|Photo gallery: Cambodia's Trials|
|||Hawaii's Khmer Rouge survivors share stories|
|Video: Remembering Cambodia's killing fields|
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Johnny Brannon
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Heng Ran sprinkled sand onto a fast-growing pile outside a Buddhist wat near Cambodia's capital, then planted a smoking stick of incense on top.
"We do this to release the bad things we've done, so we become clean," explained the 43-year-old egg vendor.
Oct. 11 marked the end of a 15-day period called Pchum Ben, in which Cambodians honor their dead. Heng brought offerings of food, to be blessed by monks and spiritually guided to deceased relatives.
The rituals were performed by countless others across this impoverished nation of 14 million, which has suffered like no other land in modern Southeast Asia.
At least 1.7 million men, women and children were starved, executed or worked to death from 1975 to 1979, when the radical Communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge sought to erase Cambodia's rich culture and create an austere agrarian utopia. The reign of terror is widely viewed as one of the most extreme examples of organized mass murder since the Nazi Holocaust.
Among those killed were Heng's older brother and sister, and an aunt and uncle. She doesn't know why, or exactly how. Heng lost contact and spent several teenage years on a forced labor crew, digging irrigation canals and planting crops under the broiling tropical sun.
Like many here, she has high hopes for a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal that's prosecuting former Khmer Rouge leaders deemed most responsible for the killings. Justice has been a long time coming.
"I want to see the trials, and I want them to finish soon," Heng said. "I think it will be justice if the law can do what it says."
So far, two well-known former Khmer Rouge officials have been charged with crimes against humanity. They are Kaing Geuk Eav, 65, better known as Comrade Duch, a former math teacher who ran the infamous Tuol Sleng prison and interrogation center; and Nuon Chea, 82, known as Brother Number Two, the regime's chief ideologue and second in command.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998 under murky circumstances near the Thai border, after remnants of the movement he'd led finally turned on him. His health was failing, but some suspect he was executed.
The tribunal may prosecute up to a dozen aging former leaders, and public trials could begin early next year. The maximum possible sentence is life in prison.
Evidence of Cambodia's tragic history is easily accessible. Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, has been kept much as it was when invading Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The site is now an eerie museum that mainly attracts groups of Cambodian school children and foreign visitors.
An estimated 20,000 people were interrogated at the former secondary school, and many were brutally tortured before execution. Only seven are known to have survived.
The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, and photographed every person brought to Tuol Sleng. Thousands of their haunting faces fill displays in the former cells. Some were Khmer Rouge cadre executed in a series of power struggles and purges. Others were their relatives, or were randomly accused by paranoid security forces obsessed with "class enemies." Many were women and children.
Sophal Chhay was 12 when the Khmer Rouge overthrew Cambodia's U.S.-supported government in 1975, declared it the Year Zero, and forced city dwellers into rural work camps and communal farms. His father, a soldier, disappeared and was never heard from again.
Years later, Chhay visited Tuol Sleng and searched through the photographs.
"He wasn't there, and I don't know what happened to him," said Chhay, who became a journalist and sought answers about his country's troubled past and uncertain future.
For some gawking visitors, Tuol Sleng has become just another stop on a package tour. Others are clearly more serious.
Chhay believes it's important to keep the site open to the public.
"What happened here is not a secret," he said. "People should really know what happened during the Khmer Rouge time. It has to be open for everyone, and justice must be found for the victims."
'DO I LOOK LIKE A KILLER?'
While working for an international news service, Chhay once interviewed Nuon Chea about his role in the slaughter. Brother Number Two was calm and kindly, like a friendly uncle. Chhay recalls what he said: "Look at my face. Do I look like a killer?"
Not far from Phnom Penh, visitors who pay a $2 entrance fee can stroll among mass graves at Cheung Ek, a notorious "killing field" where most Tuol Sleng victims were executed. Some victims have been exhumed; many have not.
Mao Thel, a 49-year-old guide, points out bits of bone, teeth and shredded clothing embedded in the dirt, and explains that they belonged to Khmer Rouge victims. Though some of the grisly items appear suspiciously well-placed for maximum shock value, there's no doubt that Cheung Ek and many similar sites were used as dumping grounds for slaughtered Cambodians.
To save valuable bullets, the killers beat most of the victims to death with hammers, shovels and hoes in a gruesome system of assembly line murder and prolonged agony. Mao — whose mother, father and uncle were among those killed — eagerly displays skulls that show clear evidence of blunt trauma, including one said to belong to a 7-year-old girl.
FIRST COURT OF ITS KIND
In observance of Pchum Ben, victims' relatives converged on Cheung Ek to pay their respects and pray for the dead at a glass-paneled stupa filled with thousands of skulls. Every few minutes, a family of four or five arrived on a small motorbike, dressed in their best clothes.
Inside an empty courtroom a few miles away, a guard switched on a light to reveal a large, modern chamber with a gallery of comfortable blue seats. They face a raised platform and a huge official seal of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the tribunal's official name.
Within shouting distance, down a muddy path, is a special detention center where Duch and Nuon Chea are being held without bail.
Negotiations over the tribunal's mandate and structure were acrimonious and took nearly a decade, and not everyone is satisfied with the results. The court is the world's first of its kind — a hybrid structure that incorporates concepts of French civil law and international law. Cambodia was a French colony until 1953.
Though the court was created by the Cambodian government and the U.N., it is to be independent of both. Officially, it is a Cambodian court with international participation and will apply international standards.
"This is the world's first internationalized civil law court, and we beg for patience," said Ben Fleming, an American legal adviser to one panel of judges. "This, literally, has never been done before."
The nonprofit Documentation Center of Cambodia has spent years collecting evidence of Khmer Rouge activities and atrocities, and provided 200,000 pages of documents to the tribunal so far.
"I don't know if this will be enough," said Peoudar Vanthan, the agency's deputy director. "It's up to the court to decide."
The tribunal's investigative phase is taking place behind closed doors, before judges whose role is similar to that of an American grand jury. They review evidence and decide whether a case will proceed to a five-member panel of trial judges — three Cambodian and two international — who can render verdicts after public proceedings. The secrecy surrounding the investigative phase has raised concerns.
"There are things happening right now in the Khmer Rouge tribunal, but we don't have access to it," said Theary Seng, director of the Center for Social Development, a human rights group that monitors Cambodia's courts and legal system. "There's concern that the government wants to control the results, and the information that is made public."
The U.S. embassy is watching the tribunal closely, but so far has withheld financial support.
"We've been pleased with the tribunal's detention of Duch and Nuon Chea, and are actively looking at whether the tribunal can meet international standards of justice," embassy Charge d'Affaires Piper Campbell told The Advertiser in an interview at her home here.
Despite the reservations about the court's secrecy and structure, Seng and many others hope the tribunal can be an effective vehicle for national reconciliation and legal reform in a country where the rule of law has been sorely lacking.
Drivers careen into any space available, regardless of directional lanes or signals. Taxes go unpaid, environmental protections are virtually unknown, and corruption is rampant.
Meanwhile, basic infrastructure is far behind neighboring countries. Some broad boulevards in the capital are picturesque and well-tended, but most side streets are bumpy stretches of dirt and rubble. Rich families live behind walls topped with barbed wire while others live in squalor. Villages in the countryside lack electricity, schools, clean water and medical care.
Still, there are very real signs of improvement. The economy has grown an average of 11 percent over the past three years, and tourists flock to the magnificent 12th-century temples at Angkor, a World Heritage Site.
Recent discoveries of offshore oil and gas deposits that could be worth billions of dollars have further raised hope for the future. But there are serious concerns that revenue needed to help build the country up and fuel economic growth could be squandered or stolen — or lead to disputes and new political instability.
Ho Vichit, vice chairman of the National Petroleum Authority, said he is optimistic.
"The government has expressed its commitment to sound resource management, and to do its best to ensure that petroleum reserves are a blessing, and not a curse," he said.
Many Cambodians have been pushing the government for over a decade to adopt an effective anti-corruption law, but wonder if even that would produce much.
"If we don't have the will to enforce laws, corruption will remain a big problem," said Ngy San, deputy director of a group that coordinates nongovernmental organizations and lobbies the government. "There's not enough law enforcement to have order, so the law works for powerful people and rich people."
'BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS'
As the tribunal moves forward, Seng's social development agency has held a series of public forums in remote villages to raise public awareness, explain the tribunal's limited mandate, and hear concerns. Virtually every Cambodian over 30 was affected by the Khmer Rouge, and by years of warfare before and after their rule.
Many villagers were forced to fight and kill as teenagers, and worry they could be prosecuted. They are often relieved, and open up about their experiences, when they learn they won't be charged, Seng said.
"They have a lot of blood on their hands, and they feel tremendous regret and remorse," she said. "Many of the victims were also perpetrators. And many of the current government officials are also former Khmer Rouge soldiers."
Seng said some villagers question why former U.S. leaders will not be prosecuted for the massive bombing campaign that killed hundreds of thousands between 1969 and 1973, an extension of the war in neighboring Vietnam. Communist Vietnamese troop sanctuaries in Cambodia were targeted in the attacks, but many of those killed were Cambodian civilians.
In a country that's seen so much death, it's hard for some to understand that the court's mandate covers only crimes committed by top Khmer Rouge leaders during a four-year period three decades ago.
Cambodia's current prime minister, Hun Sen, is a former Khmer Rouge deputy regional commander who left the regime as it began to consume itself in horror.
"Those of us who survived have lived for a quarter of a century bearing pain and grief for those we lost and being haunted by the nightmare of our own experiences," he said in an official statement.
SKEPTICISM OF TRIBUNAL
Over drinks, some informed observers question whether the tribunal is designed mainly to assuage international guilt over how other countries helped shape Cambodia's painful past. Others wonder if the main purpose is to provide well-paying jobs for government and foreign officials.
The situation was not helped by recent allegations that some unqualified Cambodian staffers were hired after agreeing to pay kickbacks to superiors. After an internal audit, the tribunal last month announced a code of conduct that forbids receiving or soliciting unauthorized payments.
The tribunal has been set up to operate for three years, at a cost of $56.3 million. Roughly half the time has expired, and insiders say the deadline and budget are likely to be expanded.
But there will be no easy escape from the pressing social problems that seem to be everywhere.
Along a two-lane highway that passes by the tribunal's gates, a few roaming goats picked through piles of rotting garbage one recent afternoon. A bit farther up the road, three tiny children dressed in filthy rags did the same.
In a place where so many educated people were wiped out, the youth are especially important to the future.
"The young people are our hope, and they're very different from their parents in important ways," Seng said. "Their ability to grab and absorb new technology is much stronger than their parents'. And they haven't been traumatized like their parents, so they can move forward."
Reach Johnny Brannon at firstname.lastname@example.org.