As students sang a heart-rending chorale and monks prayed, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara gave an impassioned speech Tuesday on the site where thousands of his countrymen were killed.
“We have to find justice for those who died,” he said, speaking with force but without prepared notes. “I am very sad for the people who were killed by Pol Pot. He killed for no reason.”
Chea Sophara said after his speech that he lost 27 relatives during the Khmer Rouge regime, including his mother and sisters, and that the surviving leadership must be tried.
The deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians cannot be forgotten, he said.
Hundreds attended this year’s ceremony to honor the dead buried at Cheung Ek, from municipal officials in crisp white shirts to ancient krama-clad villagers.
But it was the music, floating over the sun-dappled fields where so many were slaughtered, that brought tears to more than a few eyes.
“Oh, Khmer! What is that voice calling you? Can you hear?” sang the students from the Royal University of Fine Arts, in a haunting performance piece written by students and teachers in the 1980s.
“How did you die? Who killed you?”
It was Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who turned white to black and truth to lies, killing families, blinding people, raping women and torturing children, the song continued.
“What was this crazy game they made?” the students sang. “They killed even their relatives. They cut peoples’ chests, to take their lungs and livers to eat.
“Can you remember?
“No, you are not Khmer. If you were Khmer, you wouldn’t have killed another Khmer and eaten Khmer flesh. You wouldn’t have destroyed our culture and our consciousness.
“We won’t allow this thing to happen a second time in Angkor land.”
The song summed up the government’s arguments for preserving the Cheung Ek killing fields as a testament against genocide.
“This ceremony, and this place, honors the memory of the Cambodian people killed during the Pol Pot regime,” Chea Sophara said. He said Cheung Ek must be preserved so that children growing up today will see the bones and skulls that prove the genocide really happened.
A group of Cambodians living in the US, the Committee Supporting King for Cambodia, wrote to King Norodom Sihanouk in February, asking that the bones be cremated to allow the victims’ souls to pass on to a new life.
Cambodian leaders say the bones are being preserved in a respectful manner, but must be kept as evidence for the pending trials of Khmer Rouge leaders.
Chea Sophara said Tuesday he wants to spend $1 million to improve the site so that it will attract more visitors. Plans will include much-needed repairs to the road to the site, now a mess of dusty potholes.
City officials say the two-hectare site will be doubled in size, and that a new building, pond and pathway will be constructed.
Chea Sophara said that only 129 of an estimated 450 mass graves have been excavated, and he wants to excavate more, to show visitors in more detail what happened at Cheung Ek.
“We don’t want this place to make money,” he said. “We want to tell people what happened, so that it never happens again.”