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The Ghosts of Phnom Penh

By Wendy Dent

Halloween is over…Or is it?  I now question the fact, after receiving an email from Phnom Penh on November 1-  "Best regards from Hell".

Instead of dressing up in a ghoulish costume and trick or treating, I was on the web, saddened by the irony that they have no idea that on the other side of the world, an entire country is wrestling with real demons. Closing statements had just been made in Case 002/01 of the most important genocide trial since Nuremberg— the UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. Prosecutors and defendants have had their last say on whether two of the last surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge will ever be held accountable for the killings of nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population.

The majority of Americans know graphic details of the Holocaust and Hitler, but few have heard of the Cambodian genocide, ordered by the Khmer Rouge, and its “Mao”-inspired leader – the notorious Pol Pot. Many vaguely recall the famous movie called the ‘The Killing Fields,’ but the actual story remains largely unknown.  Tourists who visit the Cambodian Killing Fields as usually shocked to learn that, following heavy US bombing in Cambodia as a result of the Vietnam War, in 1975 a communist guerilla movement known as the ‘Khmer Rouge’ (‘Cambodian red’) seized power . Pol Pot and his leading commanders tried to push Cambodia towards their extremist model of agrarian society by sealing off Cambodia from the outside world and establishing ‘collective farms’ all over the country. In actuality, that meant establishing forced labor camps and arranging forced marriages to breed new ‘workers’ enslaved to the regime. In the name of this extreme ideology, they imprisoned, tortured and executed intellectuals, and also eliminated anyone in opposition to the system. By the time Pol Pot was ousted in 1979, his draconian policies had resulted in the deaths of around 2 million citizens.

In 1997, the UN set up a taskforce assigned with the goal of assisting Cambodia prosecute former Khmer Rouge officials and endorsed the idea of an international criminal tribunal.  Pol Pot died a year later, having never been arrested for his crimes. Since then, a handful of the Khmer Rouge leaders have been arrested and put to trial for some of their actions -  though the charges of ‘genocide’ are yet to tried. One has been sentenced to life imprisonment. Another has been released due to health difficulties. One died during the course of the trial. And two remain imprisoned, awaiting a verdict

“They killed my children, they killed my family, my whole family. And my husband’s family also – the whole family” says Sophany Bay, a Californian-Cambodian survivor who this year gave testimony in Phnom Penh, as a witness in the UN’s Khmer Rouge tribunal. Speaking before she had the chance to give her testimony, she almost stutters from anger, anguish, and frustration with the delays in her chance to have her day in court. “After my son died, my daughter died also. So – finished. No more children… Only me. Even now I still have nightmares sometimes. I scream at night. I never dream about my life in the United States. The nightmares are about Cambodia during the Killing fields. So I ask-  I need…- the international court to try to find justice for me. For me, a victim, and for [all] the Cambodian victims of the Khmer Rouge”.

For nearly two years Nuon Chea, (deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea) and Khieu Samphan, (head of state of Democratic Kampuchea) have been tried for crimes against humanity. They represented devils on the stand, on Halloween day, on trial before the international community. Yet the scary thing is, there remain others under investigation, still free, and yet to be tried.

Will justice be served? While America was trick or treating, one of the most superstitious countries in the world – Cambodia – is grappling with its own ghosts.

I tried to access the website of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia to read the closing statements, but the only response I got was “server not found”. The website was down. The irony was not lost on me. The error message, “server not found”, is scarily similar to the feelings of so many who await the trial verdict. “Justice not found.”

The question that the world is now asking is not only ‘will they be convicted’, but ‘will the tribunal continue’? Or will a ‘lack of funds’ be used as the most shocking excuse in the world’s history, for one of the world’s most important genocide tribunals to be discontinued before its time. Many will instead perceive political interference to be the underlying reason behind the tribunal’s end. The loss of faith in the international justice system and the impunity that will result is far more chilling than any ghoul to be seen walking the street on Halloween.

As the clock ticked closer toward ‘the witching hour’ on October 31, I turned my browser again to the website error message “Server not found”. It disappointed and shocked me. But it also encourages me to “try again”. When you see a website error message, what’s the first thing you usually do? Hit refresh. You try again.

Soon after, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal website was back online. As Halloween becomes a distant memory in America, there is still hope in Cambodia.  

It’s high-time that world leaders now demand the court’s financial independence so that its cases cannot be delayed because of lack of funding. The important work of the tribunal must be able to continue, with financial and political autonomy, to bring justice as well as healing to survivors such as Sophany.  It’s time for world leaders to now unite to support the tribunal, to ensure criminals are tried and convicted, and the horrors of 1970s Cambodia are not forgotten - or repeated. Any other outcome would be terrifying. 



Wendy Dent is an award-winning filmmaker/writer/speaker, 2013 World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and founder/editor of Human Rights on Film.

[Photo courtesy of Cheung Ek]


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