Survivors of the Cambodian genocide made a tearful and urgent call Tuesday for national reconciliation in the form of a UN tribunal for the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Speaking to some 200 Buddhist monks and others gathered at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum at a ceremony marking the 26th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh, three women shared their personal stories of loss before urging the international community to support trials.
“Who killed the Khmer?” asked Kong Kimsean, 51, her voice breaking.
The list of people she knew who lost their lives at the hands of Pol Pot’s regime included her husband, her uncle, her younger brother, her son and her unborn child.
“My husband was tortured and he was sick until he died. My younger brother stayed in the hospital. One day, he found a bamboo shoot that had fallen after a rainstorm. He ate it, and for that he was killed.
“I hurt very much. I need the UN to hold a trial,” she said.
Her story is not uncommon in Cambodia today. It is the lasting legacy of the failed social experiment launched in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. Their dream of a utopian agricultural society ultimately led to the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 from starvation, overwork and execution.
A UN-sponsored effort to prosecute those responsible for the killing is currently stalled over the legal language governing the tribunal.
Kong Korm, vice president of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said the destabilizing effects of the Khmer Rouge continue to this day. “They not only destroyed family relations, but also forced people to abandon ownership rights and other rights,” he said.
Kong Korm said those rights will only return once the country carries out commune elections next February that are designed to decentralize the government by granting democratically elected local authorities more power.
“The Sam Rainsy Party believes that an independent court, the 2002 commune elections and a national election in 2003 will free Cambodia from the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge’s power,” he said.
Some people used Tuesday’s event to ask that the bones of the genocide victims be given a proper Buddhist cremation—an option that has so far been rejected by the government.
Nearby, inside one of the dark halls of the museum, dozens of victims’ skulls have been arranged into a map of Cambodia. Skulls have also been preserved for evidence for a trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders. Others have been kept in memorial sites at the Killing Fields and elsewhere throughout the country.
The anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh has commonly been referred to as Liberation Day, referring to the liberation from US forces supporting the government of Lon Nol. Municipal authorities still ask that people fly the flag on April 17th to commemorate that event.
But many people simply refer to the holiday as the Day of Hatred, to mark what happened after the overthrow of the Lon Nol government.
Loy Sinuon, a 67-year-old grandmother, said she is not satisfied with what Prime Minister Hun Sen has done regarding the Khmer Rouge.
She added to the dark testimony offered at Tuol Sleng Tuesday, saying that her husband, four children, six siblings and 20 other relatives were killed by the Khmer Rouge.
“Now I’m all alone,” she said.