Connect to share and comment

Hollyworld: Angie's legacy in Cambodia

Did Angelina Jolie do business with a crimes-against-humanity suspect?

Hollyworld 2011 1 21

Editor's note: "Hollyworld" is a semi-regular series covering Hollywood's impact on the world and celebrity culture around the globe.

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia — As the most famous champion of humanitarian causes in Cambodia, Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie has for a decade been on a mission of mercy for the Southeast Asian country that granted her citizenship in 2005.

The 36-year-old star has run a multi-million dollar foundation for environmental conservation, health, education and infrastructure in the remote and impoverished northwest of Cambodia for the last eight years.

But choosing to set up operations among the hilly fields and remote tropical forests along the Thai border in Battambang province has brought Jolie into close quarters with former members of the communist movement known since the late 1960s as the Khmer Rouge, some of the principal actors in one of the bloodiest dramas of the 20th century.

According to interviews and documents collected here, Jolie has, in connection with her charitable undertakings in Cambodia, purchased land from a reclusive man who today ranks with the very biggest of fish among the world’s suspected mass murderers.

“Sometimes the moral hazard is too great. Other donors feel that it's worth taking the risk ...”
~Melissa Berman, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors president and CEO

Read more: When genocide turns personal

To all appearances, Jolie maintains a strong personal connection to Cambodia and her charitable endeavors there are addressing urgent social and environmental problems. Yet she would not be the first American celebrity to suffer the pitfalls of charitable work in the developing world.

Madonna’s plans to build a school in Malawi were abandoned earlier this year amid reports of gross financial mismanagement by a charity co-founded with the Kabbalah Centre, which Newsweek reported in April was the subject of a federal investigation. Donors may have included Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Maddox Jolie Pitt Foundation, named for Jolie’s adopted Cambodian son, operates in Samlot district, an epicenter of communist activity in the 20th century. With neighboring Ratanak Mondol and Kamrieng districts, Samlot is home to at least three people wanted by United Nations prosecutors on charges including crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes for their alleged roles in waves of execution and forced labor that swept Cambodia during Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s.

Jolie’s representatives — a Phnom Penh legal consultant for her organization, the CEO of her foundation in Battambang and her manager, the Hollywood mogul Geyer Kosinski — did not respond to requests for comment.

Read more: Commercial overload at Angkor Wat

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the "Tomb Raider" star has maintained what The New York Times described as a “carefully orchestrated image.” As a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee agency, she has visited refugee camps in over 30 countries, according to People Magazine.

Did Angie go wrong?

But Mounh Sarath, a former associate who has since broken ties with her, said that it was at Jolie’s instructions that he purchased sizable tracts of land, totaling about 225 acres, from Yim Tith, known in revolutionary times as Ta Tith (or “Grandfather Tith,” using an honorific bestowed upon the more prominent members of the Khmer Rouge.)

Signed, dated and thumb-printed contracts for the sale of land indicate that in December 2002, as Jolie’s organization prepared to begin operations, Sarath purchased two plots in Samlot village from Tith at the combined price of just over $25,000. Sarath said he used Jolie’s money to complete the transaction and that, after obtaining Cambodian citizenship, Jolie then sought to transfer ownership into her own name.

Tith's sale of the land to Jolie is no secret among government officials in Samlot. In Saorith, a deputy governor, said in a telephone interview that Tith had sold the land to Jolie because he was short of cash.

"The Prime Minister had given the land in this area to former Democratic Kampuchea soldiers and he [Yim Tith] sold the land to her because he badly needed money," he said by telephone. "She has title of ownership."

"She usually provides some support to school children such as clothing and educational equipment."

Yem Yorn, chief of Samlot’s Meanchey commune, not far from the area of Jolie’s operations, described himself as a 20-year acquaintance of Tith, and said he was also aware of the land deals with Jolie.

"He had land here but now it is sold and it is sold to Angelina Jolie," he