By Brendan Brady / Phnom Penh

After three years of paying social visits, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath finally gets what he wants from his secretive companion: a sign that the old man will discuss his past as second-in-command of the Khmer Rouge. “Finally, he told me one day, ‘Sambath, I believe you, I trust you,'” Thet tells the camera. The candid conversations that follow between Thet and Nuon Chea, now 84, form the core of Enemies of the People, an award-winning documentary about the ultra-Maoist revolution that left nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population dead. Having earned Nuon Chea’s trust, Thet coaxes out a first-of-its-kind public admission: top-level Khmer Rouge leaders ordered purges. It was “the correct solution,” says the regime’s former Brother No. 2, to have traitors “killed and destroyed.”

Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s old right hand man, sits in the dock at war crimes court (Photo: Reuters)

Nuon Chea is unlikely to speak so openly to the war-crimes court that now is holding him. Created to address Khmer Rouge crimes, the court concluded its first trial last month, convicting a former prison warden known as Duch to 19 more years in prison. In that instance, prosecutors benefited from a cooperative defendant and a lengthy paper trail incriminating him. Nuon Chea’s trial, scheduled to begin next year, will prove more difficult. He and three others are expected to remain mum about their real roles in the regime. Anticipating their silence, investigating judges fought for an advance copy of Enemies. Thet and fellow producer Rob Lemkin, of Britain, rejected the subpoena, citing agreements with the interviewees. It is still unclear whether the footage will be used in court.

Whatever the precise legal ramifications of the film, the content is certain to stir audiences. Enemies offers a chilling on-the-ground account of how orders to kill were passed down from the top, to district level leaders, then to cadres who did the dirty work. The emotional turmoil experienced by two such executioners, Soun and Khoun, figures prominently in the film. Soun, a Buddhist, later asks how many reincarnations he will have to spend in hell before he can be reborn as a human living under the sun. Now, he simply wants his former bosses to admit that they ordered people like him to carry out executions, the methods of which he demonstrates in the film: “You hold them like this,” he says, grabbing an observer by the neck, “so they cannot scream.”

Khoun estimates that on many days, he killed 10 to 20 people — and hundreds over the course of the regime’s rule from 1975 to 1979. This astonishing number is still just a fraction of the 1.7 million people executed or forced onto collective farms where they died from starvation, exhaustion and medical neglect.

This level of suffering isn’t betrayed in Nuon Chea’s cold and largely unapologetic account in the documentary. “Ours was a clean regime. A clear-sighted regime. A peaceful regime,” he said. The revolution failed only “because the enemies’ spies attacked and sabotaged us from the start.” Using euphemistic Maoist language, he says the purges were necessary to “resolve” — exterminate — insidious elements planted by Western countries and neighboring Vietnam scheming to occupy Cambodia. This account clashes with the view of most historians, who say such fears were a product of the leadership’s paranoia and were used as a pretense to maintain power by cultivating a climate of fear through the arbitrary murder of hundreds of thousands.

Thet — who lost his parents, a brother and dozens of other relatives to the regime — believes Nuon Chea’s account is more credible than historians believe. “I read many books [about the Khmer Rouge], especially books by foreigners, and they are good but not the whole truth,” he tells me in his house in Phnom Penh. (We were once colleagues at the English-language Phnom Penh Post, where he still works as a reporter). His contact with ex-cadres has led him to believe that the Khmer Rouge leadership faced real danger from would-be traitors and occupiers. He is quick to add, though, that such threats didn’t justify the purges. In the film’s most climactic moment, Thet reveals to Nuon Chea how his family suffered under the Khmer Rouge. The former ideologue appears moved but is unable, of course, to recant his belief in the revolution because of one man’s loss.

Thet’s relentless legwork over a decade has left him desiring a more tranquil existence. It’s been a long road for the investigative journalist, from the muddy rice fields of Cambodia’s northwest to the international film circuit, which has handed Enemies of the People 16 awards, including a Sundance Jury Prize. Now he wants to give research a rest and farm the land he recently purchased in Pailin, home to former cadres whose trust as an honest broker he earned.

[Published by TIME.com on August 6, 2010]