TRAPEANG TAV, Oddar Meanchey province (Khmer Times) – To prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Im Chaem is a ruthless killer, a woman they say ordered the deaths of 40,000 people during the murderous years of the Khmer Rouge era.
But to her daughter Kiang Ry, Im Chaem is a loving mother and grandmother, a devout Buddhist, and a much-respected figure in her village of Trapeang Tav, 10 kilometers south of the Thai border.
“In this area, no one hates her,” Ms. Ry told Khmer Times. “She was the village chief and always took care of the villagers.” Nestled in the remote Dangrek Mountains, Trapeang Tav lies in Anlong Veng district, Oddar Meanchay province, the last holdout of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge regime that brutalized Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, is buried here. It was only in 1998 that the area came under government control.
Until 1998, Anlong Veng was the home of Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge de facto defense minister, more popularly as “Brother Number Five” or “the Butcher”.
Almost everyone over the age of 50 who lives in this remote pocket of northwestern Cambodia is a former Khmer Rouge cadre. No one interviewed here accepted that Im Chaem is guilty of crimes against humanity and homicide, the charges leveled against her two weeks ago by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
“How can any woman have killed as many people as they say she did?” asked Ev Rim, Ms. Chaem’s 47-year-old neighbor.
No one, not even her daughter, disputes that Ms. Chaem was a Khmer Rouge district commander in neighboring Banteay Meanchay province.
The ECCC charges Ms.Chaem’s authority extended over the notorious Phnom Trayoung security centre and Spean Sreng worksite, where an estimated 40,000 people died.
Ms. Chaem has always denied any responsibility for the deaths, claiming that the charges against her are untrue and that she did nothing wrong. She has refused to accept that she was in overall charge of Phnom Trayoung. Earlier this month, she defiantly said that she would not answer to the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh, located 423 kilometers south of here, almost a seven hour car ride.
After the news reached here, Ms. Chaem left this village, traveling to an undisclosed location.
Despite her past as a fanatical former Khmer Rouge cadre, 65-year-old Ms. Chaem presents herself now as the placid, genial mother of four children, and grandmother to 10. She is said to spend time praying at the local Buddhist temple.
“She is in poor health now, so she can’t go to the pagoda as often as she would like,” her daughter Kiang Ry, 48, told Khmer Times.
Speaking for her absent month, Ms. Ry says her mother cannot be guilty of the heinous crimes she has been accused of.
“It is not reasonable that she has been charged,” she said. “The international co-investigating judge has accused her without any exact evidence.”
“If she brutally killed so many Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge time, how can she still be alive now?” added Ms. Ry.
Prime Minister Hun Sen opposes bringing more former Khmer Rouge leaders trial by the ECCC. He warns that more trials risk provoking rebellion or even civil war. Ms. Ry warned that putting her mother on trial would provoke division.
“Why are they going back over this when it all happened so long ago?, “she asked. By bringing this era up again, it means they [ECCC] want the Cambodian people to fight each other again. In my view, maybe the opposition party has agreed with the US to accuse former Khmer Rouge leaders so that Cambodians will fight each other again.”
Ms. Rim too prefers the past be forgotten. She is happier talking about Ms. Chaem’s role as former village chief, than of her past as an acolyte of Pol Pot.
“The local people love her because she took care of them,” said Ms. Rim. “She has struggled to serve people. She did not struggle to kill people.”
Im Cheam’s daughter, Kiang Ry, who says the crimes against humanity charges against her mother are untrue and unreasonable. KT Photo: Ros Chanveasna