But Nguyen Van Thieu and the American forces were too
Asked who taught him to fight, he said he received two months
training but his "best teacher "was the battlefield itself.
was the son of farmers, I did not train at a military school. I have studied in
"During the last 20 years, in the necessary situation to combat
danger, I could solve the problems," he says.
He "constantly fought"
around Kompong Trach district until 1975, when the KR "liberated"
Earning himself a promotion to sergeant for his part in the
capture of Kep town, where he now lives, he was transferred to Phnom Penh under
the Pol Pot regime.
He says he never met Pol Pot but remembers meeting
Son Sen, head of the KR's Toul Sleng torture camp in Phnom Penh, and one-legged
General Ta Mok in 1975.
Promoted to major, he was appointed a company
commander of troops stationed at the Vietnamese border. He fled southward after
leading an assault across the border in late 1977 which was knocked back by a
Asked about the catalogue of murders attributed to the
KR under Pol Pot, Rin pauses and says: "As far as I know [only] part of those
people were killed by the Khmer Rouge.....
"A lot of my former
commanders were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and many other leaders killed on the
pretext they were CIA or KGB, but I don't understand that."
else committed killings, if not just the KR, he replies: "I dare not talk about
that because I'm not quite sure."
On whether he considered the KR
government had been good or bad, he says: "I can say either good or bad, because
there were difficult and easy things.
"First, the regime was clean - free
from corruption. The difficult things were that both the people and soldiers
didn't have enough food and there was no freedom of expression, protest, writing
or publication and other freedoms."
Stationed in Kampot province when
invading Vietnamese forces swamped across the border to oust the Pol Pot
government in 1979, he fled to Phnom Vour - his home for 16 years.
he met the mountain's commander, General Nuon Paet - a name now infamous since
the deaths of three foreign hostages on Phnom Vour last year.
strength was small. For the whole of the Phnom Vour area, there were less than
20 soldiers. But he and I regarded each other as good friends and jointly
implemented the political work, so crowds of people came to join us."
1983 Paet's numbers were growing stronger, to more than 100 soldiers, and
serious resistance operations could begin.
In line with orders from the
KR leadership, raids were mounted against troops of the Vietnamese-supported
"The aim was to chase out the Vietnamese and take control of
Rin considered Paet an able soldier, "the same as me" and
during their 16 years together "we understood each other".
their orders from KR leaders via "telegraph" - written instructions passed
through the KR network - and radio.
Life on Phnom Vour was not hard.
Malaria was the biggest danger.
"It was no problem for the old soldiers
because they had experience with [that style of] living, but many of the new
people who had just joined the Khmer Rouge had problems with malaria."
In 1980, soon after arriving on Phnom Vour, he had half a foot blown off
by a landmine. He says that, like the gunshot wounds to his thighs he suffered,
he would not have survived without good medical treatment.
The KR on
Phnom Vour launched regular raids to seize medicine and other goods.
also received them from sympathizers in Kampot villages - he talks of outside
people "crowding into my house" to bring supplies to him.
medicine from Kompong Trach and Phnom Penh. The soldiers didn't bring them, but
we had a force [of carriers] among the villagers."
He says he identified
many such sympathizers to government authorities after he defected.
Asked whether he believed there was a KR presence in Phnom Penh, he
says: "More or less. There are some sent from Pailin."
"The policy of the Khmer Rouge is to conduct terrorism....if there are no such
activities in Phnom Penh, there must be some political activities. They observe
the political situation."
The KR on Phnom Vour were strongest, with more
than 400 guerrillas, shortly before last July's kidnapping of three foreign
tourists - Englishman Mark Slater, Australian David Wilson and Frenchman
Jean-Michel Braquet - which eventually led to the mountain's fall.
who led the train ambush which nabbed the foreigners but denies any knowledge of
their later deaths - begins giving noticeably shorter answers when questioned
about them. He mentions having another appointment, and cannot talk for much
At no time does he express remorse for the deaths on humanitarian
grounds, instead focusing on the fact that they achieved no tactical military
Asked directly how he feels about the tourists, he says: "I
don't understand, I don't understand what their [the KR's] policy was. What they
were killed for, I do not know."
He is adamant he urged the hostages be
released for a ransom, but says he was ignored.
That was one reason why
his relations with Paet deteriorated and, hearing of the government's KR
amnesty, decided to defect on Oct 15.
He says he understands the
British, French and Australian governments' anger that he has gone unpunished
for kidnapping the three, but gives the solder's 'I was only following orders'
"In the battle, I was not the commander for the whole force.
"There was someone higher than me who gave the order. If the chief
pointed to anywhere [to ambush], I, as their inferior, had to do so."
Asked whether he considered the train ambush one of his great successes,
he says: "No, because it brought no advantage."
But he goes on to say
that it had some benefit. "First, it interrupted the transportation of the
government and, second, we took the three hostages to serve the [KR's] supreme
military, political and diplomatic work, especially concerning the big powers
involved in military aid such as Australia, America and France."
considers the most successful mission of his time with the KR was in 1979, when
he led a force which captured and held a Kompong Trach town against Vietnamese
troops for several days.
Asked how many people he had personally killed
during his 24 years of war, he says: "I don't know. We were constantly fighting
each other - they fired at me; I fired at them. But many of my fighter friends
died. Of my generation, less than ten of 100 survived. And the survivors are all
Would he like to give up being a soldier? "The nation needs
me. I have to continue serving the nation. When I grow a bit older I will