On October 12, 2016, Washington College of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law presented the film “Enemies of the People” by Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin. The film gave an insight into the background of Nuon Chea, one of the masterminds behind the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s. The story followed Thet Sambath as he spent approximately ten years building relationships with various people involved in the genocide, including spending his weekends for about three years gaining Nuon Chea’s trust.
Pol Pot, also known as Brother Number One, was the leader of the Khmer Rouge, who took control of Cambodia in the late 1970s. Nuon Chea, his counterpart and co-leader of the Khmer Rouge, was known as Brother Number Two. The two leaders pledged to solve Cambodia’s problems by any means necessary. As a result, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for killing almost two million Cambodian civilians when it rose to power. Thet Sambath sought the truth behind why this humanitarian crisis occurred.
The film was a personal narrative of Thet Sambath’s experience growing up in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took power. Thet, like most Cambodians of the time, lost several loved ones in mass killings, including his father. Thet explained that a member of the Khmer Rouge killed his father while his brother was forced to watch because he would not give up resources to the organization. Thet’s mother, he explained, was forced to marry a member of the Khmer Rouge after his father’s death and later died when giving birth to the child of the Khmer Rouge member.
Despite Thet’s negative experiences with the Khmer Rouge, he sought to gain the trust of some former members to understand why and how the members killed many of people. After gaining the trust of a couple of former members, the members led Thet to a farm in northwestern Cambodia, where the majority of the killings occurred. They explained that most of the killings were done by slitting a person’s throat with a knife; one member demonstrated with a plastic knife how he slit the throats, and when his arm would get tired, how he would just thrust the knife in the neck. One member explained, “We were all wrong for following the orders, but if we did not obey, we would have been killed.” The members also explained that the majority of killings occurred at night, mass graves were needed for the bodies, and only ten-to-twenty people would be killed at a time.
After learning how and where the killings took place, the only question left for Thet was why the Khmer Rouge would kill so many people. It took a while for Nuon Chea to open up to Thet, but the mastermind explained that the enemies of the Cambodians were the Vietnamese, and anyone who could potentially be a spy or work with the Vietnamese had to be punished or eliminated. Chea explained that the Vietnamese had spies that would sabotage the Khmer Rouge’s plans. Thet asked Chea why they killed the suspected spies instead of imprisoning them, which Chea replied, “That’s a matter of opinion.”
Eventually, Thet told Nuon Chea about the effect the Khmer Rouge had on his family. When Nuon Chea was asked about his feelings regarding Thet’s experience, he replied, “Since I started giving interviews, I thought your family stuck together, and I only saw your graciousness – I would like to say how deeply sorry I am.”
The UN tribunal to charge the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime with war crimes, and, thanks to Thet’s discovery of the truth, Nuon Chea along with other members were held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. After spending years gathering intelligence on the man responsible for the killing of his family, Thet admitted it was rather sad to see Nuon Chea put on the plane for sentencing.