Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Closure and The Killing Fields

Near the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge.

OK, I didn't just eat tarantulas and crickets when I was in Southeast Asia. I also did some serious-ish journalism. I even took proper pictures. Here's an example.

Cambodia's Endless Agony

By their very nature, trials for genocide take time. Nonetheless, the judicial proceedings in Cambodia, against the communist murderers of the Khmer Rouge, are surely breaking records for slowness.

Just this week another legal hitch was encountered, which will set back the UN-funded hearings by months, if not years. A committee of judges, some foreign, some Cambodian, admitted on Thursday that they had failed to resolve crucial disagreements. The differences relate to the proposed tribunal, and the way it might integrate Cambodian and international law.

It sounds arcane. But what it really means is this: the foreign authorities believe the Cambodian judges are ill-trained and corruptible; the Cambodians resent the outsiders as insensitive and overbearing. Deep down many suspect that the Cambodian government is stalling.

The sorry result of these ongoing disputes is that, so far, not a single witness has been heard. And yet the Khmer Rouge fell from power as long ago as 1979.

You might think such a time lapse would make the trials irrelevant, almost ancient history. Not so. Cambodia still visibly aches with the pain inflicted by Pol Pot's Angkar - "The Organisation".

For instance, if you visit - as I did this week - the Khmer Rouge torture garden, Tuol Sleng, in the drowsy suburbs of Phnom Penh, you can still see the iron bedsteads on which ten thousand people were flayed, beaten, electrocuted and raped. In fact you can still see the bloodstains from some poor victim sprayed across the ceiling.

Alternatively if you talk - as I have this week - to average Cambodians in the street, you'll soon hear the most appalling litanies of sorrow. Tuk tuk drivers, hotel staff, bank tellers, fish-sauce sellers: they all have the same harrowing stories: "the Khmer Rouge killed my mother", "they took my brother and sister", "I've never seen my children since".

This universality of this refrain is not surprising, when you consider the statistics. It is reliably estimated that, in their lunatic pursuit of an agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge killed two million Cambodians - through starvation, abuse, and outright extermination. Two million Cambodians constituted about a quarter of the nation's population. The equivalent in the UK would be the deaths of fifteen million Britons.

This is why the Khmer Rouge trials are so important, and so relevant to ordinary Cambodians. This is why the delays are so frustrating.

The Cambodian government, for its part, baulks at any criticism. Chea Sim, president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, said last week: "We wish that those entities who constantly look at the process in a negative way would take a more balanced approach." He added: "The Cambodia People's Party undertook the struggle to save the people, and has constantly searched for justice for the victims of the genocidal regime".

Which is all well and good, if it weren't for the fact that, if the trials take much longer, there will be no one left to convict. Pol Pot died a squalid but peaceful death nearly a decade back. Ta Mok, "the butcher", expired last year. The various other Khmer Rouge suspects are now in their seventies and eighties. Remarkably, most of them are at liberty, which is rather like Himmler and Goring still walking the streets of Munich in the 1960s.

Why are the trials truly taking so long? Some say the Chinese, very influential here, want to forget their embarrassing association with Pol Pot, and are pressuring the Cambodians to avoid a proper hearing. Others blame high-ups in the Cambodian government, which still contains Khmer Rouge "sympathisers". A final theory says that the entire nation would, subconsciously at least, rather bury the past than relive it.

This is understandable, of course. And yet it isn't good enough for Cambodia. It isn't good enough for humanity. And it isn't good enough for that person whose blood is sprayed across the ceiling of Tuol Sleng.

The balcony of a Tuol Sleng cellblock. The barbed wire was to stop attempted suicides leaping from the upper floors.
One of the iron bedsteads of Tuol Sleng, on which ten thousand people were beaten, flayed, electrocuted and raped.

A blood flecked ceiling, in one of the torture rooms of Tuol Sleng.

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