With the arrest on Wednesday of Nuon Chea, the highest ranking member of the Khmer Rouge still alive, Cambodia again stepped briefly into the global media spotlight.
The Cambodian press also lavished attention on Nuon Chea’s detention on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But reaction in Phnom Penh, at least among the young, seemed muted—more evidence, if any was needed, of the gap that divides survivors of the Khmer Rouge years from their children.
“I have no idea who Nuon Chea is,” The Sokha, 19, an economics student at Norton University, said Thursday. “I’ve never heard his name,” she said.
The World Bank estimates that about 70 percent of Cambodians are under 30, and for them the Khmer Rouge years, which are barely included in school curriculums, are ancient history.
“I don’t mention the past,” The Sokha said. “I talk a lot about the present situation with the government and politics in the country. I like talking about that.”
The story of Nuon Chea’s arrest made the front page of the International Herald Tribune, and the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Germany’s Deutsche Welle radio all covered the story, which quickly reverberated through Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Denmark, Canada, England, Ireland, China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, India, Australia, Cuba and Iran.
By Thursday evening, Google News listed no less than 675 stories on the subject of Nuon Chea.
Khmer-language dailies Kampuchea Thmey Daily, Koh Santepheap and Rasmei Kampuchea Daily all ran front-page photos of a frail Nuon Chea and the helicopter that whisked him from his Pailin home to Phnom Penh on Wednesday morning. CTN covered the story, and Voice of America broadcast an interview with Nuon Chea’s wife Thursday morning.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith emphasized the government’s commitment to the judicial process in a Thursday e-mail.
“ECCC is just to fill a blank page of Cambodian history and will act as reminder to the next generation, and also the world, that there will be no excuse to the massacre of human beings in the name of ideology, religion belief or others,” he wrote.
Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that though families talk about the Khmer Rouge privately, the dearth of standardized public information—in school curricula, for instance—has taken its toll.
The best that the court can do, he said, is to give people information so they can make up their own minds.
“We should not make them go through our suffering,” said Youk Chhang, who spent the Khmer Rouge years laboring on an irrigation project in Siem Reap province.
Many people hope that the Khmer Rouge tribunal will help chip away at the silence about those years. But even the global media frenzy over Nuon Chea’s arrest seemed to do little to dent the lack of knowledge here at home.
The Sokha’s friend, Arifin Hak, 25, an economics lecturer at Norton University, said that he knew Nuon Chea’s name, but little else.
“I just know he’s a former Khmer Rouge leader but I don’t know clearly about his position in the regime,” he said, later adding: “He’s the second brother of Pol Pot.”
At the mention of Pol Pot, a light went on for The Sokha.
“He [Nuon Chea] must not be a good person because he’s the second brother of Pol Pot,” she said.
Pol Pot, at least, seemed to enjoy universal name recognition.
“People just say Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot. Everybody knows only Pol Pot,” Arifin Hak said.
The Sokha said many of her family members died under the Khmer Rouge and that her father often talks about the cruelty of those years. But she said her dad has never discussed what he did or how he survived those years.
“We don’t know much about that,” she said.
None of the young people interviewed Thursday said they had discussed the news of Nuon Chea’s arrest with their families or friends.
“It’s not important,” said Arifin Hak, whose grandfather was killed by the Khmer Rouge. “To find what result? I don’t think the prosecution of former Khmer Rouge is important for the younger generation,” he added.
Nak Moeun, 22, who studies economics at the Royal University of Law and Economics, said that he learned of the arrest from CTN.
“I glanced at the TV. I recognize he’s an old guy,” he said.
His classmate, Pheng Chantitthya, 22, said he hadn’t heard of the arrest until that very moment, when two reporters started asking him about it.
“Why was Nuon Chea arrested?” he asked the reporters.
Nak Moeun said that though he hadn’t discussed the arrest with family or friends, he could easily understand the international interest in the story.
“Maybe they want to avoid that situation…. No war. No killing your own people. It’s such a violent action,” he said.
Pheng Chantitthya, who lost his grandfather and uncle to the Khmer Rouge, chimed in: “I don’t know why Cambodians now forget so much about the Khmer Rouge regime.”
There are, of course, still plenty of people who remember.
Puth Bora, 36, a Phnom Penh motodop, said he spent the Khmer Rouge years in Battambang province, on a children’s work brigade, collecting cow dung and chasing birds away from rice fields.
He said he’s known Nuon Chea’s name for a long time now and was happy to see him arrested.
But, he added: “He’s just one fish in a basket of fish. When the fish smell so bad, all are bad fish.”