A cell in Phnom Penh's infamous Tuol Sleng or S-21 prison. Photo by Tristan Clements.
After thirty years of waiting, the Cambodian people are finally facing their brutal past under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. While the country's youth are happy to forget this dark period, those who lived through the genocide are eager to see it revisited. One of them, who was seven years old when she was jailed and orphaned, tells us why the tribunal will help modern Cambodia.
Although leader Pol Pot died untried in 1998, his chief torturer Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Comrade Duch", was the first of the regime's remaining leaders to face trial in Phnom Pehn on Tuesday. The Khmer Rouge killed up to two million Cambodians when they took power of the country in 1975 and forced the country's middle classes into labour camps. Yet since they were toppled by Vietnamese forces in 1979, none of the oppressors have been tried for war crimes.
"There are many regional, national and political interests at stake that are more powerful than the court"
I was four years old and living with my family in the capital when the Khmer Rouge came. They told us that the US was going to bomb the city and that we had to evacuate to the countryside for three days. We left, along with all the other city dwellers. But of course it wasn't three days; it was four years. Before that my mum was a successful business woman and my father was a teacher and then a military commander. They [the Khmer Rouge] didn't like us because we were educated and therefore ‘tainted' by western values. In that time my dad ‘disappeared'. (I never actually received confirmation of his death, but under the circumstances it's pretty certain).
When we got to the country everybody became slaves. We worked and ate communally. My mum had to work in the rice fields. As a child, I had to work with other children transporting palm leaves in order to make hash houses [drinking houses]. We were fortunate to a degree because we were living with relatives who already lived in the countryside, in the Svay Rieng province near Vietnam. But in the end, being in that area cost my mum's life. The regime became paranoid that those living in the east had been infiltrated by the Vietnamese. Me and my mum were put in prison for the last five months of the regime. My mum was shackled to the floor in a row with other prisoners. I was too small to be shackled, because my ankles were so slight. My mum was killed in prison.
I never saw my childhood home again. It's owned by somebody else now. The current capital laws don't recognise ownership before 1979. I did go back to Phnom Penh after the regime was brought down in 1979, but after a year, we felt that the situation was still unstable, so we decided to escape. We took a truck to the northwest, and then walked across the Thai-Cambodian border. I was with about 30 relatives and close friends. The crossing was laden with mines and robbers. It wasn't until 1995 that I returned to Cambodia and only moved back permanently five years ago.
We Cambodians are imprisoned in our past; haunted by these memories, which remain today and seep out in violence and human rights abuses. This tribunal offers the possibility of improved accountability and an end to impunity. We might appear to have peace, but it's just the absence of war. I don't have real peace in my heart. To see that the collective international community care about our dead brings a degree of satisfaction, of healing. But the case must be legitimate. If it's a sham, it will be yet another slap in the face for us.
There are many regional, national and political interests at stake that are more powerful than the court. For example regionally, China, who supported the Khmer Rouge regime, doesn't want to be reminded of its dirty past. Beijing has expressly threatened to veto the tribunal, which is why it doesn't have the blessing of the UN Security Council. On a political front, the current Cambodian government comprises former Khmer Rouge members. Then you have Vietnam, who wants to be known as the great liberator - but it was liberation by invasion.
And while we know that the course of justice takes time, we're suspicious that some of the delays are unnecessary. Because of old age some of the leaders might die before or during the trial, which would be extremely disappointing after the millions of dollars that have been spent on setting it up. I also believe that others should be tried, not only the current five. The additional six proposed by the International Co-Prosecutor is not an unreasonable figure."
The infamous S-21 prison
These photos were taken by blogger Tristan Clements, who visited the former Tuol Sleng prison, now a memorial museum, in January.
Barbed wire was put in place to prevent prisoners from killing themselves.