A Sobering Day in Phnom Penh
Before you get any further…this post is not one that was fun to write, nor is it fun to read. But, it is a story that needs to continue being told.
“I’ll never forget the Khmer Rouge experience. I still think about it. Every time I turn the radio on I hear the Khmer Rouge leaders are to be prosecuted, but why don’t we do it now? Why keep them away from being prosecuted? For what?” – Chhim Theang, 2002
Chhim Theang was 15 when he joined the Khmer Rouge Revolution in 1974 and held the position of group leader in Kampong Chhnang Province. His story is one of those told at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. Like many others, Theang joined the revolution under the promise of a better life, only to find that the leaders had something else in mind.
It’s 2013, 11 years after Chhim Theang’s quote was taken and added to the museum’s wall. In 11 years, one – yes, only one – senior leader of the Khmer Rouge has been sentenced. As of the beginning of this year, four others were standing trial. One just passed away and another has been declared unfit for trial. It leaves two. Two leaders who have the potential of being found guilty for their part in killing an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million of their own people.
A trip to the Tuol Sleng Museum, coupled with the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (commonly referred to as the Killing Fields), is a sobering experience and a reminder of the atrocities committed in Cambodia from 1975-1979 and how little has been done to heal a nation that saw almost a quarter of their population killed by communist Cambodian leaders.
Dave and I often refer to what happened under the Khmer Rouge as genocide. However, those on trial in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for the crimes during the Khmer Rouge period can’t be charged with genocide for the majority of people they are accused of killing. According to international crime definitions, acts of genocide are targeted against national, ethnical, racial or religious groups. An act of genocide must be committed with the intent to destroy one of these groups. Most crimes by the Khmer Rouge can’t be charged as genocide because they were committed against political groups (ie. “their own people”) so only the killings of ethnic Vietnamese or Cham Muslims can be considered genocide in this case.
Wandering through the halls of Tuol Sleng (referred to as S-21 during the Khmer Rouge), a former high school turned prison, it sure felt like genocide to me. The Khmer Rouge took pictures of every person who was imprisoned there and the black and white pictures line the old classrooms. Young men, old men, women and children with looks of panic, sadness and longing in their eyes stared back at me as I tried to understand what they may have been thinking. A woman holding her newborn baby captivated me and it seemed as though she was there to keep watch over the other victims.
The museum has printed statements the prisoners were forced to make. The Khmer Rouge was threatened by intellectuals so the majority of the highly educated Cambodians were killed, many of whom came through S-21. Some prisoners here were tortured into saying they worked for the CIA or the KGB and had plots to overthrow the party. They had to give up their family names and accuse them of crimes that were completely fabricated. In 1975, 154 prisoners went through S-21. By 1978, more than 5,000 prisoners were kept within its walls.
Similar to many prisoner’s journeys, I took a ride to the Killing Fields after visiting S-21 to see where the prisoners were taken when they were to be “removed”. A grassy, park like area with a lake sits about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh and served as one of 300 killing fields used by the Khmer Rouge. An incredible audio tour led me along the grounds, telling the tales of trucks pulling up and the terrible fates that awaited the people inside.
I have been saving this excursion for the end of my time in Cambodia and it was as moving and sad as I imagined it would be. After spending time in this country, meeting a range of Cambodians and seeing the actions of the current government day in and day out, my sad Saturday helped to reframe my thoughts on how far Cambodia needs to come to bring some peace and happiness to its people.
Today, April 8, marks one of the first days back at the ECCC trials after delays have halted progress over the last two months. Finally, witness trials will resume on Case 002, which is the case against the two remaining senior leaders (Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea). It’s expected that they will try to end the trial by this summer. These leaders were arrested in 2007 and after six years, this country may finally see some retribution.
I’ve been told by many Cambodians, though, the slow trial and the lack of results has been frustrating and many don’t see the use at this point. They want to move on and help Cambodia become a better, less corrupt and functioning country. In July, the national elections will be held to elect the next prime minister, which will 99% likely be the current prime minister who has been involved in national politics since the Khmer Rouge. Until new life gets breathed into the major positions in this country, I’m not sure how it can really get past its haunted history.
What I do know is that Cambodia has affected me and will always be in my thoughts and mind. What we individually do in this world matters, whether it is for good or evil.