Love, Life and Loss During the Pol Pot Regime

The compound was called B-1 where the staff of Democratic Kampuchea’s foreign ministry worked and lived with their families during the Khmer Rouge regime.

For a revolutionary movement that reviled intellectuals, it was one of the rare departments where university graduates and people with specialized skills were tolerated.

But, that did not make them immune to Pol Pot’s excesses and foreign ministry staff lived under the constant threat of being transferred, which usually meant death.

Suong Sikoeun, middle, serving as interpreter during a meeting between Khieu Samphan, right, and Prince Souphanouvong, president of Laos, in the mid-1970s. (Suong Sikoeun Collection )
Suong Sikoeun, middle, serving as interpreter during a meeting between Khieu Samphan, right, and Prince Souphanouvong, president of Laos, in the mid-1970s. (Suong Sikoeun Collection )

Workdays were 17 hours long and, as in any Khmer Rouge labor camps, people were starved of food.

B-1 was located in the former buildings of the Council of Ministers, since demolished, on Russian Boulevard.

From 1975 until the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 by Vietnamese forces, B-1 was the workplace and physical universe of Suong Sikoeun, his French wife Laurence Picq and their two young daughters.

A suffocating, deadly universe in which they were under constant threat of being killed because of who and what they represented: Suong Sikoeun who had obtained a Master’s degree in geography in Paris and married a French woman, Laurence Picq who was the Western wife of a Cambodian revolutionary. She was one of maybe two Western women to live through and survive the Pol Pot regime.

The couple’s marriage ended dramatically in December 1980 when Laurence Picq and her daughters fled to Paris from Geneva where they had met Suong Sikoeun. He was returning from New York, having been a member of the Democratic Kampuchea delegation at the U.N.

“I had not yet realized the profound distress that had taken hold of Laurence who, without telling me, was to make a major and irreversible decision,” Suong Sikoeun wrote about his ex-wife’s escape in his recent biography “Itineraire d’un intellectuel khmer rouge,” or “Itinerary of a Khmer Rouge Intellectual,” which was published in French last year by Les Editions du Cerf in Paris.

Also last year, Laurence Picq published her second memoir of life during the Khmer Rouge regime: “Le piege khmer rouge,” or the “Khmer Rouge Trap,” released in French by Buchet Chastel in Paris.
In 1984, she published a first account of her time in Cambodia but felt that, now that she had the benefit of hindsight, a revised version was warranted.

“This current work does not pretend to be the truth but it is one truth,” she writes. “One stubborn truth in the face of the lies of the Khmer Rouge who have made a law out of this advice: Lie and keep on lying, something will always stick.”

What emerges from their separate books are similar memories: Every hour of the day at B-1, they were choking with fear, constantly on their guards as their every word or gesture could be construed as treasonous, even though they had both publicly joined the Khmer Rouge in Beijing in 1970.

On March 18, 1970, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk was voted out of power by parliament in Phnom Penh. Five days later, he appealed to Cambodians to take up arms against the new Lon Nol regime during a radio broadcast from his new home in Beijing. He had agreed to ally himself with his form-
er enemy the Khmer Rouge who, with the support of the communist forces in Vietnam and China’s backing, were mounting a military assault on the U.S.-backed government in Phnom Penh.

These forces would soon unleash a devastating civil war on Cambodia.

As French historian Henri Locard explains in his preface to Suong Sikoeun’s book, “The Cambodian Communist Party needed well-educated bureaucrats to run a pretense of a state but wanted to give them no decision power. Suong Sikoeun was one of them. He managed to always make himself useful, and even indispensable, and therefore was able to, along with his French wife Laurence Picq and their two daughters, come out of it alive.”

While Laurence Picq’s book strictly focuses on her years at B-1 and her long march toward the Thai border with Khmer Rouge officials and their families when they fled the advancing Vietnamese forces in January 1979, Suong Sikoeun talks about his whole life and the numerous early militants and intellectuals who, armed with university degrees acquired in France and longs lists of qualifications, believed in the New Order promised by the Khmer Rouge.

Most would not survive their own regime.

Born in 1937, Suong Sikoeun’s political involvement went back to his childhood when, at nine years old, he read out loud at the Chhlong town market in Kratie province the Democratic Party’s program during the country’s first electoral campaign in 1946. He later attended Preah Sihanouk high school in Kompong Cham province, an institution whose past pupils also included Saloth Sar—the future Pol Pot—Khieu Samphan now on trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), and also today’s CPP Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon.

Keat Chhon was a nuclear engineer who was minister of industry and commerce in the 1960s before joining Pol Pot’s communist movement and later work with Suong Sikoeun at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the Khmer Rouge years.

Suong Sikoeun first joined student movements but soon became involved with clandestine groups, which forced him to go into hiding in Phnom Penh for most of 1953 and 1954. He was later able to attend the Lycee Sisowath high school in Phnom Penh while remaining in touch with
underground movements.

In 1957, he met Ieng Sary, Democratic Kampuchea’s future minister of foreign affairs, under whom he would work during the regime and for whom he would have a lifelong admiration—Ieng Sary died last years while awaiting trial for crimes against humanity at the Khmer Rouge war crime tribunal.

Also in 1957, Suong Sikoeun obtained a French scholarship and left to study in Paris where he would obtain a Master degree in geography, and marry Laurence Picq in 1967. While in Paris, he became an active member of the Cambodian student group Cercle marxiste-leniniste that had been founded by Ieng Sary and whose members included future prominent figures of the Khmer Rouge regime such as Khieu Samphan, who is now on trial in Phnom Penh.

In Cambodia of the 1960s, freedom of the press had been suppressed and political opposition was not tolerated in the one-party system established by Prince Sihanouk. So both moderate and left wing Cambodian students in Paris had ample ammunition to stand against the country’s government and demand reforms.

But the Cercle went further as it included those favoring an armed struggle and was in relations with the Soviet Union and China. Moreover, it submitted its members to practices that would become the rule during Democratic Kampuchea. For example, members were pledged to secrecy, never to reveal the Cercle’s existence. One of the popular slogans during the Khmer Rouge regime would be, Suong Sikoeun writes, “Maintaining secrecy, it’s assuring 50 percent of the victory.”

The Pol Pot regime’s obsession for secrecy would lead its leaders to remain faceless to the extent that only in 1977 were Cambodians finally told that Angkar—the Khmer word for “organization”—which was running the country was in fact Cambodia’s communist party.

Also, the Cercle introduced sessions of “personal criticism and self-criticism” that, as Laurence Picq explains in her book, turned into inquisitions during the regime, allowing people to lash out at a person and destroy him or her publicly without the accused having the opportunity to defend himself.

Laurence Picq recounts how she was treated to a private criticism session at B-1.

In 1977, while a purge ordered by Pol Pot was being conducted and thousands of Khmer Rouge cadre and soldiers were being liquidated, she was summoned one evening to appear in front of her colleagues from the ministry so they could hold her “profound revolutionary confession.”

During the session that lasted two and a half hour, she was accused of thought crimes, such as being French and having been a student in the 1960s, thinking about her mother in France and her two daughters who lived in B-1’s children quarters and whom she was not allowed to visit.

The morning after the session, she writes, “I caught people looking at me to see the effects of the session. To be in good shape meant that one had a clear conscience and to be sick that one was disagreeing with Angkar.”

At that moment, Laurence Picq realized how threatened she was.

“By continuing to defend and protect my personality, by continuing to fight brainwashing, by refusing psychological molding, I was becoming an opponent, a mortal enemy, a traitor,” she writes.
And yet, Laurence Picq managed to keep on doing every task demanded of her.

Suong Sikoeun also lived in fear.

“The man of all trades,” as he describes himself in his book, he was several times part of the country’s international delegations. He was eventually put in charge of the information and press department at the foreign ministry, a nomination that scared Laurence Picq as promotions were usually followed by elimination of the person with his or her family, she said.

Contrary to Pol Pot’s practice of indiscriminately killing intellectuals and specialists, Ieng Sary surrounded himself with university graduates and interpreters who spoke several languages as he wanted Democratic Kampuchea to shine on the international stage, Suong Sikoeun explains.

Despite his best efforts, Suong Sikoeun never managed to be admitted into Ieng Sary’s inner circle.

In 1978, he was put in charge of electricity for a meeting with a high-ranking Chinese official. Sensing a trap, Suong Sikoeun asked for help to set up a backup power system for lights and sound. As expected, power went down—during a speech by Pol Pot. Had he not installed a backup, he writes, feigning naivety, “I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Musing further about the incident, Suong Sikoeun concluded that Ieng Sary had assigned him this task so that, if he failed, Pol Pot would not have been able to accuse Ieng Sary of sabotage as the culprit was not close to him.

His book brings to light the fact that, during the regime and up to the surrender of the last Khmer Rouge forces in December 1998, conflicts between leaders and abuse of power poisoned their ranks.

As Suong Sikoeun writes, “In Democratic Kampuchea, abuse of power and arbitrariness were made into institutions based on the concept that ‘All the power to the Party and the Party alone!’ and the conviction that ‘The party is infallible, invincible and incorruptible.’” Countless people would perish because leaders of the moment in a unit or camp happened to resent them.

Pol Pot’s hatred for all Khmer born in Southern Vietnam and his resentment of anyone who dared disagree with him would cost countless lives.

The list of the dead also included Hou Yuon, the only Khmer Rouge who, according to Suong Sikoeun, dared disagree with Pol Pot’s plan to empty cities, create forced labor camps and abolish money.
Hou Yuon, an economist, was one of the early Khmer Rouge leaders who fled into the jungle in 1967. He was extremely popular among the people.

Suong Sikoeun also speaks of decisions made by Pol Pot for the sole purpose of demonstrating his power, such as getting involved in foreign policy to reduce Ieng Sary’s role.

While his mention of many people complete with their short biographies makes the book slow reading, it also brings to light the large number of highly educated Cambodians that joined the Khmer Rouge at the time, people who believed in the new regime and, in most cases, were eliminated by it.  The book also contains a section entitled “Les acteurs du drame,” or the “Players in the Drama,” in which Mr. Locard compiled biographies of Khmer Rouge members and others known and less known militants based on Suong Sikoeun’s recollections and other sources of information.

Laurence Picq’s book, in which the extreme fear and tension under which she lived is palpable, makes one wonder how much those years of terror still mark Cambodia.

For instance, hatred of the Vietnamese remains in many quarters today. The code of silence also is evident in government officials and ministries, which still hesitate to release basic data and information that should be public domain.

While fleeing to the Thai border in early 1979, Laurence Picq gave birth to the son she was carrying, only to see him die shortly after due to the harsh situation in which they lived while escaping advancing Vietnamese troops. She was pregnant again when she made her escape in Geneva in January 1980 and gave birth to a second son, Nicolas, four months later.

In his book, Suong Sikoeun blames himself for his estrangement from his family.

“Laurence had given the best of herself in the Cambodian people’s revolutionary cause, which she believed noble and just. However reality was totally different from what she had hoped.” And caught up in his work for the Pol Pot regime, he said, he neglected her, going as far as telling her at times that his career was marred by the fact that he had married a French woman.

They both claim, much like the Khmer Rouge leaders who stand trial in Phnom Penh, that they knew nothing of the carnage unfolding across the country, and only discovered the regime’s devastation when they fled across the country in January 1979, which they did mainly on foot.

And yet, now aware of the murderous regime he supported, Suong Sikoeun remained loyal to the Khmer Rouge through to the late 1990s, working both in Beijing and in the Thai border camps.

In his epilogue, Suong Sikoeun attempts to explain what made so many educated people in the 1960s and 1970s join the Khmer Rouge’s cause.

In addition to an eagerness to eliminate social injustice, he said, “One should add another factor, a characteristic of the young people of my generation: Refusing the established rules, repugnance for every convention and the will to sacrifice oneself for a just cause.”

Laurence Picq, in her epilogue, “calls on humanity to become aware of this. To be aware is urgently required of each and everyone. The future can be, and can only be if man becomes aware.”

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