in Phnom Penh
In a whitewashed mansion of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Prince Thomico Sisowath gestured wistfully towards a table covered with black and white photos of his parents from the happy time before they were arrested by the Khmer Rouge.
Outside, an election slogan blared from a van’s loudspeaker, interrupting the murmur of chanting at a nearby temple.
Next Sunday, almost 30 years after his mother and father were led out to the killing fields after years of being starved and beaten in a “re-education” camp, Cambodia will go to the polls.
One of those standing for re-election is a man whose role in the camp where they were held has become the subject of a furious argument in the election campaign: Cambodia’s foreign minister, Hor Namhong.
Early in the campaign, an opposition leader publicly accused Mr Namhong of having been a member of the Khmer Rouge, whose four-year reign of terror ended only after an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians had died from starvation or mass murder – about one third of the country’s population.
Mr Namhong angrily denied that he was ever part of the Khmer Rouge and has always insisted that he himself was among its victims – as an inmate of Boeng Trabek, the special prison camp for the Marxist re-education of diplomats and civil servants, where Prince Thomico’s family was also held.
The camp’s name remains a deeply emotive one for Cambodia’s educated middle and upper classes. For many, it was the last place where their relations were seen before they were taken away and murdered. Out of 3,000 men, women and children who were held there, an estimated 2,700 perished, Prince Thomico’s parents among them.
The accusation against Mr Namhong is that he was among prisoners recruited by the Khmer Rouge to run the camp, and thus had a hand in the fate of its other inmates.
The editor of an opposition newspaper which printed the claims about Mr Namhong was jailed, and the minister threatened legal action against Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader concerned. Genocide investigators say there is no evidence against the foreign minister.
Even if there were, he would not be the only member of Cambodia’s ruling party who was once in the Khmer Rouge.
The prime minister, Hun Sen, in power since 1985, has never denied that he was in the party for a time, although it has not been suggested that he was involved in the mass killing. But it is Mr Namhong, an ambitious politician in his mid-seventies who is described by both friends and enemies as a man with a brilliant mind, whose past has become part of the election campaign. Prince Thomico would not be drawn on whether he held Mr Namhong responsible for the deaths of his parents. A small, wiry man with a mischievous grin, he spoke quietly but intensely.
“There is a question mark over who took decisions,” he said. “This is very difficult for me and I have thought about what happened to my parents for 30 years. So have other Cambodians, though – the whole nation was bereaved.”
He said that as a good Buddhist he bore no grudge against the foreign minister, who had personally assured him with an earnest handshake several years ago that he was not in a position of authority at the camp when his parents died. But he added that those who might have led the killings should be investigated, and justice done. “So many people had to join the Khmer Rouge in order to survive,” Prince Thomico said. “Now the main problem is to find out whether they were in a position to give orders for murder or torture.”
The fate of Prince Thomico’s family was typical of almost anyone of his generation in Cambodia, whether royalty, middle-class professionals or peasants. His three-year-old daughter was lost in the chaos, and his parents were humiliated, then murdered. Five of his cousins, princes and princesses of the ancient Sisowath line of the royal family, are all presumed to have died in the killing fields, along with their 14 children.
No one has ever been charged with the murders, and there are no witnesses to any of their killings.
Now, semi-retired after a career in opposition politics, Prince Thomico, 59, lives surrounded by scented gardens and gilded spires in the palace, which was confiscated by the Khmer Rouge and used as a prison after it came to power in 1975. Recalling those grim days, the prince tells how his father, Methavi Sisowath, was Cambodia’s ambassador to East Germany at the time, appointed by his uncle, the then King Sihanouk.
The king was so popular with Cambodians that the Maoist Khmer Rouge at first appointed him head of state. Like many other diplomats who were abroad as Phnom Pehn fell, Methavi swallowed his fears and answered the Khmer Rouge’s call to return home, hoping that Sihanouk could protect him. “My father thought it was his duty to go home but I think he guessed he could be going to his death,” said Prince Thomico. It was a fatal mistake. The next year, King Sihanouk was arrested, sent to the Boeng Trabek camp, along with Methavi and other family members.
Methavi’s wife, Princess Anne-Marie, defied her children’s pleas and also returned from Europe, to find him. They were reunited in the prison camp, and were last seen being led away in November 1978. No one doubts that they were killed soon afterwards, but how they died is one of the many questions about that time that haunts modern Cambodia. There is scant prospect of any answers. The prince is one of many disillusioned with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, which has cost £25 million in the past two years and put just five men on trial
“It is painful, but I think this question about my parents’ deaths will remain unanswered,” said Prince Thomico.
Terror of the Pol Pot regime
The Khmer Rouge guerrillas seized power in Cambodia in 1975 after overthrowing King Norodom Sihanouk in a bloody agrarian revolution.
Led by Pol Pot, also known as “brother number one”, they declared “year zero” and set about abolishing money, private property and religion.
In a quest to create a peasant paradise they emptied the cities, forcing people to work as labourers in the paddy fields.
Anyone deemed too intellectual was killed, sometimes just because they wore glasses.
The violence was so extreme that communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 to install a more moderate regime and drive Pol Pot’s guerrillas back into the jungle.
Many former party members stayed in power, including Hun Sen, the current prime minister.