Bakan district, Pursat province – “Thirty-nine members of my family were killed,” Khon Savin, 41, said breaking into tears.
Ms Savin should had died too, but her father had begged a Khmer Rouge soldier to let her go free- she was 7 years old at the time- making her the only surviving family member of her family.
“My parents were Khmer Krom and because of that we were accused that we had a head of Vietnam and the body of Khmer,” she said following a meeting at Rumlech Pagoda where the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s international co-prosecutor and Khmer Krom victims of the Pol Pot regime met on Sunday.
Ms Savin looked through a notebook that listed 19 relatives from her mother’s side on one page and 20 from her father’s side on the next- all were killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
The family was targeted for elimination, Ms Savin explained, because of their ethnicity. Pol Pot’s soldiers did not trust the Khmer Krom-ethnic Khmers born in what is today southern Vietnam-and being tainted with a connection to Vietnam marked them for death.
Despite the horror inflicted upon her and her family because of their Khmer Krom heritage, the five senior Khmer Rouge leaders on trial at the ECCC will not be charged with genocide against the Khmer Krom.
Unlike the genocide allegedly perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge against the country’s Cham Muslims and Vietnamese nationals, which the five regime leaders currently on trial at the tribunal are being investigated for, the persecution of Khmer Krom families such as Ms Savin’s was deemed to be outside the scope of investigation laid out by the prosecutor’s office.
“My ancestors all came here [to Pursat province] together that’s why we all died here,” Ms Savin said, adding that she remembered Khmer Krom people being brought from Svay Rieng province by the Khmer Rouge and later being killed.
Ms Savin spoke on Sunday to a 250-strong crowd made up of Khmer Krom victims and ECCC international co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley at Rumlech pagoda, directly opposite the former hospital where the Khmer Rouge gave her mother a fatal injection.
At the meeting, Mr Cayley publicly sought to make amends for Khmer Krom civil party applicants not being accepted for admittance at the Khmer Rouge tribunal and for the charge of genocide against the Khmer Krom not to have been taken up by the prosecutor’s office.
Mr Cayley promised to do his best to make sure that the voice of Khmer Krom victims would, nonetheless, be heard at court.
“If you were not accepted [as civil parties] it does not mean to say that you are not recognized by me, by us as a victim of crime…. I give you my undertaking to do anything I can to ensure your evidence is heard before court,” Mr Cayley said.
Mr Cayley said that he recognized the suffering of the Khmer Krom and would include it in a final prosecutors’ submission concluding the investigation of the tribunal’s case 002 before September.
During his speech, Mr Cayley pointed to the length of the trials and the fact everyone’s suffering cannot be included at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“If every single victim could be heard we would be doing this trial for 100 years,” he said.
Addressing the forum one of the oldest Khmer Krom members of the community Meas Chanthorn, 61, told Mr Cayley that 80 percent of the Rumlech commune’s Khmer Krom population was wiped out during the regime.
During a speech Mr Chanthorn asked a number of questions and at one point looked directly at the co-prosecutor and said: “According to the law, the ECCC recognizes the death of the Cham people and the Vietnamese. Why do you not accept our explanation?”
After Mr Chanthorn concluded his speech, Mr Cayley responded: “I completely accept all the comments you are making,” and referred questions to assistant co-prosecutor Dale Lysak, who also did not specifically address Mr Chanthorn’s question when it was his time to address the crowd.
On the sidelines of the forum, Mr Chanthorn said he welcomed the prosecutor’s efforts to make the voice of the Khmer Krom heard in court, but he still wondered why the Khmer Krom were being treated differently to Cham and Vietnamese minorities.
“I am satisfied with what he said, but not completely,” Mr Chanthorn said.
After Mr Cayley’s speech, Khmer Krom survivors told stories of the experiences under the Pol Pot regime and asked questions on behalf of their relatives who died.
The targeting of the Khmer Krom because of their perceived links to Vietnam in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge could be used to argue genocidal intent from the top leadership, tribunal assistant co-prosecutor Mr Lysak said on the sidelines of the meeting.
Civil party lawyer Mahdev Mohan, who represents 136 Khmer Krom clients, welcomed Mr Cayley’s statements indicating evidence would be called in respect to the suffering of the Khmer Krom.
“Today I saw a marked change and what I would call a real turning point,” Mr Mohan said.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Investigating judges can only investigate crimes the prosecutors include in formal submissions to court. In January the judges ruled out charges of genocide against the Khmer Krom because these were left out of the initial allegations in a document called an introductory submission in 2007. The scope of the investigation could only be widened by a later document called a supplementary submission. The prosecutor’s later request in December for investigative action for the Khmer Krom was rejected on a technicality because the request was not officially named a “supplementary submission.”
There was no good reason for the exclusion of the Khmer Krom from the introductory submission and it may well have been an oversight, Mr Cayley said on Saturday, ahead of Sunday’s forum.
He also declined to comment on why the request in December for investigative action was not titled a “supplementary submission.”
“Do I feel responsible? Yes that’s why I’m here,” Mr Cayley said.
Taking part in the forum was a way to let everyone know that he would now try everything to include the Khmer Krom in future court proceedings given they were previously outside the investigative scope.
Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said that the tribunal’s investigative scope was limited to save time but he could not understand why one more group was not included. Nevertheless, Mr Saray welcomed Mr Cayley’s promise that Khmer Krom complainants would be given a role to play in court.
“They [the Khmer Krom] should not be disappointed,” Mr Saray said.
At her home near where the forum was held, 51-year-old Peou Sinoun said that when she was born there she did not think about being ethnically Khmer Krom.
“But during the Pol Pot time I wanted to hide, escape from my identity as Khmer Krom. If people knew that I am Khmer Krom they would kill me,” Ms Sinoun said.
Ms Sinoun is a civil party at the Khmer Rouge tribunal but not related to crimes against the Khmer Krom. She was accepted because she saw the forced imprisonment of people relocated to Pursat from the Khmer Rouge Eastern zone.
Along with five other Khmer Krom civil party applicants from Pursat and eight from Takeo, Ms Sinoun and the others were accepted because their experiences coincide with Khmer Rouge crimes currently under investigation by the court.
Still, Ms Sinoun said that she was disappointed that charges of genocide against the Khmer Krom were not brought against the five suspects detained by the tribunal.
By taking part in the court, Ms Sinoun said she hoped to heal the living and the dead.
“Hopefully I can relieve my pain and help the spirits of the people who died find peace in the afterlife. I hope to help the rest of the people from this region get justice,” Ms Sinoun said.
“I want my suffering to be seen as genocide because my 11 siblings died.”