Documentary on Cambodian genocide shown in Minneapolis


“I think only a real killer can tell the truth,” said Thet Sambath, co-director of the documentary Enemies of the People about the Cambodian genocide from 1975-79. Sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Program, the documentary was shown on November 11 at the St. Anthony Main Theater in Minneapolis as part of the Minnesota Film Arts In Search of Asia: Minneapolis-St. Paul Asian Film Festival.

The critically acclaimed documentary is a joint work of Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin, who won awards including the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of Sambath, who for years had been videotaping and recording his conversations with men and women who took part in the massacres during the Cambodian genocide of 1975-79. Among them is Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea.

The two men first met in 2006 when Lemkin went to Cambodia to make a separate film about the ongoing trials of Khmer Rouge leaders. Impressed by Sambath’s work, Lemkin decided to focus the documentary on this journalist’s struggle to unveil his country’s dark history. 

“He spent seven years doing this work, thinking that any moment Nuon Chea, as an old man, might die and never say this kind of thing to anyone else,” said Lemkin. “And if he does die, Sambath will turn around to the world and to everyone else in Cambodia and say: ‘Oh, Nuon Chea told me all this and it’s written in my notebooks,’ but the people wouldn’t believe him. So he started recording.”

Cambodian Genocide

“To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” (Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot)

Cambodia in South East Asia gained its independence from France in 1953 after being colonized for approximately 100 years. A turbulent political atmosphere shaped the following years while the Vietnam War was proceeding. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge government took over, in a period that became known as the Cambodian genocide.

Genocide primarily refers to the “attempt of Khmer Rouge party leader “Pol Pot” to nationalize and centralize the peasant farming society of Cambodia virtually overnight, in accordance with the Chinese Communist agricultural model. This resulted in the gradual devastation of over 25% of the country’s population in just three short years,” according to World Without Genocide (WWG).

“The Khmer Rouge believed that all Cambodians must be made to work as laborer in one huge federation of collective farms; anyone in opposition to this system must be eliminated. This list of ‘potential opposition’ included, but was not limited to, intellectuals, educated people, professionals, monks, religious enthusiasts, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry,” stated the WWG. This idea and extremist program ultimately led to the genocide.

“Under threat of death, Cambodians nationwide were forced from their hometowns and villages. The ill, disabled, old and young who were incapable of making the journey to the collectivized farms and labor camps were killed on the spot. People who refused to leave were killed, along with any who appeared to be in opposition to the new regime. In this manner, entire cities were emptied of all their populations. All political and civil rights of the citizen were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labor camps. Factories, schools, universities, hospitals, and all other private institutions were shut down; all their former owners and employees were murdered, along with their extended families. Religion was also banned: leading Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries were killed, and temples and churches were burned.” (WWG)

By the time Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge government, more than two million civilians had died trough disease, exhaustion and starvation or had been directly killed. The occupation by Vietnam and the persistent threat of the Khmer Rouge guerilla forces due to the support by the United States and the United Kingdom maintained Cambodia in a highly suspense-packed situation till the final withdrawal of Vietnam in 1989. The first real democratic elections were in 1993 and shortly after, the questioning and reviewing of the genocide started. “The UN called for a Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 1994; the trials finally began in November of 2007, and are expected to continue through 2010,” according to World Without Genocide.

The people who survived the genocide fled mainly to refugee camps and to other countries. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, a considerable amount of people “fled because of displacement due to continued fighting, fears of persecution by the Vietnamese, and poverty and starvation due to poor harvests.  Throughout the 1980s approximately 500,000 refugees fled to the Thailand.  Of those, about 300,000 moved on to settle in the U.S., France, and other places around the world. […] The U.S. settled 150,000 Khmer refugees in 1979 alone.  The largest communities of Cambodians currently live in California, Massachusetts, Washington, Texas, and Minnesota.  Khmer culture continues to flourish in the close-knit Khmer community – especially in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  There are Buddhist temples, Khmer organizations, and public celebrations that continue to honor their traditions”.

For more information on the Cambodian genocide, see World Without Genocide and the Minnesota Historical Society websites.


Two Cambodian immigrants living in the Twin Cities told their stories in interviews with the Daily Planet.

Peou “Beaw” Pin-Mene (34), came to Minnesota at the age of six. She and her family survived the Cambodian genocide and after several stays at Thai refugee camps were able to immigrate to the United States.  Read her interview here.

Vuth Chhunn (26) came to Minnesota in 1993. His parents are survivors of the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979. Forced out of their country, they fled to a Thailand refugee camp and lived there until the family immigrated to the United States. According to Chhunn, for his parents this move symbolized a life far away from the genocide and a better future for their children. Read his interview here.

Sambath’s family was among the two million civilians who lost their lives in the “killing fields” during the genocide. As stated by the Human Rights Program of the University of Minnesota, “the film is his journey to discover not how, but why they died.” Due to this individual quest and trust-building, the film is based on a very personal stand.

“Sambath, although he is a great journalist and works for a newspaper in Cambodia, is not doing this purely to get a story,” said Lemkin. “He is not trying to get a headline, he is not trying to get a scoop – he is actually involved in a huge excavation of this very, very secret buried history and that means that you got to have a very long-term relationship with the people who can tell you what happened.”

According to Lemkin, these relationships did not end with the film. “The reality is that he was personally very humanly involved with the people that are in the film. That involvement continues to the day. He is still on good terms with Nuon Chea, we are all still on good terms with the killers who are in the film,” said Lemkin. “This kind of human connection and respect is not something that is fake. I think it is almost inevitable. Sambath works closely with these guys to talk about and go through the threshold, that door of denial – they had been denying for 30 years what they did and then one day they say ‘Ok, I will tell you what I did’ – and that does not mean that on the next day they tell him everything. That just means that they have begun a process.”

Sambath and Lemkin are producing a second documentary about the Cambodian genocide, which will analyze in more detail why Khmer Rouge leader ordered the killings and take a far more political stand. While Enemies of the People might not offer the answer to this big question, it is still valuable for the history of Cambodia.

“Although it is quite a long film it is hardly scratching the surface of what happened during the Khmer Rouge time,” said Lemkin. “That process got to be rolled out much more widely. We got 160 hours shot film – so that archive has got to be made public. But a lot more people got to come on and talk.”

“The important thing to take away from all of these mass killings – whether you call them genocide or whatever they might be – is that they are always the result of politicians being completely out of control,” said Lemkin. “That is true in the Balkans, that is true in Rwanda, that is true in Nazi Germany frankly – and it is certainly true in Cambodia of the 1970s. This kind of stuff is not made as a blueprint in some room, where somebody decides to take out an entire nation because this one evil mastermind has conceived some plan – that is fantasy. This stuff happens for much more chaotic and random reasons – which makes it much scarier, but of course makes it ever so repeatable.”