Samlot: The Historical Context and Comrade DuchJune 23, 2006
Why go to Samlot? Aid workers, both foreign and Khmer go there as do missionaries, but rarely do tourists or visitors get to this isolated, edge-of-the-world north-western district of Cambodia.
Apart from the aid workers and missionaries, Samlot, as a last redoubt of the Khmer Rouge, is home to many former foot soldiers, middle level functionaries and higher level people of power and influence of the Pol Pot regime, all left in this remote part of Cambodia to where they were harried and chased by the Vietnamese in 1979. They’re still there and visitors should neither feel threatened nor deterred by their presence. In most cases they are ordinary, genial people simply trying to make the best of their lives in precarious and difficult circumstances.
Samlot is also home to thousands of ordinary Khmer people previously left stranded in Thai refugee camps not just by the conflict of the late 1970?s but also as a result of the faction fighting in 1997 when the Khmer Rouge leaders in Pailin made a deal with the CPP faction of the then Khmer government to defect on condition that they could continue to rule the local roost and enjoy the financial benefits of cross border gem trading.
The local Khmer Rouge didn’t go along with this deal. Rumours abounded in Phnom Penh that the local KR leadership would side with the FUNCINPEC faction of the government and all hell broke loose.
After the coup-d’etat in Phnom Penh and several hundred extra judicial slayings, many of the losing FUNCINPEC faction found their way up to Samlot and the fighting became vicious.
Due to the government fearing a counter attack by the retreating KR, it has been estimated that between 3,000 -5000 mines were being laid a day during this period, to which can be added the many thousands of mines left over from previous Vietnamese and government offensives against the Khmer Rouge, and other unexploded ordinance such as mortar shells.
Not only did Samlot become, as a result, one of the most heavily mined regions of Cambodia, 15,000 local people were displaced to refugee camps across the Thai border. When the refugees, together with the thousands of defeated Khmer Rouge troops and their families returned in 1998, not only did they find fields fallow and unusable due to mines and unexploded ordinance, they also found their homes destroyed and their land confiscated by the conquerors. In many instances, whole villages of people picked up stakes and moved elsewhere. This led to a huge confusion over place names, because these villagers took their place names with them.
So nowadays, if you refer to a village as such as O Samrel, it is not clear whether you mean the old O Samrel or the new O Samrel. Even officially, O Samrel Village is located far from O Samrel commune, which most local people still refer to by its former name of Chamlong Kuouy commune. Be careful, therefore, when asking for directions to make it clear whether you are asking about the old name or the new one.
In 1999, UNHCR brought back the refugees and launched a reintegration project that was as difficult as it was ambitious. Roads were demined and reconstructed, large databases of relocated persons were set up so the most vulnerable could be helped and a consortium of NGOs set up a network of social services and infrastructure projects. By the end of 2000, UNHCR had finished its work, leaving the rest to NGO?s and especially to the deminers CMAC and MAG.
1999 was also the year that Comrade Duch, the notorious former camp commandant and mass murderer of Phnom Penh’s S-21 prison where many thousands were tortured prior to their killings at Choeng Ek, was discovered working in the field of ‘health promotion’ for the NGO, American Relief Committee. Duch having changed his name, but not his highly distinctive appearance, had previously found his way to Battambang where he’d been wooed by one of the many zealous American missionaries that abounded then – and continue to abound now – in Cambodia’s second city. Having been immersed for his baptism in the brown, muddy waters of the River Sangker, Duuch, who had for some years been working as a senior Khmer Rouge bureaucrat in the Pol Pot administered Camp 505 over the Thai border, dropped his zealous commitment to Marxism and embraced the happy-clappy style of evangelist Christianity still fervently propagated in Battambang by enthusiastic Americans to this day.
He was eventually discovered – working hard and with the resolute discipline he had previously reserved for murdering people, in the pay of ARC and in collaboration with another Christian NGO, World Vision, out in the village of Adeo Hep situated in between S?dau and Tasanh in the Samlot district of Battambang Province. Following his discovery by the British journalist Nic Dunlop, Duch vanished for a while before handing himself in to the authorities.
Since then he was been kept, with his ex boss Ta Mok, in a military detention centre not so far from Tuol Sleng prison where he oversaw the deaths of many thousands of people. An American evangelical pastor, Reverend Daniel Walter, the regional chief of the Seventh Day Adventists, has claimed that there is no biblical problem about forgiving him for his sins. The rest of the world feels differently however, and it seems like Duch, pronounced ‘Doy-ik’, outstanding murderer tuned outstanding missionary, may be called to judgement by someone other than his God.