Ten years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Hei Han Khiang, who had survived the regime, found himself in Beijing, studying. He was shocked to find an embassy of the regime, formally known as Democratic Kampuchea, still operating. He was shocked further to be invited inside.
Hei Han Khiang had been sent by the State University of New York to study Chinese language, history, politics and art. An aspiring photographer, Hei Han Khiang would walk the streets of the Chinese capital, taking pictures and exploring. On one of these walks, he found a building flying the flag of Democratic Kampuchea.
“When I saw the flag, I was so surprised and shocked to see that they still exist, you know,” Hei Han Khiang said. “I was just curious about how this embassy functioned and what was the purpose of having the embassy, [while] the Khmer Rouge was not there anymore.”
Through the 1980s, in fact, the Khmer Rouge government retained a seat at the United Nations. The Chinese continued to support the regime, allowing it to operate in Beijing and rebuild, even while Vietnamese-backed forces continued to battle Khmer Rouge guerrillas across the Cambodian countryside.
In front of the embassy stood a man in Chinese garb, who Hei Han Khiang later identified as Kaing Hong, a secretary at the embassy. China had been a major backer of the Khmer Rouge, which enacted an ultra-Maoist agenda following its takeover of Cambodia.
Kaing Hong invited the young photographer inside. Hei Han Khiang, who had lived through the Khmer Rouge as a boy and had finally emigrated from refugee camps to America, was uncertain.
But he wanted also to contact then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, whom he thought was in the capital, and so he agreed. He expected to find armed men inside, AK-47s perhaps, and security guards dressed in black, but instead the embassy personnel were in casual dress in a clean room adorned with the photographs of the regime’s leaders: ‘Brother No. 1’ Pol Pot, head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary.
“And they say ‘well, the Khmer Rouge is still here, we still have a government and everything,’” said Hei Han Khiang, who is now a professional photographer in New York, recalled in a recent interview. “They were just trying to give me all kinds of propaganda, [saying] that Cambodia was under Vietnamese rule and so on, and that they didn’t do anything wrong. They just went on and on about Vietnam. It was shocking to me that they didn’t even talk about how many people had died, what they had done in Cambodia, as if nothing really happened. Really weird.”
The incongruity of the diplomats’ conditions, compared to those he had lived through in the fields of Cambodia, surprised him too.
“You know, they live in nice rooms, a nice space,” Khiang said. “They get salaries. I think I almost went blank just to see them there. It’s unbelievable, almost fiction, you know.”
He met with the ambassador of the regime, and in a hand-written note he still keeps, the man is identified as Chan Youran.
“They opened for me a bottle of Coca-Cola,” he said. “I was sitting there and drank, and the ambassador came in and he also drank a bottle of Coca Cola, which was really weird. The Khmer Rouge drank Coca-Cola. He sat there and introduced himself to me, shook my hand. We didn’t start with the Khmer greetings, two hands up, you know. And he said ‘Ok, it’s very nice to see you. I am glad you have come here to study, and it is good to know that Khmer students have come to study in Beijing.’”
Hei Han Khiang said the ambassador discussed what a good friend China had been to Democratic Kampuchea, saying China had helped a great deal.
Despite these greetings and overtures, Hei Han Khiang remained afraid. He dared not ask questions concerning the 1975 to 1979 rule of Democratic Kampuchea over Cambodia.
“I talked to that guy, and, remembering Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, it was just like so brutal, and so they just didn’t care about anyone and forced people to work and they would kill you if you don’t do it, and, you know, I was a little kid,” Hei Han Khiang said. “You remember back then, you don’t question Angkar, right? You don’t ask the Khmer Rouge about Angkar or anything they did, what happened, how horrible it was.”