Letter from Cambodia.

Author:Kaslow, Amy
Position:NEARLY 40 YEARS AFTER THE KILLING FIELDS
 
FREE EXCERPT

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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, Kilmer 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 Courts 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."

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...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP