Global Policy Forum

Cambodians Battle Their Minds to


By Sonny Inbaraj

Inter Press Service
January 20, 2005

"I just can't understand why they did this to my people. Why was the Khmer Rouge so brutal and cruel to their Cambodian brothers and sisters?" asks Noch Chamroen, a 25-year-old Cambodian activist. Today, some 26 years after the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, Chamroen is curious to know about his country's painful past and the reasons two million of his fellow Cambodians perished, while the rest of the world kept silent.

Born two years after the Khmer Rouge -- which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 -- was driven from Phnom Penh by troops loyal to neighbouring Vietnam, he told IPS that there was not enough material in the Khmer language for him to fully grasp the horror of that regime. For that reason, he is keen on seeing the U.N.-assisted tribunal, aimed at trying former Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide, in place. "I want to know the truth and I hope the Khmer Rouge tribunal will bring out everything about Pol Pot and his henchmen," says the activist on the eve of End of Genocide Day that fell on Jan. 7.

On Jan. 7, 1979, 150,000 Vietnamese troops assisted by 15,000 Cambodian soldiers who had previously fled to Vietnam marched into the capital Phnom Penh and ousted the Khmer Rouge. On the following day the grisly evidence started to emerge: a quarter of Cambodia's population of eight million was executed, starved to death, or succumbed to disease. Still reeling from its 1975 defeat by Vietnam, the United States and its allies from Australia to countries in the Association of South-east Asian Nations stood by while Cambodians were tortured, sent to re-education camps and slaughtered.

In reshaping the nation, and beginning from 'Year Zero', Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot wanted to ensure he would have no opposition. He killed without compunction -- starting with doctors and other professionals, moving on to teachers and then to writers and intellectuals. "It is important that this tribunal happen soon," says Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC). "The Cambodian people need justice in order to prevent such serious crimes against humanity from happening again," he tells IPS. In a just published book 'Getting Away With Genocide - Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal', authors Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis bring out the fact that to date "there has been no real trial, no truth commission, and no official acknowledgement of one of the most heinous crimes in human history." "As a result of this, many Cambodians born since 1979 do not understand the scope and gravity of the atrocities," says Fawthrop in an interview.

Sinar, who only wanted to be known by her first name, said Jan. 7 always reminded her how lucky she was to be alive. "I was about five years old in 1979. I remember on Jan. 4 that year, the Khmer Rouge came to our house in Battambang province and told my father to bring the whole family for questioning at their headquarters in three days time," she recalls. "When the three days were up, the Vietnamese troops invaded the country and we were saved." Like Chamroen, Sinar too wants the Khmer Rouge tribunal to get underway. "We need to know the truth, and we also need to cry. Then we need to seek justice. So this tribunal is important," she points out.

In December, Cambodia and the United Nations agreed on a budget of 56.2 million U.S. dollars for the tribunal but they are still trying to raise the funds. The United Nations' share will be responsible for about 43 million U.S. dollars and Cambodia, about 13.2 million dollars U.S. dollars. Australia has already pledged 2.28 million U.S. dollars and France some 2.3 million U..S. dollars. The United Nations and Cambodia began discussing an internationally assisted tribunal in 1997. As the process grinds on, victims fear that the perpetrators will die of old age before going to trial.

One of the points of contention is that this tribunal will be the first internationalised court in which domestic judges form a majority. This poses a particular challenge in a country where lawyers were among the targets of genocidal violence, where few sitting judges possess formal legal training, and which has little tradition of judicial independence. "We have our concerns on whether the tribunal will be free and fair in accordance with international standards," ADHOC's Thun Saray points out. "But we can't go on squabbling forever on this because the longer we delay the chances of the Khmer Rouge leaders dying off, before they face trial, seem greater." Thun Saray appealed to the international community to act as a watchdog to ensure there is no biasness in the trials. "That's the only chance we have right now. International human rights organisations must be allowed to monitor the tribunal," he says.

Pol Pot, the personification of the Khmer Rouge who bears the greatest responsibility for the genocide, died on Apr. 15, 1998. Another 10 surviving Khmer Rouge face prosecution, including Pol Pot's former deputy, Nuon Chea, and former foreign minister, Ieng Sary. Only two former Khmer Rouge leaders are in custody - Ta Mok, known as "The Butcher", and Kaing Khek Ieu, commandant of the Tuol Sleng death camp in Phnom Penh in which about 20,000 people were executed. But Fawthrop and his co-author Helen Jarvis fear Cambodia's culture of impunity could rear its ugly head again, in a country where most major crimes - both political and non- political -- are never solved.

In 'Getting Away With Genocide', they quote former U.N. special human rights representative for Cambodia Thomas Hammarberg as saying: "The major human rights problem in Cambodia, in my assessment, is impunity...They see these mass murderers going scot-free, and even treated as VIPs, while people with minor crimes go to jail." In a chapter, Fawthrop writes that after a cabinet meeting in December 1998, many were perplexed and infuriated by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's comment: "If we bring them (Khmer Rouge) to trial it will not benefit the nation, it will only mean a return to civil war. We should dig a hole and bury the past."

But burying the past is difficult for 36-year-old Chong Samrong, a motorcycle-taxi driver. "Every time I meet a foreigner, I want to tell them about the Khmer Rouge and what they did to the Cambodian people," he says while taking this correspondent to the mass grave at Choeung Ek, just outside the capital, where the Khmer Rouge buried over 7,000 victims of the Toul Sleng extermination prison. On reaching the gates of Choeung Ek, Samrong's eyes brim with tears. "I was only 10 when I lost my whole family to the Khmer Rouge. I come here all the time to remember their spirits."

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