Friday, September 30, 2005

Coming of Age in a Time of Peace: Pol Pot's Daughter Recalls her Father's Last Years, and Looks to the Future

THE CAMBODIA DAILY
Saturday and Sunday, December 11-12, 2004
By Lor Chandara and Wency Leung
SISOPHON TOWN, Banteay Meanchey province - Around the time of Pol Pot's death six years ago, his then 13-year-old daughter Mea Sith was photographed shyly tugging her mother's hand, her face hidden behind long, stringy locks of black hair.

Shortly after his cremation, while the country's attention focused on the intrigue and infighting surrounding the notorious Khmer Rouge leader's death, the mother and daughter slipped quietly into the seclusion of their wooden hut near the mountainous Thai border in what is now Oddar Meanchey province's Anlong Veng district.

Now at the age of 19, the only child of Brother No 1 is preparing to emerge from a closely guarded upbringing to make her own way in the world when she finishes high school in Sisophon town next year.

In an interview last week Mea Sith, who now goes by the name Sar Patchata, said she plans to move to Phnom Penh and enroll at a private university.

"I want to study to be an accountant so I can keep money for my family," the shy, soft-spoken teenager said as she shifted awkwardly in a classroom seat. Accounting may seem like an odd career choice for a young woman whose father oversaw the elimination of all currency in the country in his attempts to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. But, Sar Patchata said, "It's a popular subject...it's easy to find a job."

Taking after her father, whose real name was Saloth Sar, Sar Patchata changed her name three years ago when she came to study at a Sisophon high school. She was sent here in the hopes of receiving a better education by her step-father, Pol Pot's former aide Tep Kunnal, who married Sar Pachata's mother Mea Som in 1998, seven months after Pol Pot's death.

Asked why she changed her name, Sar Patchata said Tep Kunnal chose it for her as a reminder to not hide her identity.

While her mother and step-father now live in Banteay Meanchey's Malai district, Sar Patchata stays most days of the week in a rented house in Sisophon town with several friends and visits her parents on the weekends.

In Sisophon, however, she is kept under the protective watch of Tep Kunnal's friend and her schoolmaster Cheam Sok, who accompanied Sar Patchata throughout the interview and told reporters not to ask her questions about politics or her past.

"What is more important is the future. We don't need to recall the past," said Cheam Sok, a stern but friendly headmaster with a crew cut hair and the demeanor of a military man.

"I have the opinion that the young generation should not bear responsibility for the older [generation]," he said. Indeed, Sar Patchata was not yet born when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge ruled the country between 1975 and 1979, during which his regime claimed more than one million lives.

She was born in Thailand in 1985, while Pol Pot secured the northwestern region of Cambodia. After his death, she and her mother deserted the Khmer Rouge movement defecting to the government in 1998.

Asked what she recalls of Pol Pot, Sar Patchata, whose physical resemblance to her father is apparent in her heavy chin and thick eyebrows, smiled bashfully, and said she has fond memories. "I remember when I was a baby, I used to sit on his lap," she said, brushing the hair away from her face. "I would just play with him and hug and kiss him."

Sar Patchata said she thinks about her father often, naming him among the most influential and respect figures in her life, along with her mother and Tep Kunnal. After his death, "I used to dream my father would visit me in Malai," she said, adding that she often prays for him.

"I go to the pagoda every Pchum Ben to bring the monks offerings and pray to the dead," she said. "I want to meet my father and spend time with him in the next life, if the next life exists.

Cheam Sok said he informed the school's more than 1,600 students of Sar Patchata's background when she first began studying here.

Even though her step-father "is very frank and doesn't want to hide her background," Cheam Sok said, "I told the school children not to talk about the past."

"The present is the present," he said.

Students at the high school do not learn about the Khmer Rouge in their history lessons, said Sar Patchata's teacher Chhun Huy, who himself is a survivor of the regime.

"They know [about what happened during that period] because their parents tell them about the Khmer Rouge," he said. But, in class, "We have no subject connected with the Khmer Rouge."

Any discussion of that era of Cambodia's history "can attack her feelings," Chhun Huy said, adding that in contrast with her father's public image, Sar Patchata is a polite, sensitive and gentle student.

Sar Patchata's peers are also protective of her, always careful not to mention the brutality and destruction associated with her father, the teacher said. "She has a lot of friends. Everybody likes her here," he said.

Under Pol Pot's regime, Chhun Huy, like many other Cambodians, was forced to labor in the fields, while several of his family members were killed. "They forced me to work hard at that time," the 38-year-old recalled. "Working in the field, it's a very hard life." But, he said, he has no problem separating his past hardships from his fondness for Sar Patchata. "This is her father," Chhun Huy said, extending one palm. "This is her," he added, extending the other. "We cannot think about her father."

Like most other teenagers, Sar Patchata said she likes to hang around with her friends in her leisure time, though free time is rare when she attends school from 7 am until late afternoon. After classes, she drives her motorbike across the dusty town to attend private lessons through until evening. Asked whether she has a boyfriends, she giggled and shook her head.

Sar Patchata said her favorite subject is Khmer literature. But as for the rest of her classes, she said: "It's okay, but I find it a little difficult, especially chemistry, math and physics. The lessons are complicated."

Though she has vague dreams of one day visiting New Zealand and New York—both places that she says Tep Kunnal has described to her—Sar Patchata said she has no ambitions of studying abroad as her father once did.

Pol Pot's stay in France, where he studied in the late 1940s and early 1950s, is credited for his political development.

Sar Patchata said her biggest ambition is to one day return to Malai and help her step-father and mother run their family's rice mill and guest house. At her school, she is considered one of the lucky few who will be able to leave for Phnom Penh at the end of the school season in July. Last year, schoolmaster Cheam Sok said, only 10 out of 102 students who finished grade 12 moved on to continue their education in the capital, while the rest stayed behind in this rural area, many desperately seeking employment.

Removed from an isolated community that is largely sensitive toward her past, Phnom Penh will be a massive change for Sar Patchata. But, she said, "I'm not so nervous."

As the conversation moved on to the topic of the government and UN's plans for a Khmer Rouge tribunal, Sar Patchata listened quietly, eyes downcast as she shuffled her grey, rubber-soled sport sandals.

The Khmer Rouge tribunal is far from the thoughts of residents in Sisophon, Chearn Sok said. "In general, people are not interested in a tribunal. People who are interested are only the people with political backgrounds," he said. "The simple people are not interested." Chhun Hy agreed. He added. "If you feel vengeful to those who commit crime on us, the revenge will haunt us."

When Pol Pot died in the Dangrek Mountain range near the Thai border on April 15, 1998, many lamented that he had escaped justice.

Though he and ex-Khmer Rouge leader leng Sary were convicted in absentia for genocide in 1979, in what many regarded as a "show trial," Pol Pot never lived to be prosecuted by an international tribunal. To this day, there is still debate over whether he died of a heart attack as Thai and Khmer Rouge officials reported at the time, or whether he was poisoned by former colleagues to prevent him from standing trial for war crimes in an international court.

Sar Patchata said she and her mother were nearby when her father died, though she recalled she was sleeping when he drew his List breath. Her mother, however, told her that his parting words were about his only child.

"My father told my mother to make sure when I grow up, I study hard to be a good person," she said.

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