I went to the trial of a mass murderer the other day. I even heard his voice – through earphones projected over a sound system – but nonetheless his voice. It’s hard to believe looking at him while he sits, small and frail in the defense box, that Duch was the one who gave the execution order for thousands upon thousands of people during his leadership at Tuol Sleng.
I learned something else today: that the school across the street from my house was not just a torture and execution centre, but was also a burial ground for awhile. Dozens of bodies were interred there, until the Khmer Rouge became concerned about sanitation and moved the execution grounds out of Phnom Penh to the infamous Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.
As I sat in the gallery of the Court and watched the drama unfold before me, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was accomplishing. Today, Duch was being questioned about S24, a third Khmer Rouge centre that operated as a labor and re-education camp. Most people were shuffled from S24 to either Choeung Ek or S21 (Tuol Sleng) for execution.
Slow. Droning detail. Question after question. Digging a little more for a bit more detail. The word for execution? Smash. Duch gave the word, and women, babies, children and men were smashed.
Still, in spite of Duch’s often gory confession, I do wonder what the trials are accomplishing. It’s taken no less than 30 years for the UN in partnership with the Kingdom of Cambodia to get them started. The ECCC is outside of Phnom Penh by about 10km in a stunning, state of the art, glossy new compound. The trials are open to the public, but it’ll take you 40 minutes (and about $10) to get there – making it out of the question for your average Cambodian. There was a group of Cambodian students at the trials today, which was a glimmer of hope for me.
Still though, only 6 former Khmer Rouge are being tried. Co-Prosecutor, Pierre Petit (Canadian woohoo!) has resigned from his post for personal reasons. It is rumored, however, that his ‘personal reasons’ is the lack of justice that under girds the whole trial. He can identify at least 6 other individuals (all in upper-level positions of the current government) who should be tried but are not.
Plus, it was 30 years ago that all of this happened. One of my coworkers was planning on coming today but decided against it. “What will it accomplish,” she told me. “It is in the past. We all know what happened and want to move on.” She thinks the Khmer Rouge secrets will go to the grave with them – exactly where they belong.
Fair enough. Except I can’t help thinking that Cambodia’s battle with history isn’t over. Because the secrets it holds from the Khmer Rouge era are feeding a current generation of leaders with the idea that you can get away with murder. In Cambodia, that’s not just an idea – it’s reality. The future of Cambodia lies in how deep Cambodians dive into their modern history, and how the Khmer Rouge regime is brought to justice.