A well-known former Khmer Rouge district chief says she’ll take legal action if she’s indicted by a broader list of suspects by tribunal prosecutors and won’t testify in the courts.
Yeay Chaem, known during the revolution as Im Chaem, told VOA Khmer in a rare interview that she had nothing to do with the killings that came to characterize the regime, despite numerous testimonies from the villagers in the area who said they learned to fear her name.
“I can tell you frankly that I did not commit anything linked to [the loss of] human life,” the 65-year-old Yeay Chaem said, speaking from her home in the former Khmer Rouge sanctuary of Anlong Veng, located in a remote part of northwestern Cambodia. “I will not answer, and I will not accept, if my name is brought for indictment. I will protest, because [the tribunal] should find truth and solutions according to just means.”
Her words echo the sentiments of many form regime members, as the Khmer Rouge tribunal prepares to try five of its former leaders, including prison chief Duch, whose trial begins Monday. Prosecutors at the special court are at odds over whether to indict more regime cadre and are awaiting a decision by pre-trial judges.
Some observers, like Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, say an increase in indictments will not cause instability, one of the reasons given for limiting the number of leaders arrested. Those who could be brought to trial are many, he said. After all, there were 198 prison chiefs like Duch, who is facing atrocity crimes charges for his role in the alleged torture and execution of more than 12,000 Cambodians.
Like many former leaders of the regime, Yeay Chaem does not see herself among those who should be indicted. Now a deputy commune chief in Anglong Veng, she speaks with authority, and in a recent interview she was confident and smiling.
She said as a Khmer Rouge district chief, her role was to help people cultivate rice, and her position as a female leader in the government of Democratic Kampuchea was highlighted in a film that was shown nationwide. People have sometimes apologized to her for wrongly accusing her of killings, she said.
Villagers in the district of Preah Net Preah, Banteay Meanchey province, where Yeay Chaem was once in charge, tell a different story. Many said they were much afraid of her in the 1970s, when farmers in her area went missing for infractions against the revolution.
“Even though she’s a woman, she ordered killings, that’s why there was death,” said one man in Phnom Leap village. (No villager was willing to be named, fearing reprisal.)
The man described being nearly killed himself by Yeay Chaem’s bodyguards, after he suggested farmers in the area be given more food. He was able to untie his bonds before he was killed, he said, and fled to Thailand.
Another villager said he was nearly killed too, for farming rice improperly.
“The one who supervised me to pull rice [seedlings] was killed with his family members in a nearby area, as she was angered at him pulling in an improper way,” the man said, referring to Yeay Chaem. “Whether they were killed or not, I didn’t see with my own eyes, but that family went missing forever.”
Villagers say they learned to fear the name of Im Chaem, but the former cadre now says that’s only because she was rumored to have magic that could stop bullets. That wasn’t true, she said.
People did die, she said, but not by her orders. “Some died on the battlefield, some died because there was no food, as we were a country at war.” She regretted there had not been enough food or shelter for people. “I’m not afraid, because I did nothing wrong.”
Even though she could be a suspect, Yeay Chaem said she supports the current tribunal efforts to try leaders of the regime.
“I’m very grateful for the discovery of justice for our brothers and sisters of that era,” she said. “But if they indict me, I don’t agree, and for myself, if they bring me to testify, they must contact me with clear proof. If not, it’s not my business; I will not go.”
Some villagers think Yeay Chaem should be prosecuted, even if they never directly saw her do any killing. Many people went missing in the area she controlled, they said.
“In Phnom Leap, here, there were a lot of graves,” said one. “One grave had 200 people; 50, 60, also have.”
Pointing to a mountain named Phnom Trayong, a monk said many killings had taken place there.
“To find this lady with your own eye, whether she herself did the killing, was impossible,” one villager said. “If we went near [an execution] they would kill us too.”