kompong speu town – Tears rolled down Kann Sunthara’s face recently as she recounted her experiences under the Khmer Rouge.
In a quiet meeting room surrounded by her colleagues at Lycee Kompong Speu, the 48-year-old teacher remembered how her brother, an engineer, was ordered to Phnom Penh in 1976, was sent to the notorious Tuol Sleng prison and then executed. A year later, her husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Out of a family numbering 12 in 1975, only four survived.
Kann Sunthara finds some satisfaction in the prospect of a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders, but like the majority of people questioned earlier this month by The Cambodia Daily, she wants the UN to take control because, “I really don’t trust Cambodian judges to give a fair trial.”
The comments come as the UN and Cambodian government continue to wrestle over control of the planned trial. In an informal, non-scientific survey conducted Jan 12-13, a total of 24 Cambodians from Kompong Speu, Kompong Chhnang and Pursat provinces offered their thoughts on the trial—who should take control, who should be prosecuted and what the trial meant to them. Some of the findings:
- A third of the respondents said this was the first time they had heard of the trial.
- A majority lacked faith in a Cambodian court and wanted a UN-controlled trial with Cambodian involvement.
- Most couldn’t name leaders they thought should be prosecuted.
- When prompted, most wanted high-profile leaders such as Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea to be prosecuted.
- A third wanted lower-echelon leaders, such as district and commune chiefs, to be tried.
- Almost half said they would be willing to give evidence at the trial.
- Almost two-thirds of respondents voiced reservations about the government’s ability to handle the trial.
Lack of trust in the government and corruption allegations were the main reasons given that the trial would not be fair if controlled by the government.
Seventeen people hoped the UN would hold the reins, and the government would take a supporting role. Four of those surveyed wanted the UN to take total control, but most preferred the government to cooperate with the international community provided that the majority of power stay with the UN.
Srey Chhay, a 53-year-old farmer in Kompong Chhnang province, typified the majority of responses saying: “To my knowledge, the international court and the government court should cooperate—but I feel that the UN can deliver the ‘real’ justice.”
Pen Mein, a 74-year-old monk living in Wat Chombak Pel Pon in Kompong Speu, was reluctant to comment on the trial, saying it was not his place to discuss the issue. But his parting words were: “Maybe the UN should take control. Yes, this would be better.”
Only three of those interviewed wanted the trial to be controlled locally.
“It is up to the government, because they have begun to arrest the leaders. I trust the government,” said Chea Yim, a 57-year-old farmer in Kompong Speu province.
About a third of the interviewees had not yet heard about the upcoming trial. These were mainly from rural areas; they owned neither a radio nor TV and could not read or write.
For those 16 respondents who had heard of the trial—all of them via newspapers, radio or TV—most were unsure of the details and the role of the UN. A few described themselves as “simple” people, with no understanding of politics, initially deferring all decisions to the government.
When asked to name leaders they thought should be prosecuted, most couldn’t remember names. They recalled only hearing the word “Angkar”—the term for the higher organization—during the regime.
Soun Ry, a 38-year-old waitress in a Kompong Chhnang restaurant, said: “I don’t remember any names. I only remember they killed my parents, my sister and my brother.”
When it came to who should face prosecution, most respondents agreed that the regime’s most prominent leaders should be put on trial such as Ta Mok, who was arrested last year; former deputy prime minister of the Khmer Rouge, Ieng Sary; Nuon Chea, the movement’s political idealogue; Khieu Samphan, its nominal leader; and even the deceased Pol Pot.
A smaller number, about a third, also wanted lower level commanders and chiefs to be prosecuted. But many thought that subordinate leaders were merely taking orders from above and as such were not guilty.
Others said that it would be pointless to trace district and commune chiefs because they believe that most of them died after the Vietnamese invasion in revenge attacks.
Oun Roeun, a 56-year-old noodle vendor in Pursat province disagreed: “In my commune, the chiefs’ hands are stained with blood. They must be tried.”
A few could name their commune and district chiefs from 20 years ago, but none knew where they were now.
Only three interviewees were worried by reports that trying the high-profile leaders would cause civil unrest in Cambodia.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, Ieng Sary and Y Chhien, the governor of the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, all have warned at different times of possible conflict if top leaders are brought to trial.
Those who thought fighting would ensue put their trust in the government to quash any violence, believing that the Khmer Rouge no longer wields substantial power.
Whether they believed in the government or the UN, the response was unanimous: everyone remembered the suffering and general misery of 1975-79 and were looking forward to the trial.
Sok Non, a 51-year-old farmer in Kompong Chhnang province who said he lost all his brothers and sisters to the regime said: “I want the trial. In this way I can find peace. If we do not try the Khmer Rouge, it means they are still alive.”
Ten respondents, including three from Pursat province, were willing to go to Phnom Penh and give evidence at the trial.
Soun Ry said she hopes that she gets the opportunity to attend the trial. “I want to see the Khmer Rouge leaders face to face,” she explained.
Now 21 years since the regime was ousted from Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese, another feeling apparent from the survey was that the trial was long overdue.
“I can talk about the Khmer Rouge for three days and still not have said all I have to say,” said Em Sopheap, a 49-year-old taxi driver and resident of Pursat town. “I am waiting every day to hear about this trial.”
Whether the trial will help to heal all the wounds is debatable.
Farmhand Phal Heip, 47, who survived as her seven brothers and sisters were murdered by the Khmer Rouge and her parents slowly wasted away from overwork and malnutrition, is happy that there might be a trial at last, but for her it is not enough. “My suffering is still in my heart,” she said. “And a trial won’t stop that.”