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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Khmer Rouge Trials

by Bronwyn Sloan

April 2006

Is there any point in a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders so many years on? Many say yes—even some former Khmer Rouge themselves.

Former Khmer Rouge officer Him Huy says he has never heard of Serbia, much less Slobodan Milosevic.

Huy was ignorant of the international consternation the death of Milosevic caused last month. After four years of legal wrangling in Milosevic's war crimes trial at The Hague, delays due to his ill health and the expenditure of millions of dollars, some claimed his death proved it had all been for nothing. If Huy had met these people, he may have argued with them. But right then Huy was busy battling his own demons, quietly leaving his simple wooden house in Koh Thom district, about 70 kilometers from the capital, and making his way back to a place that haunts him because he has yet to understand why it happened. He was returning to visit the Killing Fields.

"The smell of the blood and the death came back to me as strong as if it was yesterday," the 50-year-old farmer says, smoking as he sits cross-legged on the cane floor of his stilted house.

Milosevic, the first head of state to be tried as a war criminal, was just 64 when he died in prison in March. Those blamed for the cruel excesses of the Khmer Rouge regime, including its former head of state Khieu Samphan, and so-called Brother Number Two Nuon Chea are in their seventies and even eighties. Many claim they are in ill health. Their former leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

There are some who now say the Milosevic trial and its inconclusive ending cast doubts on the efficacy of all war crimes trials, and that its legacy for Cambodia, with around two-thirds of its population born after the fall of one of the most evil reigns of the last century, was to quietly acknowledge justice was a lost cause.

But Cambodians such as Huy disagree. Cambodia mourned the 31st anniversary of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge's victory on April 17, 1975 which plunged the nation into four years of bloody genocide that left up to two million of its own people dead of starvation, disease, torture, executions or from being worked literally to death. But Huy says he doesn't believe it is too late. He still has dreams of a trial of surviving former leaders so he can put some of his demons to rest.

It may seem a strange dream for a man who knew two of the grisly hallmarks of the Democratic Kampuchea regime intimately—he commanded 100 guards at the Toul Sleng torture center, known by the regime as S-21, and sometimes brought victims personally to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. But that, says Huy, is precisely why he needs a chance to speak; to face the men who gave his orders one more time.

It is certainly a difficult concept for foreigners brought up to believe that this was a black and white war. 

"I just know I will be happy when a trial comes and I can speak and explain my story. I want people to understand why I had no choice, and I myself want to understand better why I had no choice. I want justice for the Khmer people," Huy says.

Huy's story is not so unusual. He says he was forcibly recruited by the Khmer Rouge as a 17-year-old boy in 1972. Where his story and his willingness to share it becomes unusual is in 1976, when he was made a guard at Toul Sleng, where thousands were tortured to death or shipped out to the Killing Fields to be murdered after being starved and beaten into insane confessions of spying against the regime.

He says he begged to be allowed to leave, but once inside the secret prison, the only way out was death. He followed orders well—he says in order to survive—and he became a senior guard. His story, who he spoke to and what he knows from that dark part of his life can help other survivors piece together why Democratic Kampuchea happened.

"I asked to be transferred. If I was going to die, I wanted to die for fighting, not just for pure killing. They said no, because I knew too much. In Toul Sleng, no one could help. No one could escape death. The guards and the prisoners both lived in fear each day would be their last. The only time we could forget this was sometimes, maybe, when we slept," he says.

He killed because those who didn't were killed, he says. When the Khmer Rouge was finally ousted by Vietnamese-backed troops in January 1979 and he could return home, his found his own brother had been murdered by the regime. His wife Pout Deng Oeun, now 48, lost two brothers to the genocide.

Huy suffers headaches and stomach problems he blames on what he saw and says he was forced to do in those years. "My head is broken," he says. But despite the atrocities he saw and committed, in the horrific scale of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, he is recognized as a mere pawn and will not be a defendant, but a witness. It is his leaders the court will try.

For men like Huy as well as those who suffered at the hands of those like him, a verdict in a Khmer Rouge tribunal is not the issue. They say all they want from a trial such as the proposed $56 plus million joint U.N.-Cambodian government Extraordinary Chambers is the chance to tell their stories. It would, supporters of a trial say, help past and future generations by proving the commitment of both the current Cambodian government and the world to bringing those who perpetrate atrocities to justice, even if they die in jail like so many of their victims.

"We are always mindful that people are getting older—not just the defense, but witnesses," says Dr Helen Jarvis, senior communications officer for the trial. "And every defendant will have the right to present health and other conditions for consideration. The trial will be to international standards."

But she says the trial is finally imminent, three decades on, and even if the mostly aging and ailing former leaders play the Milosevic defense, justice is the issue at stake and the world should make it clear that there is always the money to pursue justice, whatever the cost.

"The money is one thing. Putting the cases of the people is more important," she says.

There are doubters. Former Khmer Rouge intellectual Suong Sikoeun, once a policy maker at the regime's Foreign Affairs Ministry who is not expected to stand trial, said in his last public interview in September 2005 that he doubted a trial would solve anything, pointing out that the same factors which had once convinced him and thousands of others to turn to the extreme Khmer Rouge ideologies still existed in Cambodia today.
"I support a trial ... However for myself, I think the trial should not be the first priority for Cambodia now. The first priority should be to solve the problems of the people not having enough food to eat, of droughts and floods, of land grabbing, et cetera," Sikoeun said from his home in Malai, a remote northwestern former Khmer Rouge stronghold on the Thai border.
In a recent interview, Pol Pot's former chief lieutenant and prime candidate for trial, Nuon Chea, spoke pointedly and at length about the current situation in Iraq. He did not mention the proposed trial.

But Khmer Rouge historian, Professor David Chandler, supports people such as Huy.

"(A trial) is what most Cambodians would like to see happen. Bearing witness, and having the leaders in custody for the duration of the trial, is more important than actually putting the last few leaders in jail any longer," he said in an e-mail.

"Right now they are free to spout off, feed their chickens, pretend they are Buddhists, etc," the Professor Emeritus of History at Melbourne's Monash University and author of the harrowing book, 'Voices from S-21', says.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC Cam), which has collected thousands of testimonies and documents relating to the Khmer Rouge and its Democratic Kampuchea regime, was also adamant about the need for both Cambodia and the international community to witness a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders and hear the testimonies of survivors when he delivered a speech at Canada's McGill University on April 7.

"Simply knowing that one’s country was not the only one to have committed atrocities can sometimes be comforting in an ironic way," the genocide survivor told a convention called "Prepared for Speaking the Unspeakable: A Conversation with Survivors of Three Genocides" in an address entitled 'Making Sense out of Genocide'.

"Whether justice is achieved is difficult to predict. Twenty-eight years after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, the United Nations and Royal Government of Cambodia are scheduled to begin trials of the regime’s senior leaders. Many of them are now in their 70s and are in frail health. But even the act of holding the trials will help Cambodians put what happened into perspective and let the world know of their suffering. Perhaps even more important, if the trials are fair and transparent, people may begin to have a little faith in their justice system and hope for tomorrow.

"Cambodia could hold some valuable lessons for other nations and the broader international community as well. As history has taught us, crimes against humanity like genocide can happen anywhere.  One needs only to look at Rwanda, East Timor, Bosnia, Sudan and other places around the world to realize that we haven’t come very far. But we also know that without the support of the international community and activism on the part of people like those here today, it is impossible to prevent genocide. Without a global perspective, there’s a risk of remaining narrow-minded, which may lead to taking an extreme view; and extremism can lead to more violence.

"The road to healing has been a long one for Cambodia. After a quarter of a century, it is still one of the world’s poorest countries, and many of the indicators of its people’s well-being are sliding backwards. We need to make sense of our history before we can move on and heal, and documenting and understanding our shared experiences is a small step in that direction."

For Huy, who now regularly returns to wander the scene of what some may call his crimes and he calls his own torture at Toul Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, and has viewed the rooms at a military headquarters just outside Phnom Penh where the hearings are slated to take place accompanied by Youk Chhang and flanked by hundreds of other potential witnesses, a trial cannot come soon enough.

He lives just across a small river from one of his former prisoners—one of only seven men in that position to walk out of S-21 alive—and nine of his neighbors are also potential key witnesses in any trial. All of these potential witnesses say answers are all they need or expect. All believe they have paid a price more valuable than money which entitles them to that, at least.

"When the witnesses went to Phnom Penh and saw S-21 and then Choeung Ek and the court, I asked (the authorities) if I could also see Duch," he said, referring to the former head of S-21, also known as Kang Khek leu, to whom he once reported to directly.

Duch is one of the few former leaders in jail pending trial since he was discovered working for a Christian organization in northwestern Battambang province and arrested in May 1999.

"I just wanted to ask him why he gave me such orders and why he made me do what I did, but they said I would have to wait until the trial. I hope a trial is coming soon. Do you think it will be soon? All I want is to see his face one more time and ask him why," Huy says.

Specific comments regarding this column should be directed to Bronwyn Sloan.

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