Chit Leang does not know his real name or his age or who his parents were. He was a small child in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia, he tells me, and his memories from that time come back as disjointed images. We talk outside his modest restaurant, our faces damp from the mid-day sun, and Chit describes, in vivid detail, the gunshots that called him to lunch each day and the flat plates on which his Khmer Rouge comrades spooned out watery rice porridge. What happened to his entire family, Chit does not know. Like so many other Cambodians, they disappeared.
Today Chit’s open-air restaurant sits along a new, paved road in Anlong Veng, a border town in Cambodia’s north that remained a Khmer Rouge stronghold into the late 1990s. Chit moved here two years ago, for purely business reasons. Friends had told him that a planned border checkpoint in the area would see an influx of tourists from Thailand, en route to the Angkor Wat temple complex, and Chit set up shop, selling noodle soup and Angkor beer to the growing packs of travellers. Anlong Veng, which just a few years ago was a jungle strewn with landmines, is undergoing a building boom.
Pol Pot’s grave is a short walk from Chit’s restaurant. The site is unmarked from the main road and it was Chit who showed me where to find the narrow path that leads to the grave, a mound of dirt covered by a rusty corrugated metal roof. Flowers and sun-faded glass bottles frame the place where Pol Pot was supposedly cremated in 1998, on a heap of rubbish and old tyres. An old man in poor health, he died in his sleep.
It was a quiet end for a man responsible for the destruction of his country. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population – roughly two million people – through overwork, starvation and execution. Chit’s family were among the victims. Yet Chit remains friendly with his next-door neighbour, the grandson of an infamous Khmer Rouge military leader nicknamed ‘the Butcher’. And he politely serves customers who come to pay their respects at Pol Pot’s grave, those faithful Khmer Rouge holdouts who light incense and carry offerings of fruit and chicken. ‘They have their understanding and I have mine,’ Chit says.
After suffering through the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule and a decade of civil conflict, most Cambodians have adopted a similar survival strategy – try to feed your family and refrain from becoming actively involved in politics. Although none of those responsible for Khmer Rouge atrocities had been punished for their crimes, the people of Cambodia understood they had to move on. Their momentum pushed the country forward, but crookedly, like a broken bone that heals without a cast. They opened shops and restaurants amid rubble and landmines. They struggled to raise children – roughly sixty percent of Cambodians were born after 1979 – who don’t learn about the Khmer Rouge in school and have trouble believing their parents’ and grandparents’ stories. Much of the population just tried to forget, to ‘dig a hole and bury the past and look to the future,’ as Prime Minister Hun Sen told them to do in 1998, after a series of senior leaders defected from what was left of the Khmer Rouge movement.
In this climate of pragmatism, some Cambodians believe that spending millions of dollars to put on trial a handful of elderly former leaders is absurd. It has been nearly thirty years since the Vietnamese ousted the Khmers Rouge from power. But domestic and international political interests have prevented the trials from happening until now.
Throughout the 1980s Cold War era, China and much of the free world continued to support a re-packaged Khmer Rouge coalition force as a means of weakening Vietnam and its ally, the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 1997 that Hun Sen requested UN assistance in creating a Khmer Rouge tribunal, some say to delegitimize the country’s ongoing Khmer Rouge insurgency. When the guerilla movement essentially died the following year, along with Pol Pot, Hun Sen began to insist that putting former Khmer Rouge leaders on trial would jeopardize the country’s fragile peace. The international community continued to push for a court and, after years of negotiations, the tribunal began its work in earnest around two years ago. Since then, five former leaders have been taken into custody and the first trials are expected to start in late September. Still, given that most of the defendants are in their seventies and eighties, any justice meted out by the court will be largely symbolic.
That doesn’t bother the tribunal’s supporters, who believe a verdict on the Khmer Rouge period must be rendered before Cambodia can truly advance. For years, former Khmers Rouge have lived freely in the country, often side by side with those they persecuted. The country’s lack of historical accountability has created a lawless society, where rampant land grabbing forces the poor off of their newly valuable property and justice always has a price tag.
When I first came to Cambodia as a journalist in 2004, I saw the Khmer Rouge’s insidious legacy everywhere. In the twisted faces of beggars who had been permanently disfigured through contract acid attacks. Amid the ‘broken girls’ who turned tricks on Phnom Penh’s crumbling boulevards and the street children who huffed glue from dirty plastic bags. When a bright young student I knew was killed over a romantic dispute, I tried to find a way to write about it for my newspaper. The twenty-two-year-old had been gunned down in front of a popular nightclub, surrounded by witnesses, but because the triggerman was the son of a powerful official no one was ever arrested. After struggling with several potential angles for a story, I finally had to accept the fact that in Cambodia, the student’s death was not newsworthy. He was just another casualty of what scholars have come to call the country’s ‘culture of impunity’.
I returned to Cambodia this spring to write about the Khmer Rouge tribunal. While the society’s dark undercurrents continued to haunt me, even after I left the country, the warmth and resilience of its people had an equally profound impact. Through improving coverage of the tribunal, I hoped to play a small role in the country’s recovery, to help Cambodians confront and exorcise the demons of their recent history.
After a three-year hiatus, I found the country greatly changed, at least superficially. Cambodia’s first suburban developments (cookie-cutter mansions with reflective glass and neocolonial flourishes) are under construction outside of Phnom Penh. Several skyscrapers, including a gleaming gold-coloured tower, are planned for the downtown area. Yet the country’s feeble infrastructure can’t accommodate this scale of development, and the huge strain of such vanity projects frequently plunges much of the city into blackouts.
As Cambodia’s growth accelerates, so too does the disparity between the tiny elite and the impoverished masses. Impunity is endemic. Weeks before July’s national elections, an opposition-aligned newspaper journalist and his adult son were shot to death in the middle of a busy Phnom Penh street. Witnesses said the gunmen, who rode on a motorbike, made no effort to conceal their identities and even circled back to make sure they had hit their target. It was a brazen act. Yet there are no suspects in custody and little hope among Phnom Penh’s beleaguered journalists that the killers will ever be punished.
Change is not on the horizon. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won a landslide victory in the national elections, amid accusations of voter fraud and observer assessments that the polls ‘failed to meet international standards’. Most Cambodians have never experienced a truly democratic society and cannot imagine government institutions free of rampant corruption. Khmer Rouge survivors like Youk Chhang, who has devoted much of his life to cataloguing the regime’s crimes as head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, believe the tribunal can be a turning point for the entire country, setting a new precedent for the notoriously corrupt judiciary and ultimately creating a more accountable society.
‘I want justice for the future, not for us,’ says Chhang. In his Phnom Penh office, surrounded by boxes of books, newspapers and archived documents, he describes how the Khmer Rouge cut open his sister’s stomach after she was accused of eating stolen rice and, thus, trying to sabotage the revolution. The survivors ‘are too broken and divided,’ Chhang says, ‘no one can compensate what the victims lost. But we need to leave a legacy for the country’.
That can only be achieved if those in custody actually face trial. And given their frail health and the glacial pace of the law, many Cambodians worry the defendants may yet elude justice.
‘The court moves too slowly. It needs to move fast, before the defendants die,’ Chit Leang tells me, lowering his voice and glancing nervously toward his neighbour’s house. ‘There are no words to say how angry I am. I want to know why they killed their own people. I want answers.’ Chit wishes he could travel to see the court himself, but the daylong trip to Phnom Penh isn’t practical. He has a restaurant to run.
If he could go, I am not sure how worthwhile he would find the experience. Although a tribunal lacking outreach and education will be meaningless, sometimes I think that the process underway is too abstract, too disconnected from everyday life in today’s Cambodia. A sleek, new complex on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, populated by international lawyers and judges who seem plucked from their homelands – robes, wigs and all – and deposited on this strange judicial island, the tribunal could not be more foreign to people like Chit. It was not designed to be accessible, physically or conceptually, to average Cambodians.
And yet, they come.
From the tribunal’s dusty parking lot, I watch survivors arrive for the pre-trial hearing of Ieng Sary, whose Foreign Ministry underwent a series of radical purges during the Khmer Rouge period. Organized and transported by various NGOs, the old men and women stream out of their buses. Most are peasants, with rough hands and wide feet, and they’ve dressed as if they were going to the pagoda – probably the only opportunity for formal wear in their home villages. The men seem a little uncomfortable in their button-down shirts, slacks and flip-flops; women are wrapped in long traditional skirts paired with sparkly, handmade tops.
Once they pass through parking lot security, they shuffle along a covered walkway that leads to the central court building. To the left, across a small field and past the wall looped with razor wire, they can see the yellow villa where the five defendants are kept. The court itself is impressive, but sterile.
The survivors settle into their seats. They watch as a man enters the courtroom from a side door, bowed over a cane, his free hand gripping a security guard for support. Thick spectacles, a hairline receded to the back of his head, Ieng Sary is the very picture of infirmity. He stares straight ahead, expressionless.
The scene unfolds in what looks like a giant fishbowl. A long, curved glass panel separates actual courtroom actors – Sary, the lawyers and judges – from those observing the process. In the front rows of the audience section are court staff and students. With their stylish haircuts and smart professional attire, they remind me of the young men and women I often see after work at the new Lucky Seven fast food restaurant, members of the country’s burgeoning middle class sharing gossip and study tips over gelato.
Just a few rows behind them, the Khmer Rouge survivors seem to occupy a different space and time. Men and women with deeply grooved faces, their eyes betray an expression I have seen too often in Cambodia. It’s a look I saw in Chit Leang, a glassy and disconnected gaze so unsettling it makes me want to turn away.
When the court breaks for lunch, observers discuss their plans for the afternoon. Having found the morning’s proceedings hard to follow, many confess they won’t be returning for a similarly tedious afternoon session; I worry that their time at the court had little impact. Until an overheard exchange gives me hope.
‘Are you going to come back for the rest of Sary’s hearing?’ an aid worker asks one of the departing men.
He pauses to think. ‘I’ve seen his face,’ he answers triumphantly. ‘That’s enough.’
Top photograph: The main courtroom at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, in Phnom Penh, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Click here to see more of Elena Lesley’s photographs of Cambodia’s pursuit of reconciliation.