Ten thousand posters bearing news of the Khmer Rouge tribunal have begun to wind their way across Cambodia. For many, especially in the provinces, the posters are the first tangible sign of what has been a largely intangible process of long-delayed justice. And so far, the posters have been greeted with grave interest and a bit of confusion.
For some of those people—and some of the groups helping distribute the posters—the use of Roman alphabet punctuation, which is unfamiliar to many rural Cambodians, and the lifelike depictions of defendants have proven troubling.
On Tuesday, 22 so-called citizen advisors—mostly teachers and school administrators who will bring the posters back to their home villages—gathered at the Khmer Institute of Democracy’s Phnom Penh office for an educational briefing on the court. It was also the first time they had seen the information posters.
Overall the messages on the posters were clear: Only senior Khmer Rouge leaders will be tried in court. Anyone can learn about the tribunal, by radio, television, or by travelling to the court in person. And both international and national judges at the tribunal must agree for a verdict to stick to a former regime leader.
But the punctuation symbols used proved confounding, even to this educated group of citizen advisers. “It’s a line and a dot,” said one woman as she pondered the “!” exclamation marks on one poster, and while nearly everyone had seen a “?” question mark, few of those at the briefing knew what it meant.
“When we put up these posters and don’t explain them, people won’t understand,” said Bun Sokleang, 53, a school director from Kratie province.
Peter Foster, press officer at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, said in an e-mail Tuesday that the posters were reviewed by a panel comprised of both Cambodians and foreigners.
“The design we chose represented the best choice overall,” he wrote.
“It was always envisioned that the posters would be part of [a] larger outreach program, which would include ongoing discussion and presentation to the public.”
But Nou Va, a program officer at KID, which plans to distribute 800 posters, said that he was reluctant to work with the posters at first.
But, he added, “Something is better than nothing.”
Confusion or not, the Documentation Center of Cambodia and the Center for Social Development plan to distribute 4,000 posters each.
For residents of former Khmer Rouge areas along the Thai border, who were shown the glossy prints late last month, the images of life-like Khmer Rouge defendants depicted in the posters have been the subject of some speculation.
“Is it Pol Pot’s photo?” asked Sear Mot, a former cadre who runs a carpentry shop in Pailin municipality, as he regarded the image of a young Khmer Rouge leader wearing spectacles and Mao cap, lecturing a roomful of black-clad cadres.
“From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot was fat. His face was full,” Sear Mot added.
Phe Tha, 47, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, said the figure in the poster reminded him of no Khmer Rouge official. However, it did remind him of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“I dare not say it,” Phe Tha said, before adding: “I wonder why they make this look like Hun Sen.”
Men Mon, a former cadre, and Kong Doung, who worked as a radio announcer for the Khmer Rouge’s National Democratic Armed Forces Radio station from 1983 to 1996, agreed with Phe Tha.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith dismissed the notion that the figure in the poster bore any resemblance to the prime minister, and noted that it was Hun Sen’s idea
to establish the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
“The tribunal was Hun Sen’s idea,” he said.
ECCC officials say the drawings in the posters are imaginary composites of people, which don’t represent anyone in particular.
“They are not meant to represent anyone,” Foster wrote in an e-mail Monday. “Even if we had used stick figures or shadows, someone would have said that they recognized who the figures were ‘supposed’ to be,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan.)