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CAMBODIA: Trial of Khmer Rouge Leader Starts Healing Process

Robert Carmichael

PHNOM PENH, Mar 31 2009 (IPS) - Om Chantha,69, says she has waited far too long before finally seeing, with her own eyes, Khmer Rouge leader Duch face trial for torture, crimes against humanity and murder.

A tourist peers at photographs of people who died in Khmer Rouge custody. Credit: Robert Carmichael/IPS

A tourist peers at photographs of people who died in Khmer Rouge custody. Credit: Robert Carmichael/IPS

Om, who lost her husband and five children during the Khmer Rouge regime, was one of many Cambodians who went to the Monday opening day of the trial of Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav and who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.

“The soldiers killed my family without any pity and buried them in a single grave,” she said. “I have come here because I want to see how the trial proceeds and I want to see justice done. I have waited too long, and I hope that the court can bring justice to all the victims of the regime.”

After prosecutors spoke of the need to get justice in court on Tuesday, the 66-year-old Duch apologised to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. “May I be permitted to apologise to the survivors of the regime, and also the loved ones of those who died brutally during the regime,” Duch said. “I ask not that you forgive me now, but hope you will later.”

Duch is the first of five defendants of the former ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, under whose brutal rule around two million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979. He is the most junior of the five defendants awaiting trial at the hybrid United Nations/Cambodian tribunal known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

A former math teacher, Duch headed Tuol Sleng or S-21, the regime’s main torture centre in Phnom Penh. At least 12,380 people were tortured and died there – but the true figure is thought to be perhaps twice that. Just a handful of people survived the centre.

Theary Seng, a civil society leader who lost both her parents to the Khmer Rouge, said the tribunal – though marred by allegations of corruption that have swirled around it for months – would provide moral and societal benefits of arguably greater importance than the judgements that will be handed down.

The legal process would in itself be insufficient, but she feels that the court could be a vital catalyst in getting Cambodians to talk about their experiences.

“There are so many topics to be discussed with regards to this very dark period,” she said in an interview. “The court is a legal mechanism that can jumpstart discussions. We have already started talking about trauma and history and reconciliation, but I believe the discussions on trauma could be had more.

“We can’t pretend we aren’t a traumatised society – we are. And we can’t find solutions if we don’t try and diagnose correctly what are the problems. So I hope more and more people will be free to discuss trauma without the stigma that is normally associated with it in this society,” Theary said. On Monday, prosecutors read out a long indictment of Duch that included gory details of torture and execution at Tuol Sleng. His defence will be that he was simply following orders, something the other four defendants will be unable to claim as they were part of the senior policymaking organs of the regime.

Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) that has amassed evidence of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, says that although the tribunal is important for justice, individuals have their own perception of justice.

He gave the example of his own family’s response to the relatives it lost to the Khmer Rouge. His sister was murdered by the regime, as were other family members.

His mother found justice by accepting the apology of her village chief shortly after the Khmer Rouge were driven out of power in 1979, Youk explains.

Things were different for his niece. “My niece never believed anything would happen in Cambodia, and she refused to come back – she lives in the States. She lost her parents, her brother and her sister. My niece feels there is no justice on earth, so what’s the point?” he said. “I, who lost my sister, want the tribunal. So each of us defines justice in our own way.”

“So my mother and my niece and I are divided on how justice should be done for my sister. For me, unless there is prosecution, I cannot reach full forgiveness,” he said. “Not all will be happy with this – I can guarantee you – but a lot will be happy and will utilise this as closure and a way to end the Khmer Rouge tragedy.”

But it is not just victims who are watching proceedings carefully. Other figures more senior than Duch live freely in Cambodia, and are nervous. That is because the tribunal is considering whether to prosecute some of them, although names and the number have not been released while the court considers the prosecution’s request. Several potential defendants are worried the court would now come after them. “Why is Duch being tried if he was a very low-ranking Khmer Rouge member?” one former cadre called Roeun told the English-language newspaper ‘Phnom Penh Post’ last week. “We are afraid we’ll be the next to be arrested and tried because we are higher (ranking) than him.”

Whether more than five Khmer Rouge leaders will appear in the dock is not yet clear. But perhaps the number of defendants is less important than the effect the trial will have on the national mood.

Youk Chhang says the trial is not about the past or the present – it is about the future. “It’s about restoring our identity – we Cambodians are very shameful of our own history. (We like to claim that) it was not Khmer killing Khmer – that it was the Vietnamese or the Thais,” he said.

“But the Khmer Rouge are guilty of the crimes they committed against their own people – it was Khmer killing Khmer,” Youk Chhang explained. “That is so difficult for any Khmer person to accept, because we are Buddhist people, we are gentle people. But those are the facts. And that will help restore our sense of identity, because right now Cambodians are in search of it.”

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