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The Past Catches up With Ao An

Igor Kossov / Khmer Times Share:

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is investigating a laundry list of charges against Ao An, a former Khmer Rouge cadre accused of brutal crimes during the Maoist regime’s four years in power.

The charges against the 79-year-old include premeditated homicide at Khmer Rouge detention centers in the 1970s. He also is charged with crimes against humanity, including “extermination, persecution on political and religious grounds and other inhumane acts.”

The case is one of the most politically sensitive the UN-backed tribunal has heard since its formation in 2006, as experts suspect Mr. An’s testimony could implicate high-ranking members in the current administration. However, the ECCC has said it could take a year for investigators to determine whether the evidence is strong enough to proceed with a trial.

From Monk to Cadre

Ao An (or Aom An) was born in Kampong Chhang under the name Aom Yoeung, the second of five siblings, according to a rare 2011 interview with Dany Long, a researcher at the Documentary Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM).

When he turned 12, his father died and his mother sent him to a Buddhist pagoda to get educated. There, he got his nickname An.

Discovering past struggles against neighbors Vietnam and Thailand inspired nationalism among certain poor pagoda students. This made them prime targets for recruitment into the revolutionary movement that would become the Khmer Rouge. 

Mr. An was one such recruit. He joined up in the 1960s and came to know future military chief Ta Mok, also a former monk. In the 1970s, Mr. An recruited other cadres, and then he moved with them, secretly, to Phnom Penh. 

Taking Charge

When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975 and divided the country into a new set of zones and districts, Ao An went to work in the Southwest  zone, under Ta Mok, becoming secretary of Kandal Steung district.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Khmer Rouge executed many of the forced evacuees or ‘new people’ and tortured others. Pal Ran, a survivor of one of the facilities in Kandal Province told DC-CAM: “Sometimes, while the prisoners were sleeping on the bamboo floor, the Khmer Rouge bayoneted them from below.” 

Given control over “economic affairs,” as Mr. An told DC-CAM, the former monk put forced evacuees from Phnom Penh to work, digging irrigation ditches and making farms. HRW and DC-Cam found that many of these people were worked to death and punished or killed for working too slowly. Mr. An went on to become a committee member in Kampot Province. 

Purge of the Central Zone

Mr. An reached the height of his power in 1977, when the Khmer Rouge (KR) decided to exterminate many of its own. He became the deputy secretary of Democratic Kampuchea’s Central Zone and the secretary of Sector 41. By then, Mr. An was known as “Ta An” or Grandfather An.

“The leaders had always suspected that enemies were at every corner of Cambodian society,” said Mr. Boly. “It was imperative for the regime to remove all enemies hiding in the party.”

According to the ECCC’s charges, Mr. An led a purge of “virtually the entire existing cadre” of the Central Zone, starting at the top and working down to the village level. Many KR leaders disappeared to S-21 while their families, including children, were killed. 

“Following the arrival of Ta An and the Southwest cadre in the Central Zone, there was a dramatic increase in the number of arrests, killings and disappearances, and a worsening of general living conditions,” the ECCC charged. 

Places of Death

The Investigative Fund estimates that nearly 140,000 people died in the Central Zone.  

The Wat Au Trakuon detention site, linked to Mr. An has about 32,690 victims, according to The Investigative Fund. At Wat Phnom Pros, watched over by a woman associated with Mr. An, 10,000 people were executed. At Kok Pring, also in his jurisdiction, 1,000 people died. 

Many of the victims were bludgeoned to death or thrown in a lake or river to save bullets. Often, loudspeakers blared revolutionary songs to mask the sounds of screaming. Cadres sometime tricked workers into packing for resettlement and then killed them outside the village.

Mr. An told DC-Cam that the construction of the “January 1 Dam” irrigation project consumed most of his time. 

According to ECCC documents, civil parties who worked on the dam testified how some were only given one can of rice per day and that the KR taskmasters refused to accept that people were too weak to work. Frequent outbreaks of disease swept throughout the work camps.

Extermination of the Cham

The minority Cham people faced ethnic cleansing due to their Islamic faith, support of King Sihanouk and their unsuccessful uprising against the Khmer Rouge in 1975. 

Accounts of the Cham death toll vary. Yale historian Ben Kiernan found that 87,000 Cham died. According to historian Ysa Osman, there were 700,000 Cham people in Cambodia in 1974 but fewer than 200,000 in 1979. The Cham also lost 80 percent of their intellectuals and leaders during Democratic Kampuchea.

The biggest Cham population, 40 percent of the nation’s total, lived in Kampong Cham, in areas under Mr. An’s jurisdiction. According to DC-Cam, many saw the kill rate increase when Mr. An arrived. The KR cadres forbade the Cham from practicing Islam and forced them to eat pork. Those who did not comply were executed, according to Mr. Osman and multiple testimonies compiled by DC-Cam. To stay alive, many Chams had to hide among the Khmer population.

One Cham survivor, Kamaruddin bin Yusof, who went by his Khmer name Sos Kamry, said that he once attended a meeting where a KR chairman said, “Our biggest enemies are the Cham. The plan calls for the destruction of all the Cham people before 1980.” 


In 1979, Ta An fled along with the rest of his KR comrades towards Thailand, eventually ending up in the “triangle” near the Thai and Laotian borders. 

After surviving an assassination attempt from unknown assailants and waiting out the death throes of his regime, Mr. An settled in Kamrieng District in Battambang. Still, he told DC-Cam that his conscience is clear. 

“I was so straightforward when I joined in the struggle and very faithful to the nation and people,” he was recorded as saying. He also mocked the tribunal and called for its closure, saying “let bygones be bygones.”

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