Nearly 40 years ago, Cambodian school inspector Poch Younly kept a secret diary vividly recounting the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist regime whose extreme experiment in social engineering took the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians through overwork, medical neglect, starvation and execution. Acutely aware that he could be killed if discovered, Younly hid the diary inside a clay vase. In those dark days, when religion and schools were banned and anyone deemed educated was a threat, he had no right to own so much as a pen and paper. The diary was part of the vast case file which this week helped convict the only two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders still facing justice — 83-year-old former president Khieu Samphan and 88-year-old Nuon Chea, right-hand man of the group’s infamous late leader, Pol Pot. On Thursday, a U.N.-backed tribunal sentenced both men to life in prison for crimes against humanity — a verdict that many believe was too little, and far too late.
It’s hard to describe to young people what starvation felt like. But the whole nation was starved … and this story is rarely told
Made public for the first time last year, the diary is astonishingly rare — one of just four known firsthand accounts penned by victims and survivors while the Khmer Rouge were in power, compared to 453 such documents written by communist cadres at the time. The account is vital because people like Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea have tried to cast doubt over atrocities committed during their rule. The majority of Cambodians living today were born after the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, and even those who survived may choose not to remember how bad it was. Poch Younly died in a prison camp in 1976.