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Letter from Cambodia

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge massacred close to two million Cambodians. An international tribunal is trying the regime’s surviving leaders. But powerful forces—poverty, corruption, government revisionism, Buddhist precepts and the passage of time—cloud memory and impede justice.

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On a steamy morning in a dusty outdoor area 10 miles from Phnom Penh, some 200 Cambodians sit around wood-topped tables under canopies shielding them from a punishing sun. Older women with shaved heads—a symbol of their widowhood—young couples with babies, teenagers and men fill the chain-link fence enclosure. They have come from Cambodia’s outlying provinces for a glimpse of justice inside the pale yellow building complex of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

Almost daily, the government transports busloads of people to see this United Nations-backed war tribunal in session.  Since the ECCC began its work in 2007, more than 150,000 of Cambodia’s 15 million people have watched the proceedings live. Today’s group waits quietly, patiently, for the doors to open, until they are led single file into the viewing area.  Behind a massive protective glass wall, Khmer Rouge founders, strategists and operatives face charges of systematically starving and slaughtering nearly two million of their own citizens during the brutal 1975-1979 Communist regime.  Staffed by seven jurists, a bevy of prosecutors, defense lawyers, translators, case investigators and court reporters, this hybrid of local and global jurisprudence slowly sifts through documents and testimony detailing atrocities.

Piles of the Khmer Rouge’s own meticulous records, photos and video footage, along with victim and witness accounts, repeat the same story: After seizing control, Khmer Rouge leaders and the largely uneducated, impoverished rural masses they conscripted, methodically emptied every city and every town, force-marching urban residents to the countryside. To create their ideal—a self-sufficient, agrarian and egalitarian society based on Maoist principles—the Khmer Rouge destroyed all schools, hospitals, private industry, professionals, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and family life.  They tore children from parents, separated spouses from one another, and outlawed intimacy except for the express purpose of procreation to increase their numbers.

In the name of what they called Angkar—their feared organization—the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed anyone who demonstrated passion for anything other than work.  They compelled marriages in “ceremonies” that matched hundreds of men and women simultaneously. In children’s houses, Angkar declared itself the “mother and the father” to redirect family loyalty to the state.  The people became slave labor, while the Khmer Rouge exacted rice production quotas and moved all but a small fraction of the foodstuffs to Phnom Penh. Angkar failed to realize “utopia,” but it did meet much more tangible goals: the elimination of real and perceived opposition, minorities and an array of other “enemies” by executing, starving and working to death men, women and children. To date, the lists are incomplete, but the toll is somewhere between 1.7 million and two million people out of Cambodia’s population of  7.3 million at the time.

Andrew Cayley, the Court’s international prosecutor, collects evidence and testimony from eyewitnesses, victims and perpetrators.  It is overwhelming, he says. “No one, not even those born after the Khmer Rouge, escaped its impact.”

This provincial boy shares a discouraging statistic with other young Cambodians. The UN World Health Organization ranks the country’s child nutrition among the poorest in the world, and statisticians say it has been near rock bottom since the 1980s.

Among the witnesses is Mam Phaibon, whose account typifies what Cambodians from every social stratum, educational background and income level experienced as they struggled to survive. “My seven-year-old sister was killed by Angkar because she stole one ear of corn to eat. She was hit with a hoe and buried near the corn farm. One afternoon, while I was walking the cows across the forest, I smelled a rotting corpse…I found the body of my father, with his neck nearly cut off from his shoulders. Two months later, my 70-year-old grandmother…was accused of stealing rice porridge from children and was clubbed to death.  Her body was wrapped in a sack and buried. Several days later, my mother died of overwork and malnutrition.”

It was never the ECCC’s intention, nor is it even possible, to prosecute the vast volume of eye-witnessed and documented offenses. The Court’s goal has been to adjudicate the highest-profile cases as representative justice. “The level of criminality here is larger than anything I’ve ever dealt with,” contends one of the Tribunal’s highly skilled lawyers recruited for his experience in Bosnia, Rwanda and other trouble spots where war criminals have stood trial. “This was a hugely, hugely traumatic period for this country. The social problems derived from the enormous amount of damage pale compared to any other court that I’ve worked in.”


Despite years of prodding from Cambodian survivors and international pressure, the Tribunal only began hearing testimony in 2007. By that time, Pol Pot—Khmer Rouge architect and lead executioner—had been dead for nearly a decade. A royal pardon allowed his brother-in-law, Ieng Sary—co-founder of the Khmer Rouge and mastermind of torture and mass murder—to travel on a diplomatic passport and enjoy both a homestead in Pailin, the former bastion of Khmer Rouge leaders, and his lavish villa in Phnom Penh. Sary, the man Pol Pot called Brother No. 3, was apprehended in 2007 and died this past March, while standing trial in Case 002 for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. Today, just two defendants remain in custody: Nuon Chea, the chief Khmer Rouge propagandist and second in command, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state. Both ailing octogenarians, the two men made measured apologies this June when they said they regretted the suffering imposed by the Khmer Rouge, while distancing themselves from any decision-making authority. Worries that these and other high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders will die before the Court can bring them to justice are well founded. So far, the Court has tried and sentenced only one of the accused (Case 001): Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the notorious warden of Tuol Sleng S-21 prison. It was at Tuol Sleng—an emptied Phnom Penh high school and one of 200 “security centers” across the country—that Duch tortured and slaughtered some 14,000 Cambodian inmates, sending the overflow to a nearby killing field, Choeung Ek. In 2012, Duch was sentenced to life in prison. It is ironic that the survivors on record are relatively vital and their recollection strong, while the health and memory challenges of the accused continue to stall the Court’s momentum. Transcripts reveal frequent, time-consuming efforts to extract information from defendants and witnesses who were allegedly at the epicenter of crimes, yet claim to have forgotten their previously given testimony.

Buddhist nuns, survivors of the atrocities, pray before an afternoon meal at a monastery in Kampong Chhang, built near the site of a former Khmer Rouge prison and execution ground. The women’s shaved heads symbolize widowhood; their husbands were brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Buddhism has been Cambodia’s state religion since the 13th century, except from 1975 to 1979.

Chum Mey provides acute details. He is among the dozen or so survivors of S-21 prison and was a key witness at Duch’s trial. He can be found most days at the former torture and death center, a place that has been transformed yet again, this time, into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Sitting in an old detention chamber, his lean frame folded into the lines of a chair, he tells his story. Chum Mey’s family’s forced exodus to the countryside proved too much for his two-year-old child. When the little boy expired, Chum Mey placed him in a hastily dug roadside grave and marched on. The family was separated, and Chum Mey was sent back to Phnom Penh to repair the sewing machines that turned out the revolution’s signature black uniforms. His Khmer Rouge keepers kept him alive because he was a good mechanic. But suspicion soon trumped utility.  Likely turned in by another Cambodian who was tortured until he named someone, anyone, as one of the “spies and enemies of the state,” Chum Mey landed at Tuol Sleng prison, S-21. Blindfolded, shackled, beaten and shocked, he eventually met his captors’ demands by confessing to espionage ties with the United States and naming other “spies and enemies of the state.” He was simply part of the cycle of paranoia and death, he says. The circles of trust got smaller and smaller while the fallacies grew larger and larger.  Soon, the Khmer Rouge would accuse and eliminate even its most loyal revolutionary members. S-21 guards eventually force-marched Chum Mey to the provinces, where he chanced upon his wife, who was lined up in another march and holding the child she had been pregnant with the last time husband and wife were together. Terrified and relieved at once, he held his two-month old baby for the first time.  As Chum Mey recounts this episode, he leans forward in his chair, raises his voice and describes what quickly followed: Guards pushed the group into a remote area and Chum Mey heard his wife call out a warning: “Run!” Sitting upright, Chum Mey brandishes his hand like a gun, purses his lips and releases a series of staccato “Pop! Pop! Pop!” sounds. The S-21 guards machine-gunned both mother and child; Chum Mey managed to escape.  Now in his 80s, he is plagued by an unavoidably vivid image of the murder of his wife and baby. “I cry every night,” he says.


Establishing a tribunal in a country decimated by decades of civil war, where victims and perpetrators have lived side by side from youth to adulthood, has been a study in frustration. Every step of the judicial process has been agonizingly slow, due to “complex political, security and legal reasons” and “the destabilizing social effect of the battered and shocked generation of the war,” says David Scheffer, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Expert on UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials and who is among the world’s leading legal minds on war crimes.

About Amy Kaslow

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