On an overcast afternoon last week, rain lashed the roofs of the modest villas of Phnom Penh’s well-to-do Boeung Keng Kang neighborhood.
At one house, decorated with antiques and handmade wooden furniture, portraits of a smiling man in a paratrooper’s uniform is on display.
The man was Les Kosem, born an ethnic Cham in the 1920s, who later rose to become one of Cambodia’s highest-ranking generals during the Second Indochina War.
“He is FULRO; FULRO is him.”
His complicated relationship with the resistance movements of the highland peoples of Vietnam, the Cham in Cambodia and Khmer in the Mekong region, made him one of the most controversial of Cambodia’s decorated military leaders over the years leading up to the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.
Kosem was involved in the now-defunct United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, better known by its acronym, FULRO. The group sought greater autonomy for the Cham Muslims and Hindus of Cambodia, for the Khmer people living to the south in modern-day Vietnam, and for the Montagnard hill people.
He was also believed to have played a role in arranging the supply route to support Vietnamese forces fighting against the United States and South Vietnam regime, according to a Central Intelligence Agency document declassified in 2009.
Kosem reacted to internal disagreements within FULRO by ordering the army to surround the movement’s headquarters in 1968 and arresting its leader, Y Bham Enuol. He was reportedly involved in the secret smuggling of weapons to Vietnam and later, in the early 1970s, was accused of committing war crimes by leading the 5th Special Brigade in the systematic slaughter of pro-Khmer Rouge villages.
“I provide these documents because I want to seek [clarification] of integrity and justice for an honest person.”
A U.S. State Department cable, leaked in 2013 by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, reveals Kosem’s prominent role in an incomplete effort to avoid the anticipated massacres of the Cham during the Khmer Rouge’s takeover by sending them to Muslim-majority countries.
Kosem’s wife, Meidine Natchear, handed over three suitcases of documents and items belonging to Kosem as a donation to the archives of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), whose executive director, Youk Chhang, accompanied VOA Khmer on the visit to the family home.
“I provide these documents because I want to seek [clarification] of integrity and justice for an honest person,” Natchear told us as we arrived, hoping that the donated files would pave the way for accurate studies of her husband’s political life.
While Kosem is known largely from a few surviving military documents from the pre-Khmer Rouge era, his family remember him differently.
He was described by his wife as a faithful and loving husband. Before Kosem’s death abroad under suspicious circumstances after he sought refuge in Malaysia in 1975, the couple shared an eventful life.
Natchear said that Kosem’s wish before his death was that he would be waiting for her “at the gate of heaven,” she said.
Natchear remains determined to take care of documentation on her husband and made sure they had been with her over the past forty years.
Chhang of DC-Cam said that the donated material formed the largest personal archive he had ever received, adding that he hoped to “fill in a missing piece in the history” of Kosem and his FULRO activities.
Chhang added that the documents were of particular significance as they could help shine a light on FULRO activities, which were not previously well-understood.
“These documents are very important as they included documents on the establishment of FULRO, the organization’s composition, shared visions, and also the loss of FULRO,” Chhang said while flipping through the files Natchear had handed over.
The materials included photos, film, handwritten notes and correspondence, as well as books, maps, publications and official documents labeled “secret”.
The documents and other items will go through a verification process before being made available to the public for research.
“He is FULRO; FULRO is him,” Chhang said of Kosem after reviewing some of the documents.