PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – A U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal will deliver a verdict this coming Thursday in the trial of the two top leaders of the communist Khmer Rouge, whose extremist policies in the late 1970s are blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians though starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution.
Khieu Samphan, 83, the regime’s head of state, and Nuon Chea, 88, right-hand man of the group’s late leader, Pol Pot, were tried for crimes against humanity. They will face a second trial this year on additional charges of genocide. The tribunal’s first trial sent to prison the commander of the group’s notorious Tuol Sleng torture centre, but the upcoming verdict will mark the first time the Khmer Rouge policymakers will be judged.
What interest do Cambodians have in the prospect of justice finally being rendered, more than three decades after the Khmer Rouge were kicked out of power by an invasion from neighbouring Vietnam? Those who lived through the holocaust have good reason to remember, but most Cambodians alive today were not even born when terror reigned.
SOK SAMBOUR, 25, a hotel receptionist: “One of my uncles was killed because of a very small offence. A pair of his trousers was torn, and he asked my mom to sew it, but the Khmer Rouge found out and accused him of violating their rules, and he was taken away to be killed.”
Another two of her relatives also died, she said.
Her parents told her about that era, including exactly how long the Khmer Rouge ruled: three years, eight months and 20 days.
An elderly neighbour told her that just catching a fish to eat was enough to be accused of betrayal and face almost certain execution.
Seeking to learn more, Sok Sambour has visited the museum at the site of the infamous Khmer Rouge S-21 detention centre, where an estimated 16,000 men, women and children were tortured before being executed.
“I think the trial and upcoming verdict are small compensation for all those killed and their survivors,” she said, wondering if life sentences would satisfy people’s hunger for justice.
NORNG CHAN PHAL, 45, construction vehicle operator: “The legacy I received from the Khmer Rouge is nothing but great sorrow, suffering and a broken family. I cannot describe how much suffering it causes me when I recall how my parents were beaten in front of me.”
He and his younger brother were taken with their parents to the notorious Tuol Sleng torture centre, and kept as virtual adoptees after the Khmer Rouge killed their parents. Vietnamese troops who stumbled upon the facility in 1979 found five children alive amid a gruesome tableau of death.
Norng Chan Phal has already had the satisfaction of seeing the tribunal send the camp’s commander, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to life imprisonment in 2012 in the first trial it held.
He did not realize that Khmer Rouge leaders would face a reckoning in court on Thursday. He has been busy with his work in bustling Phnom Penh, and has already received a measure of justice with Duch’s conviction.
“I want the two criminal masterminds to reveal the true story of their regime’s policies,” he said. “I want to see them saying they are wrongdoers and have committed crimes.”
Neither defendant has acknowledged legal responsibility for the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, asserting that Pol Pot exercised virtually sole control, and that the crimes with which they were charged were exaggerated or even committed by Cambodia’s traditional enemy, the Vietnamese.
VEN KIMSORN, 47, a tuk-tuk driver in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh: “The Pol Pot regime was very cruel, a regime that broke up the families of millions of Cambodians, making the survivors suffer forever.”
“I cannot forget,” said the father of two.
As a young boy, the Khmer Rouge assigned him countryside tasks typical for someone his age: collecting cow dung for fertilizer, and tending a buffalo herd.
But his family came from the city, which marked them as class enemies in Khmer Rouge eyes. When the Khmer Rouge took power on April 17, 1975, they immediately forced virtually all Phnom Penh’s inhabitants on a forced march to resettle in the countryside. Ven Kimsorn’s family was sent north to Kampong Thom province.
Ven Kimsorn’s siblings had another black mark against them: they had served with the government forces that fought against the Khmer Rouge. Three older brothers and one older sister were arrested and never seen again. An uncle also disappeared, presumed dead.
He said he had no idea that two Khmer Rouge leaders would be facing judgment in court this week. The trial has been so long, he said, and he must concentrate on earning enough to feed his family.
“I think that to prosecute just a handful of current surviving leaders is not enough. We need more responsible leaders from that regime to be brought before the court.”
CHHIN HUN, 23, a design and architecture student: “My idea is that the tribunal should proceed with its work with fairness, and not delay its proceedings quite often, as it does. … The more the trial is delayed, the more worry it causes Cambodians that the two defendants could die before it is completed.”
He learned about the Khmer Rouge at school and from his parents. He remembers that he heard about the tribunal many years ago, and wonders when the trials will end.
Foreign tourists will learn about Cambodia’s tragic history from the court proceedings, he said, but the tribunal’s work is mainly for Cambodians so they will never forget.
PHAN PHON, 67, a caretaker at a Buddhist pagoda in Phnom Penh: “If there is no trial, no justice, then the souls of dead people from the Khmer Rouge regime will not rest in peace. But, if the court judges the former Khmer Rouge leaders guilty, I hope their souls will be happy and they can be reborn with a new life.”
He worked in the rice fields in the western province of Koh Kong during the Khmer Rouge years. He said five of his relatives died during that time.
“The Khmer Rouge regarded the people as their tools. … it meant our lives, our bodies, belonged to them, so whether anybody was to live or die depended upon their judgment.”
Phan Phon said he and friends discuss the trial, which he follows on radio and TV.
DYMA LYNETH, 25, a fourth-year student of mass media and communications: “I think that the Khmer Rouge regime was one of such terror that people cannot help but remember them for a lifetime.”
She said she learned about the Khmer Rouge from her parents and her teachers.
“According to what I learned, many Cambodians were killed, especially highly educated people, without even knowing what they might have done wrong in the eyes of their killers.”
She believes the trials should not only provide justice, but also have a restorative value, since the Khmer Rouge destroyed all basic institutions, such as education and religion.
While she understands why most people believe it is appropriate to pursue justice through the court, she wonders about its practical value and importance.
“I think that the tribunal should not spend such a long time and a lot of money, as they have,” she said, adding that some of the funds could be used for developing the country and meeting people’s needs.
PHON PATH, 54, a farmer in the southern province of Kampong Speu: “Now people are eager to see justice, and I think that after they know that the two leaders are convicted, they will be happy and their anger will be eased.”
As a teen, he was forced by the Khmer Rouge to plant rice, dig canals and build dams.
“They used people like tools and forced them to work likes slaves or animals,” he recalled.
He said he didn’t know much about the Khmer Rouge leaders, but is certain that their policies spelled doom for his country.
“If the Khmer Rouge regime had continued leading the country for another decade, then all the Cambodian people would have been dead from lack of food, medicine or execution.”
He said he has neither the time nor money to go see a session of the trial, but follows news on radio and television.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.