“Why do you share your story?”
“Because it is the truth that has to be told.”
“Why does it have to be told?”
“So that I feel relieved.”
Along the outskirts of Phnom Penh, removed from the Cambodian capital’s coarse air and congested traffic of bustling rickshaws and motorbikes, exists a rather unremarkable looking government complex.
The genocide orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge, starting in 1975, accounts for the loss of more human lives than the atrocities in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and Somalia put together.
Yet it is deemed, much like the systematic extermination of the Armenians during the early twentieth century, to be a ‘forgotten’ genocide, having left the public mind within merely decades of its occurrence.
In this government complex, thirty-three years later, an attempt for justice is finally in process in the form of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
The ECCC, more commonly referred to as the Khmer Rouge tribunal, has been established to prosecute the most serious crimes committed during Democratic Kampuchea. It exists as a hybrid court, incorporating jurisdiction and officials from the UN International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Cambodian Supreme Court equivalent.
The hybrid model was chosen for the tribunal because it provides full national involvement in the trials, while ensuring international standards are met.
These trials are not removed from the place where the crimes occurred, unlike tribunals for Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. Incidentally, this proves satisfactory for the perpetrators; there is no death penalty in Cambodia.
The current organization of the ECCC is comprised of four cases: Case 001, 002, 003, and 004.
The first case tried by the ECCC concerned Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch, former Chairman of Phnom Penh’s security prison S-21, preserved as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today.
Duch oversaw the deaths of approximately fifteen thousand people; an act accompanied with his famous phrase “I just left it up to Karma.”
He converted to Christianity in the wake of his investigation and trial. Duch began serving his prison term in the ECCC detention center in 2012, where he currently awaits his transfer to a local prison, where he will serve his sentence of life imprisonment. The second case is now prosecuting Nuon Chea, former Chairman of the Democratic Kampuchea National Assembly and Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Khieu Samphan, former Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea, and Ieng Sary, former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs of Democratic Kampuchea.
Former Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith was indicted, but later deemed unfit to stand trial due to her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
In the morning of my visit at the tribunal, a former railroad hand was testifying that the Khmer Rouge denied victims food during the mass evacuation of 1975. His testimony was interrupted by Nuon Cheng’s representative, who formally requested that Cheng be able to take a leave of absence for the day due to his back and leg ailments.
This was followed by a similar plea by Sary’s lawyer to “excuse” him as his “sleep has been deprived within the last few days.” Both requests were allowed.
Additionally, Cases 003 and 004 are critical to the lasting effectiveness of the tribunal, as both are organized to try high-ranking perpetrators: military leaders and political, provincial leaders, respectively.
The reality of these prospective initiatives is still in question, due to insufficient funding.
Every Cambodian is either a surviving victim or perpetrator or the kin of a surviving victim or perpetrator.
The official stance of the current Cambodian government is under the impression that every Cambodian involved in the atrocities of the 1970s, besides those who have been tried or are currently being tried by the ECCC, are declared victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Exacerbated by conspicuous corruption, the social and economic aftermath of the genocide is arresting.
In the villages, rape victims live among their aggressors and past KR members are often better off economically than their former subjects.
A connoisseur of exploitation himself, the government’s point man for the tribunal, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, operates under a variety of formal titles that grant him the lion’s share of bureaucratic power.
In a meeting with the Museum delegation, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke for himself and the twenty suits that surrounded him, each equipped with his own iPad and acquiescent disposition.
“We cannot receive, nor enjoy tourism,” he said, a controversial statement, given that the Cambodian government has preserved today’s memorials S-21 and the Killing Fields to benefit from what some describe as ‘genocide tourism.’
This does not preclude the existence of another manifestation of major expatriate attraction: sex tourism.
A foreign director of a Cambodian NGO, of which there exist in the country approximately three thousand, said, “[Many of the children of Phnom Penh] grow up on the street, leave school, and by fifteen, sixteen, they are trafficked.” Indulgence in both ‘tourist’ and ‘activities’ can be achieved simultaneously during one’s visit; touring the Killing Fields by day and browsing the Svay Pak district by night.
Upon entering the detainment facility, I am greeted by overgrown shrubbery and four arbitrarily placed potted plants. The cultivation of flowers, a detainment officer explains, is an important therapeutic exercise for the prisoners.
The center hallway is illuminated with natural light that enters through the open courtyard in the back hall; shadows of outside leaves dance on the concrete floor beneath my feet.
I walk, peering into each room, as a second prison officer speaks easily about the day-to-day workings of the facility. I stop at a room with a television, radio, and three chairs, upon one of which rests a stack of newspapers.
“The chief,” she explained, “is very, very flexible. They ask—and they go. We can’t go by a fixed schedule. It won’t work.”
The image of Duch, Chea, and Samphan enters my mind; three perpetrators growing old together, watching Jeopardy and reminiscing about the good ‘ole days when they captained one of the most wicked and murderous regimes in history, together spearheading the genocide of nearly two million people.
Across the hall are two rooms adjacent to one another—not so different from a Joss two-room double—although, separated by a blue curtain and open to the hallway through metal bars.
I kneel down to catch a glimpse of the room behind the curtain. A colorful tapestry hangs from the far wall and a small potted plant sits on a bedside stool. Suddenly, two feet in blue socks fall from the bed, hitting the floor, unmoving. Startled, feeling embarrassed and invasive, I jump up and join the rest of the delegation only to soon realize I was merely a few feet away from Duch himself.
Duch may have since pronounced his conversion to Christianity, but a different religion exists in the centerfold of post-conflict rehabilitation and development. Today in Cambodia, Buddhism plays a key role in the identity of a country grappling with a catastrophic past.
For the victimized and wounded, reuniting with Buddhist values is a coping mechanism and healing device; for past Khmer war criminals and perpetrators, it is a matter of utilitarian convenience, shrewdly and deliberately mobilized to absorb and tuck away the pain forever; never to be discussed nor remembered.
The tribunal, for many Cambodians, has catalyzed an opening—though gradual—of safe dialogue to exist regarding the parameters of the atrocity among the Cambodian population for the first time since the killing fields.
Past Khmer Rouge members who serve in the current government administration are eager to benefit politically from their careful presentation on the international stage; however, petrified of the prosecution that will come with the territory of Cases 003 and 004.
These dignitaries are optimistic that the international community will not come up with the funding for the final cases, therefore placing the culpability over the heads of the United States, Britain, Japan, and other global contributors, rather than their own.
The commanding issue does not regard disparities between Western and Eastern-style justice; rather, the question that should be posed is whether or not this tribunal has been mechanized by the current Cambodian government to function as a mere extension of the old standing Cambodian oral tradition: the longer one speaks, the more power he will obtain and greater veneration he will receive.
The tribunal may have cracked a window, but the real door to equitable justice and healing seems to be mired by the current Cambodian government’s own interest in and transcription of the country’s historical narrative.
Sophia Rosetti, a sophomore International Studies major, traveled to Cambodia in October 2012 with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on an investigative, bearing witness trip to the Khmer Rouge War Crimes Tribunal.