SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- For Lam Saem, half a lifetime of fighting for the Khmer Rouge is over. He has left the battlefield for the rice fields, and for a life at home with his wife and two children.
Lam Saem was the second son in a family of poor farmers in Ta Trao village, not far from Siem Reap. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, glorified poor farmers, and in 1971, at the age of 14, Lam Saem was a willing recruit into the revolutionary ranks.
"They appealed to people to fight to liberate their class," he recalls. "We believed Pol Pot and followed him, trusted him."
His older brother took the opposite course, joining the army of the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government, and was killed in battle in 1974.
After the war ended with a Khmer Rouge victory in 1975, the young Lam Saem rose through the ranks. By 1977 he commanded a unit of 30 men.
It was in that year that he first heard of some of the killings which marked the years of Khmer Rouge rule. But, he insists, "I did not know Pol Pot killed so much."
In January 1979, as Vietnamese troops captured Phnom Penh and continued west across Cambodia, his unit was put on alert. But when the battle began, they realized they could not win.
"We fled," Lam Saem says, "and hid behind big trees in the forest. It took us a day to reach Thailand. We were arrested in Surin province. Thirteen of us were captured; eight were shot by the Thai soldiers. The five who were left escaped and returned to Kampuchea (Cambodia)."
When the Khmer Rouge regrouped in 1981 and 1982, Lam Saem remained a willing soldier, fighting the Vietnamese and troops of the Phnom Penh government.
But last October, after rising to the rank of regimental commander and attending training courses taught by Pol Pot and other top Khmer Rouge leaders, the 17-year veteran decided to abandon the movement.
"Pol Pot wanted to punish our unit," he says, adopting the Phnom Penh government's convention of attributing all Khmer Rouge actions to Pol Pot. "He accused us of trying to mount a coup."
The Khmer Rouge imprisoned 80 members of the nearly 500-man unit in early 1988.
"They didn't kill them. But there was no food," Lam Saem says. "They starved to death."
When they heard rumors that they, too, would be arrested and punished, Lam Saem and about 100 members of his regiment crossed the lines, taking advantage of a Phnom Penh amnesty program that encourages "misguided persons" to defect from the Khmer Rouge and the two non-communist resistance groups.
The province surrounding Siem Reap registered more than 2,200 defectors in the first 11 months of 1988, according to Toun Tes, head of the provincial committee in charge of the amnesty. Nearly half came from the Khmer Rouge.
Other Khmer Rouge, including some members of Lam Saem's regiment, have crossed over to one of the noncommunist resistance groups.
But refugees who have escaped from the Khmer Rouge and officials of relief agencies who work with refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border have told reporters that Khmer Rouge discipline remains harsh and desertion is difficult. Soldiers and civilians alike are discouraged from leaving by penalties that include imprisonment and occasional executions.
Despite the defection of veterans like Lam Saem, most observers say the Khmer Rouge, now thought to have as many as 40,000 soldiers, remains a formidable fighting force -- and a potential threat to any Cambodian government that excludes them.
Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida
Published Jan. 9, 1989
Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.
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