By Keo Kounila
Like many millions of Cambodians, my parents and their families were “evacuated” from Phnom Penh to the countryside on April 17, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia.
The word ‘evacuation’ means ‘sending people out to a safer place’. Yet, this term was gravely misused by the Khmer Rouge. The regime, known as Democratic Kampuchea, was the beginning of a period of horror. Groups of teenage boys, probably similar in age to my parents at that time, dressed in dark green uniforms and carrying guns, moved house-to-house shouting to people to move out.
When they were removed from the city they were marched into the countryside to work in slave-labour conditions in the rice paddies. The slightest violation of work code or conduct was punished with death.
Over the next three years, eight months and 20 days, while the Khmer Rouge was in power, about 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, overwork, and execution. My parents survived but many people they knew – everyone from close relatives and distant cousins to friends and colleagues – unwillingly joined Cambodia’s death row.
My mother is a victim of an unforgettable past. She still carries two deeply painful memories from her experiences of the Khmer Rouge regime.
When the war was almost over, my mother’s father died of hunger. He asked for just two bananas from his skinny and fragile wife before his death. My mother’s cousin also died after being beaten to death for stealing a lump of rice.
Knock at the door of any home in Cambodia and ask if the family lost members during the Khmer Rouge regime and you would be lucky to hear anyone say “no”.
The Khmer Rouge regime treated people like animals. But its legacy is far greater than the number of those who died. Millions of those who survived the Khmer Rouge have suffered life-long trauma as a result of what they experienced. Many from Cambodia’s older generation are mentally ill and yet psychological counseling is rare in a country as poor as Cambodia. Without help, victims can develop post traumatic stress disorder, which can recur regularly throughout life. Their trauma can be transferred to their children.
Before my bedtime as a kid, my mother would tell me stories of her close encounters with death. She could never rest until she had released her stories to me. Each episode is etched in my memory. Luckily for me, rather than feeling traumatised by her stories I have used them as inspiration in my career as a journalist, to keep track of what really happened during this Ultra-Maoist regime.
Yet unfortunately, many young Cambodians from my generation are not very well informed about what really happened between 1975 and 1979. Looking into the school curriculum, the one I studied for 12 years, and knowing what I know now about my country’s history, I can identify a lot of gaps.
We should be teaching our new generations how to analyse Cambodia’s past in an attempt to understand how a regime like the Khmer Rouge could come to power in a once peaceful country. People from my mother’s generation, she is in her late 40s, want recognition and acknowledgment from the next generation that such a regime existed.
But it’s not just acknowledgement from Cambodia’s youth that is needed: the dead and living are waiting to see justice for themselves and their families.
This year marks 30 years since the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power in 1979 and yet to date, no one has been held to account for what happened.
Last week Kang Guek Iev, alias Duch, a former chief of one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prisons, began his initial hearing at a UN-backed court in Phnom Penh. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was established by the United Nations and the Cambodian Government in 2004 to try those most responsible for the Cambodian genocide. The court is a hybrid of international and Cambodian law with five judges in the Pre-trial Chamber – three Cambodian and two international and in the trial chamber with seven judges deciding each case – four Cambodian and three international.
Duch has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity and his trial is due to start in March.
It is alleged that more than 14,000 prisoners passed through the S-21 prison that Duch oversaw. They were tortured, starved and kept in shackles – all under the orders of Duch. Only nine prisoners are known to have survived S-21, or Tuol Sleng as it is also known. The rest were trucked to Cheong Ek – The Killing Fields – where they were bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves.
Although many people could be said to be responsible for crimes and suffering during the Khmer Rouge period, it was decided that the ECCC would try only the regime’s top surviving leaders. Pol Pot – the Khmer Rouge’s former leader and figurehead – died in 1998. Several other senior members, including Ta Mok, nicknamed The Butcher for his brutality, have also passed away.
Instead Duch, as well as four surviving former members of the Khmer Rouge Central committee, now in their 70s and 80s – will be tried.
The accused are Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two and the most senior surviving Khmer Rouge cadre; Ieng Sary, former Minister of Foreign Affairs; Ieng Thirith, former Minister of Social Affairs and Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head of state, as well as Duch.
Cambodians have many questions about these trials.
As the ECCC has decided to try only the top leaders, this invites much disappointment and complaints from victims. How is it possible that only five people were responsible for the deaths of about 1.7 million innocent Cambodians?
They question whether the court is so selective in its choice of who to try that it is almost meaningless. Many, many other more junior cadres who also committed terrible crimes are exempt from prosecution and live as normal people in Cambodia, often side-by-side with their victims.
Many people believe a second tier of Khmer Rouge should also be tried because they often carried out executions unilaterally and without orders from their superiors. Why did they kill and who was really behind the systematic killing?
Other Cambodians wonder if, after 30 years, a trial is too late to be worthwhile?
At 66, Duch is the youngest of the group to be tried. He’s also the most junior former Khmer Rouge to face trial. The other four are very old and in bad health and yet the ECCC has said it will be another year before any of their cases reach trial. Will they die before they reach the dock?
Many Cambodians are slowly losing hope and faith in this hybrid court.
Since the ECCC was established five years ago there have been many delays caused by a shortage of funds from international donors and allegations of bribery by the staff inside the court as a tactic to achieve promotions.
The first phase, called the “pre-trial chamber”, has cost almost US$60 million. It is an inconceivable amount of money in a country where a school teacher earns only US$20 or US$30 a month.
Many people feel that too much has been spent without enough to show for it and the court is progressing too slowly.
They fear that a huge amount will be spent for an uncertain outcome and nothing will change for average Cambodians who will continue to struggle to achieve the most basic things in life – a roof over their heads, food on the table, education for their children, medical care when they are ill.
Would the money be better spent on caring for the country’s needy or upgrading infrastructure?
There are suggestions the Cambodian government is reticent to see the former Khmer Rouge in the dock for fears it will have a destabilizing influence on the country’s politics. Many former Khmer Rouge members are now senior business and political leaders.
It is situations like this that make people suspicious of the trials.
After the ECCC was established, many people strongly supported trying surviving Khmer Rouge for the crimes committed in the past as a way of delivering justice to those who died.
People believed that by having the court rule against those people, their past suffering would be acknowledged by the next generation. Just as importantly, many believe this would be a warning not to repeat this terrible chapter of history.
But I believe that despite all of these questions it is right to go ahead with the trials.
I hope they will deliver justice to the victims and a sense of closure for those who were left behind with terrible memories of suffering, like my mother.
What’s glaringly obvious is that with or without a trial, no one forgets the death of a family member. But without trials or finding justice that’s been hidden for years, people can never move on.
Perhaps more important is the fact that that crimes without fair trials can create a culture of impunity, and this can only worsen the present fragile state of the Cambodian society.
Therefore, the ECCC plays a very important role, not only locally but also internationally, in setting an example for the whole world which is watching to see if justice can be found in Cambodia.
It’s only until justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge is delivered that all the Cambodians can be assured that no such regime can ever occur again.