Ordinary Cambodians Losing Faith in Tribunal

After years of waiting for a Khmer Rouge tribunal, many survivors of the regime now living in Phnom Penh say they are losing hope of ever seeing Khmer Rouge leaders brought to justice.

“Until now, I’ve only heard the Khmer Rouge will be put on trial, but I am hopeless because I heard about it many years ago,” said Mev Sophea, 45, a clothing vendor, who said her entire family is among the more than 1 million people who died between 1975 and 1979.

“Everything is like a show…. I don’t believe the Khmer Rouge will be tried,” she said.

Mom Phay, a 53-year-old vegetable seller, who harvested palm sugar in Banteay Meanchey province during Democratic Kampuchea, agreed.

“I heard many times [there would be a trial], but nothing happened,” he said. “I want the trial as soon as possible because I want to see an end. We are still suffering from the Khmer Rouge.”

Though UN officials announced earlier this month that a UN-supported trial of the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge could occur soon after it is ratified by the National Assembly, people like Mev Sophea and Mom Phay remain skeptical.

Those responsible for setting up the tribunal “just talk around but nothing has happened,” said Thorn Ngeisy, a 44-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, who said he was forced to work in the rice fields of Kompong Thom pro­vince’s Baray district during the regime.

“According to this result, the people, especially myself, are hopeless,” he said.

The public’s frustration is understandable, said political analyst Kao Kim Hourn, given that negotiations between the Cambodian government and the UN dragged on for about six years—at one point breaking off altogether—before they signed an agreement in July on how to set up the tribunal.

But, Kao Kim Hourn said, “We should not lose hope that a fair trial will take place.”

One of the key aims of the trial, according to Kao Kim Hourn and Kem Sokha, a former Funcinpec parliamentarian and director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, should be not only to seek justice, but to seek the truth.

“We want to know the facts, and the real reason for what happened in the genocide regime, and…what happened to innocent people like this,” Kem Sokha said.

Some answers may lie in the physical evidence that researchers are still uncovering 25 years after the fall of the Pol Pot-led regime—evidence which may be used in the trial.

Earlier this month, a team of nine Khmer Rouge researchers working with the Documentation Center of Cambodia discovered seven suspected mass grave pits at an undisclosed location in Kompong Cham province, leading them to believe the area could be among the biggest killing fields found across the country.

“We believe this site is larger than the median, taking into account the entire set of suspected mass grave sites nationwide,” Craig Etcheson, a US-based scholar working with DC-Cam’s forensic study project, wrote in an e-mail last week.

Etcheson said based on witness testimony, he and his team believe at least 200 bodies were buried in the newly discovered pits in June 1978, but he expects the body count could rise significantly after exhumations are carried out.

“[T]here is a difference between what we suspect and what we can demonstrate at this point. But I will say this: We have not yet been able to confirm it, but we have reason to believe that it is a very, very large killing field,” he said.

He declined to give details about the location of the latest find “in order to help preserve the site in its current condition.”

Since the start of their “mapping project” of mass grave sites in 1995, DC-Cam researchers have discovered nearly 20,000 mass graves across the country, according to the organization’s Web site.

Etcheson said whether the discovery of the sites would be used as evidence at the Khmer Rouge tribunal would be up to the investigating judges and prosecutors.

But according to the DC-Cam Web site, “mapping data support the claim that many or most killings took place at the direct knowledge of the central party leadership.”

It added: “These findings cannot establish central command or complicity to an historical certitude but they add to the weight of evidence favoring such an interpretation.”

Kao Kim Hourn, however, said no matter the evidence, “it will never be the perfect trial.”

He said he expected there to be a great deal of finger-pointing and scapegoating, adding that none of the leaders are expected to confess.

Earlier this week, former Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan issued his second public letter in more than two years, admitting there were “systemic killings” during the regime but denying he had any part in the deaths.

In a subsequent interview with FM 90’s “Voice of Democracy Radio,” Khieu Samphan repeated he did not know about the mass killings during the Pol Pot era, and only learned about the atrocities after the regime had fallen.

“Personally, I believe that I have never done anything dishonest to the nation,” the 73 year-old said.

Khieu Samphan’s public statements were received with mixed reaction, ranging from disbelief that he had not known about the killings, to appreciation that the leader admitted the regime was responsible for them.

Sok Sam Oeun, a 52-year-old former Lon Nol soldier, however, contends that whatever emerges from the tribunal, there will be no clear answers.

“The Khmer Rouge is very complicated because it goes from the ground to the top,” he said, pointing to some of the top leaders in the CPP-led government, including Prime Minister Hun Sen and Senate president Chea Sim, who were once members of the Khmer Rouge. “It makes it very hard for people to understand.”

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