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The game-changer that wasn’t: Meeting the reclusive man behind what may be the first written record from inside the Khmer Rouge

Ith Sarin, who asked that his face not be shown, at his home in Siem Reap.
Ith Sarin, who asked that his face not be shown, at his home in Siem Reap. Heng Chivoan

The game-changer that wasn’t: Meeting the reclusive man behind what may be the first written record from inside the Khmer Rouge

The nearest neighbour to Ith Sarin’s villa in Siem Reap is about five minutes away, and that’s no coincidence. Since he left the United States for Cambodia five years ago, Sarin has been hiding from the sound of traffic, and from the public eye – not to mention those of journalists and politicians. He is afraid, first and foremost, they will use him for propaganda.

The 80-year-old sat on a bench last weekend on the lush grounds of his villa, playing with his Labrador retriever.

“Please don’t give my contact or tell where I am to anyone,” he told The Post. “I want to spend the last period of my life living a simple person’s life in peace and quiet.”

His name may not ring a bell to most Cambodians, but among those who lived through the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes, he was well-known for a book,Sronos Proleung Khmer (Regretting Khmer Souls), a “personal memoir” that described his nine months living with Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the early 1970s.

Published shortly after he left the front in 1973, the book is claimed by scholars and historians to be the first written record from inside the Khmer Rouge, and the only to be published before the brutal arrival of Year Zero. The writing reveals the movement’s fierce stance against Prince Norodom Sihanouk, not just the Lon Nol regime, and its penchant for violence.

The memoir was also translated into English by the United States Embassy in Phnom Penh under the title Ith Sarin: Nine Months With The Maquis. It’s a book Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, has had on his office desk for nearly 20 years, and, he said, was distributed among embassies throughout the country at that time.

Chhang Song, the former minister of information under Lon Nol and an old friend of Sarin, called the book “the work of a real scholar”.

After the Khmer Rouge came to power, there was speculation about Sarin’s death. Some said he was killed in a Democratic Kampuchea security centre, as revenge for defecting from them, while others said he died while trying to flee the country. Those who learned that he went to the US claimed he died there from disease. But Sarin is still alive today and ready to tell his story one last time.

On the inside
Having lived in French-ruled Cambodia, Sarin understood the misery and exploitation suffered by his people at the hands of foreign powers, and as a result he hated imperialism. Still, he contends today that he was never partial to communism.

“There is nothing I hate more than communism,” he said. “But, like many educators at that time, I was a progressive, who wants positive reforms for his country, especially unity among people.”

Sarin remembers that when Lon Nol led a coup to remove Prince Sihanouk as the head of the state in 1970, many local scholars were delighted because of Sihanouk’s increasingly close relations with China and the communist bloc.

But Sarin was disappointed by Lon Nol’s inability to rule the country wisely, and to restrain the spread of communism.

The ideology, he said, had already reached “the liver” of the Lon Nol government when he decided to leave his job to join the National United Front of Kampuchea, an anti-Lon Nol movement that joined forces with the Khmer Rouge.

“At that time, many officials under Lon Nol joined the Khmer Rouge,” he said.

Sarin’s journey towards the Khmer Rouge started on April 17, 1972, exactly three years before the fall of Phnom Penh. That afternoon, Sarin, along with his friend and colleague Kong Lonthon, got into a jeep with their recruiter.

They arrived first in Kandal province, where he met a Khmer Rouge member claiming to be the chief of a “spy unit”, who would guide his journey the next day.

Sarin would spend the next year living with Khmer Rouge cadres. In the early stages, he was impressed by them. Many had been educated in Western countries, but they had a modest, peasant way of life, and a long list of rules to strictly follow.

But as time passed, his admiration soured.

His freedom to wander, to say what he wanted, and even to keep his own name, was taken away. It didn’t take him long to realise the Khmer Rouge were more a group of ultra-Maoists who hated Sihanouk than a loyal force supporting him.

“They [the cadres] were usually cursing Prince Sihanouk with words so bad that I want to forget them,” Sarin said. “So I started to question how they could tell the local folks that they were supporting the Prince.”

What discouraged him most was collectivisation, which the Khmer Rouge had been practising in some areas it occupied, and would apply to the whole country when they were fully in power.

“People had to live and eat in collectives, but that was not what they wanted,” Sarin said. “My collective in Siem Reap failed and was soon disbanded.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
An archive picture from Agence Khmere de Presse shows Cambodians leaving Phnom Penh after Khmer Rouge forces seized the Cambodian capital 25 years ago, on April 17, 1975. AGENCE KHMERE DE PRESSE/AFP

While living with the Khmer Rouge, he also witnessed their use of violence and unreasonable ferocity, both on their enemies and the innocent.

“I heard some of them bragging about killing Lon Nol’s soldiers’ wives and even children, saying that they are enemies,” Sarin said. “They also killed a group of teachers and scholars, whom they accuse of being ‘the third force’, or those who worked to unite both conflicting parties.”

Because he dared to criticise the system in meetings, Sarin was also suspected of being in this group. Fortunately, a high-ranking cadre close to him warned Sarin, and he decided to flee. After three unsuccessful attempts to escape, he invited his wife to live with him in Siem Reap.

“When I went to receive her, I grabbed her and walked out of the area,” Sarin said. “Fortunately, none of the members noticed us.”

When the couple reached Oudong, Sarin sought help from the Kampong Speu provincial chief, who brought them back to Phnom Penh.

To Sarin’s surprise, Lon Nol did not punish him but instead welcomed him with open arms back into his government, and restored him as the primary education inspector, a position he had held before and would stay in until the end of the American-backed regime.

Many officials in the Khmer Republic government, including Lon Nol, met Sarin to hear about his time with the Khmer Rouge. He decided to write and publish Sronos Proleung Khmer, which aimed to prevent the further spread of communism.

“I did not believe it when they told me that the first 6,000 copies of my book were sold out, but when I went to bookstores, I found that it was true,” Sarin said. “Even Lon Nol personally asked me for one.”

When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, Sarin, like other city residents, was forced out of the capital to Kandal. Under the Democratic Kampuchea regime, Sarin thought he had less than a 1 percent chance of survival, after learning that many former members, including his friend Lonthon, were killed when they were found.

For a period of three years and eight months, Sarin moved from one place to another and used fake names to avoid notice. Despite being on the brink of death several times, he survived, and eventually fled to a refugee camp. In 1982, some of his American friends helped him get to the US, where he restarted his life as a tailor until his retirement.

There he lived until five years ago, when Sarin decided he wanted to return home for his golden years.

“I am near my grave now so I don’t want to look back to painful experience or badmouth anyone,” he said. “I just want to spend my last year in peace.”

A warning unheeded
On top of Sarin’s personal story, Sronos Proleung Khmer provides some revealing information about a movement intimately studied since its fall.

The book paints a different picture of Hou Youn, for example, a prominent leftist whose doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne formed the cornerstone of Democratic Kampuchea’s development policy.

“Mr Hou Youn is a real patriotic scholar, and I will never believe he was a communist,” Sarin said, despite the economic principles laid out in Youn’s thesis. “While he was working in the government, I saw him spit on the ground when someone asked him to join the communists.”

Youn is believed to have been killed not long after the fall of Phnom Penh for criticising certain Khmer Rouge policies.

Youk Chhang, executive director of DC-Cam, said it is difficult to evaluate Youn based merely on Sarin’s personal relationship with him, and historian David Chandler said he was a communist through and through.

For Vong Sotheara, a history professor at Royal University of Phnom Penh, the book could have been a game-changer in the civil war.

“People did not believe in the [Khmer Rouge’s] anti-Sihanouk sentiment and violence in the book at that time,” Sotheara said. “If they had, people would have stopped supporting the Khmer Rouge, and the genocide would not have happened.”

It was a “late warning sign”, Youk Chhang said, long after the war was effectively lost.

“When the book was published, the Khmer Rouge had already controlled large parts of Cambodia,” Chhang said. “Even if the people had believed in what Sarin wrote, the Khmer Rouge would have responded with their own propaganda to convince the people what the book mentions was not true.”

For his own part, Sarin sees his book as a successful historical record but a failure in achieving his original purpose of uniting the country.

“I wrote the book because I hoped it would prevent the country from falling into communism, but it failed,” Sarin said. “About 30 percent of my life is still empty.”


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