4 Reasons We Must Watch PBS’s Enemies of the People

“BROTHER NUMBER TWO” (left) admits he was a co-architect of mass murder during the Khmer Rouge regime. After years of investigative work by Cambodian investigative journalist Thet Sambath (right), he talks about his motives in Enemies of the People. Photo courtesy of the film production company.Why should we watch PBS POV’s debut of Enemies of the People? It’s a harrowing documentary about the Cambodian perpetrators of the mass murder of 1-to-2 million Cambodians.

Looking into the face of evil …
4 Reasons to see the documentary Enemies of the People

  1. Because we enabled the killing. America’s anti-Vietnamese obsession in the mid-1970s enabled the mass murder in Cambodia, then our Cold War policies led U.S. leaders to defended the murderous Khmer Rouge regime internationally. As in the Holocaust three decades earlier, the U.S. administration officially downplayed reports of mass murder while it was taking place.
  2. Because the UN-backed trials of top Khmer Rouge perpetrators are going right now. Initial hearings took place a week ago with the major portion of the trial expected to unfold this fall. One of the chief architects of the mass murder, known as “Brother Number Two,” is on trial now. In the documentary, you’ll see Brother Number Two talk about his role for the first time.
  3. Because these filmmakers are trying to encourage new forms of truth and reconciliation for the good of Cambodia and the whole world. Not every country is equipped to carry out a reconciliation commission as elaborate as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Corruption runs rampant in Cambodia, as documented in Joel Brinkley’s new book Cambodia’s Curse. But this film’s central interviewer, the courageous investigative journalist Thet Sambath, is determined to foster some version of this process in his homeland. If Sambath and his supporters can succeed, they may show the world another valuable model for reconciliation.
  4. Because this is so gripping! Watching these perpetrators, prompted by Thet Sambath’s questions, talk honestly about the origins of the mass murder—and the ongoing trauma in its wake—is flat-out, must-see television. Afterward, you’ll have no shortage of discussion with friends or with a small group, so plan ahead—contact friends and suggest they watch it, too.

Airs nationally Tuesday night July 12, 2011. CHECK LOCAL AIRTIMES on the PBS POV website.

Enemies of the People also is available for pre-order on DVD via Amazon.


THET SAMBATH and ROB LEMKIN. Courtesy of the producers.As Editor of ReadTheSpirit and a journalist who has worked in Asia (although not in Cambodia), I took the time to interview both Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath using Skype and Email to find out more about their award-winning collaboration. The film does not explain their filmmaking process, but here is the basic story:

Thet Sambath has risked his life over many years to find and interview Khmer Rouge killers. He is a leading investigative journalist for a Cambodian English-language newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post. This year, he won the prestigious 2011 Knight International Journalism Award. Like many journalists in Asia who are fluent in English, he sometimes freelances as a translator and guide for Western journalists and film crews.

Rob Lemkin has made more than 50 documentaries for networks ranging from the BBC to the History Channel and Arts & Entertainment. He wanted to make a film about the Khmer Rouge, since at least a few top leaders finally were being brought before a UN-backed court. He hired Sambath as a translator and guide—then he discovered that Sambath already had far more access to Khmer Rouge perpetrators than any Western crew could hope to achieve. The two men formed a working partnership, taking equal credits as co-directors and co-producers. Lemkin traveled to Cambodia repeatedly to shoot broadcast-quality footage of some of Sambath’s most gripping interviews. They have a website for the film that includes a blog where they are posting additional materials about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian reconciliation.


SUON, one of the Khmer Rouge killers in Enemies of the People. Photo courtesy of the producers.DAVID: Thet, you’ve risked your life to tell the truth about the Khmer Rouge era and its legacy. Now, what do you hope your film Enemies of the People will achieve?

THET: We would like there to be people-to-people reconciliation between victims and perpetrators. There are thousands of Khmer Rouge perpetrators in Cambodia and abroad including the U.S. We want it to be possible they can all come forward and confess.

DAVID: Why is that so important?

THET: So the new generation can understand what happened and why. We must never repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to move forward to a brighter future.

DAVID: What do you want Americans to do?

THET: I want them to learn more about the history. If it were not for Nixon and Kissinger’s secret and illegal bombing of my country it is unlikely the Khmer Rouge would have been as harsh as they were. For 10 years after the downfall of Pol Pot, Americans continued to support the Khmer Rouge. That’s because America supported China against the Soviet Union. The same kind of China/Soviet Union split existed inside the Khmer Rouge. And that’s what caused the incredible violence. So I want Americans to understand their government’s role in our tragedy.

DAVID: You’re not alone in that. Major voices now are telling this story in the U.S. We recommend a book by Joel Brinkley, for example. But, beyond understanding the truth of what happened—tell us what you’d like to see individual Americans do in response.

THET: On a more human level I want the audience to find in themselves how they can reconcile with people they hate. People can do evil things—like Khoun and Suon who you will see in our film—but then they can still do something good. That’s the lesson I learnt from my work. I hope the audience can apply it to their own lives.

DAVID: Rob, you’ve explained to me a lot about the way your collaboration formed. I’m going to summarize that for our readers (above). But, I wanted to hear your reaction to one aspect of this documentary that surprised me. You’re British and it’s obvious that the United States played a major role in enabling the slaughter in Cambodia. However, your movie says very little about the U.S. involvement. Why is that?

ROB: Sambath is aware that, when he was a child, his village was bombed by B52s, but that’s not really what he’s concerned with right now. He’s concerned with the truth and reconciliation process. This film is part of that process. The film is documenting the first steps by Cambodians to break through this wall of silence. That is a momentous thing in itself. That’s our focus now.

DAVID: I’ve reported on Desmond Tutu over many years. Despite some critics who wish that all perpetrators were punished through trials, it’s fair to say that most people believe the truth and reconciliation process is healing on a national and on a global level. You seem to be doing far more than just producing another film in your long list of projects here. You’re actively trying to encourage truth and reconciliation, right?

ROB: Truth and reconciliation is what this project is all about. Many Cambodians who were affected by this era now live in the U.S. We even organized our own grassroots reconciliation dialogue in which the perpetrators in this film met with victims of the killing fields. There was an event that happened in October last year. The LA Times did a front-page story on this. This is all done in the interest of trying to get to the truth in the belief that the entire society needs to reconcile—and can reconcile only if the people who perpetrated tell the truth about what they did. (An LA Times story in summer 2011 reports on the killing fields and the trials.)

DAVID: One important thing to clarify for Americans is that you’re not comparing this to the Holocaust—the systematic attempt to wipe out Jews and other minorities by the Nazis. The style of your movie has been compared to Claude Lanzmann’s landmark film, Shoah. The mass murder in Cambodia was on a vast scale—more than a million were killed. But there’s a distinction here between the killing fields and the Holocaust.

ROB: Yes, victims and perpetrators blur in Cambodia. You can be a perpetrator but you may also have lost family members. Many people in our film lost close members of their own families even though they were killers themselves. That’s one reason many became killers, out of fear of the killings. This wasn’t an industrial-scale extermination like the Nazis carried out. This was a high-intensity massacre carried out by individuals who were killing in the belief that, if they just did it one more week, then next week it would all be over. But, it went on and on. The two main perpetrators we include in the film, Khoun and Suon, have lived for 30 years with the traumatic memories of what they did at that time. They were perpetrators, but they also killed out of fear themselves.

DAVID: Will this film have a life beyond this week’s showing on PBS?

ROB: Yes. We are working right now on all the extras for the DVD release. People want to see the film but they also want as many extras as we can get them. Sambath has just won this Knight award. The trials are going on. There is a great interest in the extra materials we can put on the DVD.

We’re connecting already with a large support network for this film among people in the Cambodian-American community. We also have quite a lot of interest among church groups and other faith-based groups, but we have to get the DVD ready. And so far we haven’t been able to systematically organize in that large constituency.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email