Letter from Cambodia

By | Jul 10, 2013

The Kingdom of Cambodia continues to invoke these reasons as it plays an overactive role in just who is tried and how. Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for 30 years, first resisted international pressure to set up the Tribunal, and, when it was inevitable, fought hard for a Cambodian-only court. While publicly supporting the Tribunal, he pushes back against prosecuting surviving members of the Khmer Rouge regime, including some who are still in government posts. A recent editorial in The Bangkok Post tagged the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, interior and finance as former Khmer Rouge officers, as well as thousands of government functionaries. Phnom Penh’s support of the Tribunal’s work is a calculated risk: The wider the Court casts its net, the closer it comes to those in positions of power.

At his grand office in the Council of Ministers, an imposing contemporary building along Phnom Penh’s Russian Federation Boulevard, Deputy Prime Minister and Tribunal point-man Sok An sits at the center of a long conference table, flanked by dozens of deputies and aides. The man dubbed “the King of Patronage” by the national press, gives a rambling statement extolling the virtues of the Tribunal and his government’s pivotal role in delivering it to the people. The Court “demonstrate[s] Cambodia’s commitment to the rule of law,” he says. “We have to make our younger generation remember.” As he speaks, his note takers tap away on their iPads, and the authorized television cameramen train their lenses on him.

The serene smile of Buddha, one of the 216 massive faces carved into stone at the Bayon Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge defaced many of the country’s millennia-old Buddhist temples, converting some into interrogation, torture and killing centers.

Despite the government’s positive spin, the Tribunal is a contentious issue in the run-up to Cambodia’s parliamentary elections this July.  To deflect attention from his own trial, Tribunal defendant Khieu Samphan has pointed to the prime minister, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, who Samphan says had extensive knowledge of the regime’s tactics and actions. Angered by this and other challenges to his candidacy, Hun Sen emphatically warns that Cambodia risks a civil war if he loses the election and says he will “respond immediately” if anyone tries to apprehend him.

Indeed, to the government, the Tribunal’s profile may be more important than its prosecution, as Hun Sen and Sok An seek to position the nation as a leader in social, economic and political reforms. The government could hardly wait to broadcast this message regionally, when it hosted the latest nine-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting. Among its bragging rights is that the country’s projected GDP growth is 6.7 percent in 2013. But like much government-sanctioned information, official data on hunger, jobs, and wages hardly reflect reality.

NGOs and on-the-ground diplomats estimate that almost a third of Cambodians are malnourished and even more suffer from stunted growth. Poverty is rooted in rural areas where farmers struggle with pollution and water-borne diseases. (Countrywide, fewer than half of Cambodian households have clean water access, and only a third have toilets.) Lack of economic opportunity defines life for the vast majority of Cambodians. The best prospects for average high school graduates: low-skill work in factories where employers face few restrictions. Factory workers earn roughly $70 a month. “If you’re a rock star,” says one diplomatic economic attaché, “you might work in an office and earn $90 a month.” Farm workers can expect $40 in monthly wages. To many, the lure of the sex industry’s dramatically higher pay proves irresistible: Boys, girls, men and women can earn as much as $500 a month.  Officially regulated but poorly monitored, the sex trade targets the vulnerable; untold numbers of Cambodians are enslaved by brothels that pay off inspectors and pocket the profits.

Near the top of Transparency International’s list of the world’s most corrupt nations, Cambodia has also earned the dubious distinction among human rights groups as one of the world’s worst abusers. Villagers fear the country’s judicial system and bribes are the norm. Even the Tribunal is not immune. Corruption allegations abound, starting with the Open Society Justice Initiative’s 2007 claim that Cambodia’s government demanded kickbacks in return for locals securing jobs, from support staff to judges.

Choeung Ek gained international notoriety in the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Ten miles south of Phnom Penh, the site is marked by an acrylic Buddhist stupa filled with thousands of human skulls. The Khmer Rouge massacred 17,000 people here and buried them in mass graves, and human bones still push through the powdery dirt. One of the country’s countless killing fields, Choeung Ek is among the top travel attractions the government promotes. It is part of a much bigger plan to develop genocide tourism as a robust industry.

Along a well-trodden path, a wooden sign conveys a stark message:

“The Chemical Substance Storage Room: Here was the place where chemical substances such as DDT were kept. Executioners scattered these substances over dead bodies… after execution…to eliminate the stench from the dead bodies that could raise suspicion among people working near by the killing fields and… to kill off victims who were buried alive.”

Afternoon commuters in Kampong Chhnang Province. Bicycles are the mode of transportation for most Cambodians. Veering off the defined paths and tilled soil can be deadly; Millions of mines and other unexploded ordnance are still buried in the soil, a leftover of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, an aggressive de-mining campaign is underway, but mine accidents still claim hundreds of lives a year.

Nearby, in a cleared-out area, two men sit side by side on a semicircular bench curving around part of a large picnic table. Across the way is a building filled with skulls and skeletal remains found on the site, memorializing the thousands who disappeared in the killing fields.  The two men are quietly focused on the crowd gathered to hear them speak. They are together to tell their stories, tragic and entwined. Him Huy begins. Not on trial, his memory is clear.  As a young farmer, he joined the Khmer Rouge and was soon dispatched to Tuol Sleng prison, S-21, where Duch, the hardened head of Khmer Rouge security, trained his hand-picked staff in brutality. Duch promoted the avid and promising Him Huy to deputy chief of the prison’s security guards.  “I had more than ten guards under me,” Him Huy says with a measure of pride.  Among his responsibilities: transporting prisoners to the killing fields, as many as 70 at a time. As Him Huy describes it, Duch tested the young deputy’s loyalty by ordering him to kill a load of Cambodians trucked from S-21 to Choeung Ek. Him Huy complied, shouting at the prisoners to kneel along the edge of a freshly dug pit, while he swung a long metal bar and struck each person on the back of the neck. When he was finished, he had filled the hollowed-out earth with piles of limp bodies. Asked why he talks about this, he says it makes him feel much better. “I thought the Khmer Rouge was a good movement.” He hastens to add that Duch made all of the decisions; the guards just executed them. “I am a victim of the Khmer Rouge. Not just me. All of the S-21 guards.” Norng Chan Phal places his hands on the picnic table and looks over at Him Huy. It is his turn to speak. As child prisoners at S-21, he and his brother saw their mother suffer the guards’ savage assaults. Indeed, Tribunal documents and testimonies detail the guards’ prescribed responsibilities under the careful watch of deputy chief Him Huy and others. When the Khmer Rouge frantically evacuated the prisoners from S-21 as Vietnamese invaders poured into Phnom Penh, Norng Chan Phal was nine years old.  He and his brother hid, undetected, under a pile of prisoners’ clothes. When it was safe, they peeled back the clothing and went to look for their mother. Instead, they found battered corpses.

Outside the Tribunal’s chambers, 61-year-old Prak Sakhorn and her five-year-old granddaughter are inside the enclosure, waiting to witness the trials.  As for many, the morning’s ride was their first time on a bus, or anything other than a bicycle or an animal-drawn cart.

Prak Sakhorn was in her 20s during the massacres. Asked about that period, she demurs, and talks about her life today in a village where she earns a meager living and barters food for clothing and other essentials. Many Cambodians like her, mired in poverty, have little time or energy for coming to terms with their country’s past.

Enter the ethereal. More than 95 percent Buddhist, Cambodia’s culture is unfamiliar with openly acknowledging and analyzing human failures. Banned by the Khmer Rouge, the unofficial national religion is again an overt, celebrated part of everyday life, grounding Cambodians in daily moral prohibitions against killing living beings, taking something not freely given, sexual misconduct, overindulgence, untrue speech and intoxication. Cambodians find comfort in the overriding precept of karma that takes this painful accountability from the here and now, and puts it into the next life.

Survivor Chum Mey wears a ribbon in memory of Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012). Twice king, twice prime minister, once president and erstwhile guerilla leader, Sihanouk maneuvered Cambodia through independence from France to its tentative experiment with democracy.

With trauma defining so much of Cambodia’s history, memory is a curious part of the collective consciousness.  Layered underneath the daily hardships is the past that people shared. But beyond the corruption, the poverty and the widely accepted Buddhist precepts, the government revises history to obscure its own culpability. And while documentarians work feverishly to ground the nation’s history in facts, eyewitness accounts and archival materials, there is no universal view about what happened, at least not on the surface.

A Tribunal judge explains that the court is not addressing the victims so much as it is beating back myths and providing a “truthful narrative” to their children and grandchildren. “People thought it was legend, that it didn’t, that it couldn’t have really happened. Many parents didn’t ever want to talk about it.”

The Tribunal’s most important legacy may be a civil society where citizens are attuned to their past, even if it is culturally difficult to engage in a national dialogue.

This is the life work of Youk Chhang, a child survivor of the killing fields. The country’s caretaker of memory, the 52-year-old-man with a warm, toothy smile is the peripatetic executive director of the Genocide Museum’s Documentation Center of Cambodia.

With his archive-filled research center, Youk Chhang creates curricula and trains thousands of Cambodia’s high school teachers. He must counter  other versions of what transpired and just who is to blame, which are proffered by millions of former Khmer Rouge members and their offspring. Youk Chhang is intent on breaking down the treacherous societal schisms that these conflicting views form. If truth prevails, it will unify the country, he says. His focus is on the next generation.

Victim and perpetrator sit side by side, as they recount their interwoven experiences during the genocide. S-21 deputy security guard chief Him Huy (left), and S-21 child survivor Norng Chan Phal are just two of the many millions of Cambodians grappling with their memories of the Khmer Rouge genocide. This, in a country with just 14 psychiatrists for 15 million people.

Cradling copies of the first-ever Cambodian-written publication on the atrocities that he and his team compiled, Youk Chhang concedes that publishing accounts, posting pictures and talking about the genocide is difficult for Cambodians who would much rather “put their painful memories behind them.”

But “we cannot move forward,” he continues, “unless we grasp what happened and why it happened.”


Amy Kaslow is a long-time journalist  covering international economics and post-war reconstruction.


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