“Something terrible happened here. And I don’t know what it is,” Bill Herod remembers thinking in his first days in Phnom Penh in 1980. He was with Church World Service, one of a group of aid workers allowed into the country after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 and put an end to the three-and-a-half-year-long nightmare of the Cambodian people. In 1980, Herod had just come from Vietnam. He had seen plenty of devastation, but this was something different, a higher order of magnitude.
In those first months, Westerners were only beginning to grasp the enormity of what the KR—as they’re always called in Cambodia—had done. In the city and the refugee camps on the Thai border, relief workers were piecing together accounts of starvation, brutal forced labor, and mass executions into some comprehension of the whole. Cambodians were stunned, largely affectless, many in a state of shock. Hospitals housed crazed, emaciated children who had been found wandering in the forests, abandoned and lost by parents fleeing KR camps as the Vietnamese approached.
Thirty years later, the extent and nature of the horror are no mysteries. Between April 1975, when the KR overthrew the despised Lon Nol regime, and January 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded, the rulers of Democratic Kampuchea killed—by murder, starvation, and forced labor—1.7 to two million people, close to a quarter of the entire population. In the torment they wreaked on a small country in such a short time, the KR ranks as possibly the most savage Communist Party to curse the twentieth century.
In the name of revolutionary purity, the KR abolished private property, personal possessions, money, leisure, socializing, marriage (except in cadre-approved cases), religion, and all personal liberties. Democratic Kampuchea was a land of totalitarian rural communes. The day the KR took power, they evacuated the entire population of Phnom Penh in twenty-four hours, including infirm hospital patients whom family members had to push out of town in their beds, some trailing intravenous tubing and bags. By nightfall, the capital was almost empty. In the countryside, people slaved and starved to grow rice that went to China and hauled buckets of earth to build dams without engineers or technicians. The purges of counterrevolutionary elements began on Day Two of the revolution (on the roads out of Phnom Penh) and never let up, culminating in a frenzy of executions within the party itself in 1978.
Under the Vietnamese, the country was a communist dictatorship, with the KR (supported by China and the United States and recognized by the UN as the legitimate government in a bizarre turn of cold war logic) waging war from the jungles. Only after 1989, with the Vietnamese withdrawal and negotiations in Paris, did peace of a sort begin to set in. In 1993, a UN transitional authority—with a tremendous infusion of troops, advisers, and money—sponsored democratic elections. The elections came off with a huge, enthusiastic turnout—some 90 percent of eligible voters. Ultimately, though, it was behind-the-scenes guns and intrigue, not liberal democracy, that seized the day. Negotiations between the strongmen—the ever-present Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Hun Sen, a former KR commander who defected and served as foreign minister for the Vietnamese—negated the popular results and created a national reconciliation government with Sihanouk as king and Hun Sen as effective prime minister. Popular optimism gave way to cynicism, then despair. In short order Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) began despoiling what remained of the country after twenty-five years of disaster.
The CPP continues to hold power, and the country swarms with internationally supported nongovernmental agencies (NGOs), successors to the UN humanitarians. But peace, foreign aid, and political stability based on corruption and repression have done little to relieve the emotional, moral, and cultural devastation. The first real chance Cambodians have had to begin the work of repair will come with upcoming trials of a handful of top KR leaders, scheduled to begin sometime in the next months. Five or six men will be charged with crimes under Cambodian and international law in a hybrid national/international court. Cambodians have waited twenty-five years for justice, their equivalent of the Hague trials for Bosnians and the Arusha tribunal for Rwandans, which came far earlier for those people. In the intervening years, poverty and a piratical politics have created a terrible impasse in national reconstruction. So a great deal is at stake, as much in the process of the trials as in the outcome.
Today, anguish remains ubiquitous yet intangible, everywhere but nowhere. Cambodia is an exception to a century of genocides of the many against the few: ethnic, religious, or political majorities murdering weaker, vulnerable minorities. In Cambodia, one portion of the country killed off another portion and started to murder its own before the Vietnamese stepped in. It is a nation composed solely of survivors, perpetrators, and their children. Everyone over thirty lived through “Pol Pot days” and has a story about his or her torment, worn smooth in the telling. Everyone lost family members. Everyone, of all ages, suffers from the deprivations of a wasted society being plundered of what remains by a ruling clique. Everyone has to live with each other, victims with perpetrators, perpetrators with victims.
Cambodians divide time itself into KR epochs: before the KR took power, during Democratic Kampuchea, and after. You’re driving around in Phnom Penh and someone in the car wonders whether a particular building was there “before” or “after.” Explaining a family history, the teller clarifies a point: her father was a truck driver “before,” not “after,” because he died “during” the KR. “Before” is pretty murky. It’s difficult to get answers to basic questions about the history, those facts that lie outside people’s personal stories. Were there writers and poets? Were there more books than there are today? Did Buddhism have more play in daily life, before the KR murdered all the monks? Was the language different? No one can really say. I heard someone speculate, for instance, that the vocabulary of respect for others was much more elaborate “before” the KR eviscerated the language with communist-speak. But there aren’t many people to ask, because so few Cambodians were fully formed adults “before.” The people who stumbled out of the camps were mostly the young.
All the stories and suffering rattle around in a vacuum. The country has been unable to create a thick enough public culture to relieve, even slightly, individuals of their terrible burdens: There are few rituals and no common moral discourse or meaningful memorials that connect redemption, justice, reconciliation, vengeance, or forgiveness to the plight of the whole country. Expressive forms are sparse. The literature of grief centers on memoir and oral history; the fiction, drama, and poetry of lamentation have yet to develop. Visual artists learn traditional techniques and iconography, locked in a fabled Khmer past. The fine films of Rithy Panh, a KR survivor who lives in France, aren’t available from the street sellers who hawk bootlegged American DVDs (ironically, Hotel Rwanda was a staple). Nor could I find his work at the concessions booth at Tuol Sleng, the museum on the site of the KR torture/interrogation center, although one of his films is shown there as a running feature.
With so little access to the expressive forms of art and moral discourse, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for individuals to find a way out of their anguished solitude. It’s an isolation that echoes the situation the novelist Edmund Keeley found among refugees in the border camps in the early 1980s: “[W]hat memory remains seems to be confined to the lost family and the lost village that for most now begin to fade into a private mythology that has little to do with the country’s fate.”
The void in culture and the paralysis of emotional recovery are intimately connected to the political situation. Cambodians feel hopeless about politics, stymied and threatened by an insatiably greedy kleptocracy. The government’s relationship to recovery is ambivalent: Hun Sen and his cronies benefit from the psychological immobilization. The prospect of Cambodians’ remaking themselves as a people holds few attractions to a political elite that rules by fear and brute force in the absence of significant dissent.
Last year, Sihanouk’s royalist party (FUNCINPEC) joined in coalition with the CPP in a deal that spread around the spoils and doubled the number of ministry-level positions—making Cambodia’s cabinet, at 185 posts, the largest in the world. The KR destroyed all land titles, so the government has easily commandeered huge tracts to grant as long-term concessions in deals whose details remain secret. The “concession” of the Angkor temples, for instance, belongs to a Cambodian corporation, but there is no transparency about how the company obtained it or where the millions in ticket fees (a hefty $40 per foreign visitor) go. At the moment the hottest properties are the virgin forests of the north, a precious resource in a region where timber is scarce. A 2004 report from Peter Leuprecht, special UN representative for human rights, details an alarming situation of systemic corruption and a culture of impunity. Leuprecht particularly criticized the government for the secrecy and cruelty of the timber concessions, which have destined for oblivion the many communities that depend on the forests for hunting, fishing, and small-time logging. An opposition party exists, the Sam Rainsy Party, which garners support from Cambodian expatriates, but few people inside the country consider it a real alternative.
There has been tremendous growth in much of Southeast Asia in the last twenty years, but Cambodian indices of development are barely holding stable or sliding. The rice diet is so lacking in protein that stunted growth in children is endemic. Basic public services are lacking: in Phnom Penh, there is no garbage collection, no visible police, and only a handful of traffic lights in a city of a half million. Schools are the exception. But while crowds of children parade to school in the morning in the uniforms and miraculously starched white shirts that across the world are a sign of hope for the future, hordes of poorer kids run the streets during school hours: scavenging for food, moving goods on their bicycles, hustling for street vendors, begging; in the country, herding cows. Increasingly, city kids are falling into a burgeoning sex market for foreign pedophiles.
Although Phnom Penh is chaotic and squalid, it is also a vibrant, rackety place, with new buildings going up, Internet cafés, a modest tourist trade, and a substantial international population. The countryside is very different, a “disaster” in the judgment of many. In an inflationary economy, people need cash for seed, tools, and medical care, so they borrow. Indebtedness is rife. Prosperity is only for headmen with connections to the CPP; political clout lets a village chief, for example, take over a lake and charge his neighbors for the water to irrigate the rice paddies. Then he lends them the money.
In Phnom Penh, violence is recognizably urban, with a nasty spin. In 2003, Hun Sen’s nephew hit a pedestrian with his SUV and then opened fire with an AK-47 on the crowd that gathered, killing two people and wounding four. At the trial in camera, all charges were dropped. Mob violence is also a problem: Phnom Penh is a city of rumors, xenophobic paranoia, and swift reprisals. In January 2003, a rumor that a Thai actress in a television soap opera claimed that the temples at Angkor really belonged to Thailand set off mobs that ransacked the Thai embassy, attacked Thai businesses all over town, and forced four hundred Thai nationals to flee the rioting, all while the police looked on.
Does old KR violence feed new violence? It’s another question about “before” and “after.” Gruesome crimes appear as police blotter material on the back pages of the daily paper. When I was there in May, two women were found raped and murdered, one victim’s eyes gouged out with a knife, the other’s hacked out with an axe. A man killed his wife with an AK-47 because he hated the way she had woken him. A Buddhist monk raped a twelve-year-old girl outside a temple. The judicial system is less interested in uncovering the facts than in bribes and retribution; trials are quick (the longest run two days), and blame is foisted on the vulnerable.
Meanwhile, preparations move ahead for the trials. Pol Pot is dead, but top leaders live in Phnom Penh. People speak about the possibility of six or seven defendants. One will surely be Comrade Duch (né Kang Kek Ieu), who was the warden of Tuol Sleng and oversaw the torture and death of some fourteen thousand people. Now a born-again Christian, Duch was working under a pseudonym for the American Refugee Committee when journalists found him in Battambang in 1999. He is in jail pending charges. Ieng Sary, KR foreign minister and the face of Democratic Kampuchea at the UN in the 1980s, is a more complicated case, because Hun Sen gave him amnesty in 1996 in return for defecting from the KR. Ieng Sary brought with him two full divisions, spelling the end of the KR resistance. Brother Duch, moved by his own understanding of sin, is the only one to come clean. The others preach reconciliation twinned with an adamant insistence that they never really knew what was happening or that it was all Pol Pot’s fault. And Pol Pot is safely dead.
The tribunal, created by the National Assembly and funded (barely) with international money, is called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea. The Extraordinary Chambers will consist of twelve judges, seven from Cambodia and five from outside the country. The hybrid tribunal emerged from arduous negotiations between the government and the UN. The outcome provoked widespread skepticism (and censure from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch), given the pervasive corruption of Cambodian judges and the legal system. The budget is penurious: $60 million, with $43 million of that coming from the UN. Japan is providing almost half the UN donation; the United States (a principal backer of the KR when the Vietnamese took over the country) has refused to contribute.
But it’s the best that can be hoped for, and Cambodians, along with foreign NGOs, are gearing up. I spoke with Laura McGrew from The Open Society Justice Initiative—a George Soros program—which is supporting a working group of Cambodians and international advisers that, among other things, is drawing up criteria for selecting judges and prosecutors. McGrew is cautiously hopeful: “If Cambodian civil society can seize the initiative and impose their needs on the process,” she has written in an eloquent analysis of the process and politics leading up to the tribunal, “it might just surprise the skeptics and expand the possibilities for accountability.” Journalist Elizabeth Becker, whose book When the War Was Over remains the best history of the regime and its aftermath, understands the limits, but believes that the trials are absolutely necessary: “In a society where there’s absolutely no accountability, making these people accountable for what they did is crucial.”
Young, educated Cambodians are likely to discount the worth of the trials. They are among the most open critics. Let go of the past, many say. Pol Pot is dead, and the rest are old men; the country should move on. Even if senior leaders are convicted and punished, the local perpetrators, the ones who really did the killing, will go free. But beneath the indifference lies a strong desire to reopen the discussion and institute formal proceedings. Every survey conducted over the past decade has found a consistent 80 percent of Cambodians in favor of legal accounting. Respondents to a study conducted by Laura McGrew in 2000 voiced wishes for a range of outcomes: some wanted to hear confessions, truth-telling, and acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the defendants; others hoped for vengeance and retribution or the satisfaction of hearing a sentence of life imprisonment pronounced upon the guilty (the death penalty is unconstitutional in Cambodia). Others simply wanted to hear heartfelt apologies.
Veterans of trials and tribunals in other settings—including The Hague, Arusha, the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission—caution that heartfelt apologies and truth can be as elusive as justice or vengeance. Perpetrators manufacture words that will save their skins. Witnesses do not experience miraculous talking cures; sometimes, they suffer more as they relive the past. There is no closure. The legal haggling and the imperfect outcomes are frustrating to survivors, especially the spectacle of defendants having their day in court, a luxury the victims never enjoyed. Acquittal is literally unthinkable: many, perhaps most, Cambodians cannot imagine that the theoretical possibility even exists.
Still by putting the KR’s crimes front and center, the Extraordinary Chambers may open up a space unavailable elsewhere—certainly not in politics—for discussion, reliable knowledge, and debate. Whether the defendants are charged with genocide rather than “just” war crimes or crimes against humanity is less important than that the proceedings in a large forum be open to the public. The result of more than a decade of strongman rule has been the suppression of any vital political class inside the country. People are necessarily wary about expressing their views. Factoids, myths, and personal narratives about the KR circulate. Good history has not taken root. Trials cannot do everything, but they can put facts into circulation and break down guardedness by creating intellectual exchange and arguments—all qualities absent in Cambodia’s public life today. In mobilizing arguments among Cambodians about evidence and truth, historical knowledge and what constitutes justice, in calling perpetrators of mass murder to account, the trials may create a consequential public life and a consequential public mourning. This alone could break the grip of political stultification. It will not be healing, but it may make it possible for a present to emerge.
Christine Stansell is a professor of history at Princeton. She traveled to Cambodia this May in the context of her teaching and writing about the aftermath of catastrophic violence.
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