Monday, 5 May 2008

Festival of the Dead

The New Republic
by Christina Larson
The gross exploitation of Cambodia's past.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
An hour's drive from downtown Phnom Penh sits a campus of modern office buildings. The architecture is standard office-park fare, but with fantastic crowns of golden lintels and red tiles--traditional Khmer designs--grafted atop. (The effect is rather like seeing a businessman wearing a papal crown.) The offices were originally constructed for the military, and a sign that reads ROYAL CAMBODIAN ARMED FORCES still hangs on one gate. Elsewhere on the campus, a large bronze statue of a warrior on a pedestal stares down at onlookers, one arm pointing an accusing finger, the other brandishing a club. My guide, an American who works for the United Nations, tells me that it is a traditional Cambodian representation of justice. But, he adds, wrinkling his nose, he doesn't much like it. "It's not what justice should look like," he says. "You know, the lady with the blindfold and the scales."

The question of what, exactly, justice looks like is in the air here because the campus is home to the tribunal that is slated to begin trying five top Khmer Rouge officials within the next few months. Backed by the United Nations, the tribunal represents the first attempt to prosecute leaders of the Khmer Rouge in almost 30 years. After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and put a halt to the killing, they held a cursory trial, widely regarded as a sham. In the years that followed, no comprehensive attempt was made to hold surviving Khmer Rouge officials accountable for the estimated 1.5 million people who perished under their rule between 1975 and 1979. History loomed, ominous and inscrutable, and the questions surrounding the Cambodian killings fields, questions that might have been answered through trials, went largely unaddressed. Why had the Khmer Rouge kept such meticulous records--rooms upon rooms of file cabinets containing labeled photos of victims, taken both before and after death? Why were some people killed for offenses as superficial as wearing glasses, while others were not? Why were so many of the guards at the notorious S-21 detention center--responsible for interrogating and torturing tens of thousands--middle-school-aged children?

Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998 without ever having to answer these questions. But some of his deputies survive, including the five whose trials are expected to begin soon: Kaing Guek Eav, head of the S-21 prison; Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist; Khieu Samphan, former chief of state; Ieng Sary, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister; and his wife, Ieng Thirith, former minister of social affairs.

No comments: