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18 April 2024

Khmer Rouge trial unlikely to heal Cambodia's wounds

Hundreds of photographs of prisoners are shown at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the "Security Prison 21" (S-21) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and killed at S-21, once a high school turned into an interrogation centre, between 1975 and 1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime. (REUTERS) 

Every day, Chhum At sees the former Khmer Rouge members who murdered her three brothers, two uncles and an aunt in this village near the Cambodian capital.

"We feel hot inside with hate and we still want to take revenge. But outside we speak with them," she says at a memorial where bones of the regime's victims are piled like kindling, mixed with tattered clothing and bits of rubbish.

As Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes tribunal prepares to prosecute a handful of senior leaders from the brutal 1970s communist movement, there is lingering hostility here that won't be resolved in a court.

Chhum At, 40, says she can't forgive her childhood under the Khmer Rouge: kept from her mother, she was forced to work in rice paddies and heard screams in the middle of the night as people were clubbed at a nearby "killing field".

Researchers believe the regime killed over 10,000 people at this village 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Phnom Penh – a fraction of the estimated 1.7 million who died of overwork, starvation, execution and torture in an attempt to create a Marxist utopia.

When proceedings begin Tuesday against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the first of five leaders due to be tried, it's far from clear whether that will help Cambodians in places like this village put their past behind them.

A recent survey by the University of California, Berkeley found the majority of Cambodians still harbour feelings of hatred towards members of the Khmer Rouge responsible for violence.

Nearly half of the respondents said they were uncomfortable living in the same community with former Khmer Rouge members, while 71 per cent said they wanted to see former cadres suffer in some way.

Meanwhile, 40 per cent of Cambodians said they would take revenge against former Khmer Rouge members if they could.

"People in the village sometimes accuse each other and then everything will come out. They'll say: 'You killed my relatives,'" Chhum At says.

"When those arguments happen, sometimes we want to kill each other. But we cannot kill or we will go to prison," she adds.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which researches Khmer Rouge crimes, said people will need more than the trials of a handful of leaders to recover from the brutal past.

"I think most of the revenge has been done and the rest is a grey area that is difficult to deal with. It's more emotional, more of a trauma," he said.

Former Khmer Rouge cadres in this village say they are not worried about revenge, and most have made their peace with the past.

Chuon Chhon, who worked as a guard at the local Khmer Rouge prison, says he had nothing to do with the mass graves in the area.

"Many of my relatives were killed – cousins, uncles, aunts – I couldn't help them. I could only help myself," Chuon Chhon says.

"I also feel hurt. Of course I pity the other people. I was a low rank – I couldn't help anyone," he adds.

Sao Phen, 63, who arrived in the village with the 1979 Vietnam-backed invasion force that toppled the Khmer Rouge, says there have been fewer revenge attacks over the past five years.

"People still have anger in their minds, but they don't show it publicly. It is better than before, when people would try to kill someone who accused them of killing their relatives," Sao Phen says.

He speculates that the upcoming trials, which put the blame for atrocities on a handful of senior leaders, may have helped reduce violence if they had been staged sooner. But, he adds, relationships change over time.

"Sometimes people avoid each other, but their daughter and son fall in love. When they get married, under Cambodian tradition their families are in an alliance. So how can they take revenge?" Sao Phen says.

But even if senior leaders are convicted and spend the rest of their lives in jail, Chhum At says she'll remain angry with former Khmer Rouge members in the village.

"If the trial can have a verdict soon, I will be very happy," she says.

"But after the trial it will continue to be like this, because we don't know what to do."