Sunday, 10 January 2010

Lost in Cambodia

Why did a radical British professor become a cheer-leader for Pol Pot? And why was he murdered on the very day he'd met the brutal dictator? Andrew Anthony on the extraordinary life and death of Malcolm Caldwell

Andrew Anthony The Observer,
Sunday 10 January 2010

(CAAI News Media)

The name of Malcolm Caldwell is remembered now by very few people: some friends, family, colleagues, and students of utopian folly. In the 1970s, though, Caldwell was a major figure in protest politics. He was chair of CND for two years, a leading voice in the anti-Vietnam war campaign, a regular contributor to Peace News, and a stalwart supporter of liberation movements in the developing world. He spoke at meetings all over the country, wrote books and articles, and engaged in public spats with such celebrated opponents as Bernard Levin.

The name of Kaing Guek Eav is, arguably, known by even fewer people, at least outside of Cambodia. Instead it is by his revolutionary pseudonym "Duch" that Kaing is usually referred to in the press. Duch is the only man ever to stand trial in a UN-sanctioned court for the mass murder perpetrated by the Cambodian communist party, or the Khmer Rouge, in the late 1970s. His trial on charges of crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and homicide and torture concerning thousands of victims, drew to a close in November. Justice has taken more than 30 years, but a verdict and sentence are expected sometime in the next few weeks.

Although their paths crossed only incidentally, the two men shared two main interests. They both had a pedagogic background: Caldwell was a history lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, while Duch, like many senior Khmer Rouge cadres, started out as a schoolteacher. And they both maintained an unbending belief in Saloth Sar, the leader of the Khmer Rouge revolution, who went under the Orwellian party title of Brother Number One, but was known more infamously to the world as Pol Pot. It was an ideological commitment that would shape the fate of both men and they held on to it right up until the moment of death – in Caldwell's case, his own, for Duch, the many thousands whose slaughter he organised.

In each circumstance, the question that reverberates down the years, growing louder rather than dimmer, is: why? Why were they in thrall to a system based on mass extermination? It's estimated that around two million Cambodians, more than a quarter of the population, lost their lives during the four catastrophic years of Khmer Rouge rule. What could have led these two individuals, worlds apart, to embrace a regime that has persuasive claim, in a viciously competitive field, to be the most monstrous of the 20th century?

When Caldwell appeared at SOAS for an interview in the late 1950s, the senior faculty thought that they had landed one of the academic stars of the future. Caldwell, who took his PhD at Nottingham University, had gained a reputation as a bright young talent and, according to college legend, he presented himself as a sober scholar.

"So they hired him," recalls Merle Ricklefs, a former SOAS colleague and now a history professor at the National University of Singapore. "Then he showed up for lectures and suddenly he was this Scottish radical with long hair, looking unkempt, and they felt as though they'd been betrayed.

"I thought he was actually a very good economic historian," says Ricklefs, who remembers "an extraordinary character… very ideologically committed". He was also struck by his warmth and good manners. As a young American, who dressed in conservative fashion, arriving in England during the height of the Vietnam war, Ricklefs expected to be greeted with a certain amount of antipathy, but he found Caldwell to be "always cordial. Always looking slightly dishevelled and revolutionary, but never the slightest hint of discourtesy."

The picture of a friendly, if rather unconventional character, is confirmed by others who knew him. Professor Ian Brown was Caldwell's successor at SOAS and he was also his former student. "He was well liked – I suspect not by the SOAS hierarchy," says Brown, "but certainly loved by students and colleagues."

He describes a "skinny, somewhat emaciated, rather scruffy character who, bizarrely, always used to wear a suit – though it was clearly a suit that had been bought in the 1950s equivalent of Oxfam and not seen too many dry cleaners." Caldwell never hid his politics from his students, indeed he made a point of proselytising to them. One of his protégés was Walter Easey, who, according to Easey's obituarist, Caldwell converted to "a fierce and angry communism". But to Professor Brown, "he was a gentle person, quietly spoken, and very tolerant of opposing views. He treated everyone well. He was very encouraging and a really inspiring teacher."

Both Brown and Ricklefs use the same word to describe this well-travelled, extremely well-read and highly intelligent man: naive. SOAS, says Brown, was a college whose standing and ethos rested upon sound empirical study. "Everyone else in the history department went off every summer to the archives in Rangoon, Baghdad, etc, and got deep inside the data. Malcolm didn't. He was a man with very clear theoretical and ideological views and the empirical basis didn't seem to worry him hugely."

It's not that Caldwell was lost in bookish abstraction, for he did visit the various communist regimes he extolled. It was more that when he got there he was all too willing to accept state propaganda as verified fact. For example, he praised the "magnitude of the economic achievements" of Kim Il-Sung's impoverished North Korea and, returning from a trip to the highly secretive state, he wrote that the country was "an astonishing tribute not only to the energy, initiative and creativeness of the Korean people, but also to the essential correctness of the Juche line". "Juche" was the mixture of ultra-nationalism and self-reliance on which Kim built his monumental personality cult. About the totalitarian surveillance and ruthless political repression, Caldwell said nothing.

Although academic traditionalists may have disapproved of Caldwell's slanted scholarship, many idealistic students were inspired by his lectures. Tariq Ali, who became famous as a 1968 student leader, recalls going to see him talk on southeast Asia when Ali was at Oxford. They soon got to know each other and in the summer of 1965 went to a peace conference together in Helsinki. "We had to fly to Moscow," says Ali, "then there was a train, via Leningrad as it was then, to Helsinki. We talked a lot and became very friendly. It was later on that his Cambodian deviation was a bit off-putting. And he could never completely explain it."

At one time, the pair discussed opening a Vietnamese restaurant as a sort of act of antiwar gastro-prop. "He would say that after a few drams," Ali recalls. "He was a great whisky drinker. He was also a great cricket fan and an early Scottish nationalist."

Cricket is mostly followed in Scotland by the upper classes, but Ali got the impression that his old friend came from a middle-class background. His Wikipedia entry states that he was the son of a miner. "You know," says Ali, "we never bothered about these things. We were so totally immersed in politics and the state of the world, we never really talked about each other, our personal lives or social backgrounds."

In seeking to understand why this idealistic Scotsman became a cheerleader for Pol Pot, it would be wrong to consign him to the maverick margins. A member of the Labour Party, he stood as a candidate in the 1977 local elections in Bexley. John Cox, who followed in Caldwell's footsteps as chair of CND, is adamant that there was nothing out of the ordinary about his predecessor's politics. "He was well in the mainstream of what I would call generally progressive liberal thinking," says Cox.

This idea that support for the most illiberal systems of government is all part of the liberal tradition is one of the more bemusing aspects of progressive politics. But the missing factor in the equation is the view that the United States of America is the ultimate villain. The background to the brutality visited on Cambodia was the brutality visited on Vietnam by US forces.

Although the Vietnam war was more complex than is often acknowledged (the tensions between North and South, for example, long predated the war), the Americans essentially inherited France's colonial conflict. But they fought it in the context of the Cold War. As much as US administrations may have seen the battle as one between communism and the free world, to the majority of Vietnamese it was a liberation struggle.

In an effort to close down North Vietnamese supply lines to the South, the US also launched a devastating bombing campaign on neighbouring Cambodia. Instead of winning the war in the former, it served only to destabilise the latter. To make matters worse, an American-supported coup put in place the corrupt government of Lon Nol in Phnom Penh. So there was a tendency among many anti-war protesters to see the Khmer Rouge as just another national liberation movement, fighting to escape from under the American yoke.

One man who observed the truth up close, four years before the Khmer Rouge came to power, was a French ethnologist called François Bizot. In 1971, while out researching Buddhist practices, he was captured in the Cambodian countryside by Khmer Rouge insurgents. He was held captive with scores of Cambodian prisoners at the M-13 prison camp, a precursor to the 196 santebal (secret police) offices that were set up after the Khmer Rouge seized power. The head of the camp, and the Frenchman's tireless interrogator, was Duch.

Bizot wrote about the encounter in a remarkable memoir called The Gate. After three months, during which he was shackled and repeatedly accused of being an American spy, he was suddenly released – all the other prisoners were executed. So relieved was the Frenchman that he asked Duch if he would like a gift. His jailer thought for a while and then replied, "with the look of a child writing to Father Christmas, 'The complete collection of Das Kapital by Marx.'"

Three days before Christmas in 1978, Malcolm Caldwell received an early present. On the final day of a two-week tour of Cambodia, he was told that he would meet Pol Pot. This was indeed a rare privilege. Unlike most other communist leaders, Pol had not created a personality cult. There were no posters of him. He was seldom seen or quoted. Many Cambodians had not even heard of him. Only seven westerners were ever invited to what had been renamed Democratic Kampuchea. And Caldwell was the first and only Briton.

There were several reasons why Caldwell had been received in Phnom Penh. He was on good terms with China, Cambodia's main ally in the region. There were also growing tensions between Cambodia and its larger neighbour Vietnam and, fearful of an invasion, Pol Pot was belatedly attempting to improve Kampuchea's image abroad. Most of all, while other supporters had wavered, Caldwell had remained steadfast. Only months before, he had written an article in the Guardian, rubbishing reports of a Khmer Rouge genocide. He cited Hu Nim, the Kampuchean Information Minister, who blamed the deaths on America. Caldwell was unaware that Hu had himself already been tortured to death in one of Pol Pot's execution centres. Such killings that the Khmer Rouge had committed, argued the peace activist, were of "arch-Quislings who well knew what their fate would be were they to linger in Kampuchea".

Travelling with Caldwell were two American journalists, Elizabeth Becker and Richard Dudman. Becker had been a foreign reporter in Phnom Penh during the civil war that brought the Khmer Rouge to power. She knew the terrain, and had been to Thailand to talk to refugees. She and Caldwell argued endlessly about the true nature of the situation.

"He didn't want to know about problems with the Khmer Rouge," she says. "And that carried over to not wanting to know about problems between Cambodia and Vietnam. He was stuck in '68 or something."

Yet for all their disagreements, she liked Caldwell. "He was a lovely man, very funny, very charming," she says. "A real sweetie. He was also very homesick for his family and he said he'd never spend another Christmas away from them."

According to Becker, Caldwell had not read François Ponchaud's Cambodia: Year Zero, the book that first catalogued the Khmer Rouge genocide. A friend of François Bizot, Ponchaud was a Catholic missionary who was in Phnom Penh when the victorious Khmer Rouge army marched into town. His book became required reading for anyone interested in what was happening in Cambodia. "The fact that Malcolm, a professor, had not read it before he went, that I couldn't believe," says Becker. "I think it was almost ideological that he didn't read it."

It's perhaps not that strange that Caldwell had neglected to read Ponchaud, given that he had already dismissed the Frenchman's credibility in print. He based his damning opinion on a brief extract of Year Zero which the Guardian had published and a critique of the book by the American academic, Noam Chomsky. An icon of radical dissent who continues to command a fanatical following, Chomsky had questioned the legitimacy of refugee testimony that provided much of Ponchaud's research. Chomsky believed that their stories were exaggerations or fabrications, designed for a western media involved in a "vast and unprecedented propaganda campaign" against the Khmer Rouge government, "including systematic distortion of the truth".

He compared Ponchaud's work unfavourably with another book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, written by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter, which cravenly rehashed the Khmer Rouge's most outlandish lies to produce a picture of a kind of radical bucolic idyll. At the same time Chomsky excoriated a book entitled Murder of A Gentle Land, by two Reader's Digest writers, John Barron and Anthony Paul, which was a flawed but nonetheless accurate documentation of the genocide taking place.

We can never know if Caldwell would have taken Ponchaud more seriously had Chomsky not been so sceptical, but it's reasonable to surmise that the Scotsman, who greatly admired Chomsky, was reassured by the American's contempt. In any case, the 47-year-old Caldwell arrived in Cambodia untroubled by the story that Ponchaud and others had to tell. In fact, he had just completed a book himself that would be posthumously published as Kampuchea: A Rationale for a Rural Policy, in which he wrote that the Khmer Rouge revolution "opens vistas of hope not only for the people of Cambodia but also for the peoples of all other poor third world countries".

With Dudman and Becker, Caldwell was escorted around the country to a series of staged scenes. Alarmed by the changes she saw and frustrated by what she was not allowed to see, Becker grew increasingly combative with her hosts. "It was so clearly awful," says Becker. "One of the problems was the absence of what I saw. The absence of people. And that's a different kind of proof to 'I don't see any people being executed.'"

Caldwell was not unduly bothered. "He preferred to stay in the car and laugh at the clumsy photo opportunities prepared for us," Becker wrote in her book on Cambodia, When The War Was Over.

"He'd travelled to other communist countries," she tells me now, "and he knew exactly what the PR routine was and he thought that all governments do PR. He did not know Cambodia, and he didn't speak the language. If you don't speak the language, don't know the country, you can edit out a little more easily."

At the end of the tour, the party returned to Phnom Penh, which Dudman described as "a Hiroshima without the destruction, a Pompeii without the ashes". They stayed at a guest house near the centre of Monivong Boulevard, one of the empty city's main thoroughfares. Close by was the secret facility of Tuol Sleng, a former school that had been turned into an interrogation centre. Known as S-21, Tuol Sleng specialised in gaining confessions through torture. Between 14,000 and 16,000 prisoners – men, women and, most hauntingly, children – passed through its gates, including Hu Nim. Only seven survived. It was run by Duch.

Nowadays Tuol Sleng is a genocide museum, and an established part of the southeast Asian tourist trail. Although they were intent on erasing history, Pol Pot and his senior cadres were obsessed with the accomplishments of the 12th-century Hindu dynasty that built the temple complex of Angkor Wat and constructed elaborate damn and irrigation systems. They considered their own contribution to Khmer culture to be of a similar, if not greater, significance. It speaks eloquently of the Khmer Rouge's achievements that, while Angkor Wat remains the country's main tourist attraction, the next most popular sights for visitors are Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, where the prisoners from S-21 were taken to be "smashed" – usually with an ox-cart axle. A ghost town under the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh is now a bustling, sprawling city, dense with people and commercial activity. In May 1975, one month after the Khmer Rouge evacuated the capital, the Swedish author Per Olov Enquist wrote: "The brothel has been emptied and the clean-up is in progress. Only pimps can regret what is happening."

If that was blatant wishful thinking, it's an unpalatable truth that the pimps have returned. A potent mix of Developing World poverty, cheap flights and sexual licence has made Cambodia a magnet for sex tourists and paedophiles. The upmarket hotels around the riverside are full of western and Japanese businessmen, and a certain kind of furtive middle-aged traveller, stubble-chinned and plump-stomached, is a conspicuous presence in the bars and clubs frequented by young and under-age prostitutes.

Cambodia has just two seasons: wet and dry. It either rains or it doesn't, a binary climate that may have helped shape the Khmer Rouge Manichean view of the world – revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, insider or outsider, good or bad. It was the dry season when I visited in late November, and a cooling wind blew through the hot, polluted streets. At first sight, Tuol Sleng's large courtyard, lined with coconut palms, provides welcome respite from the noise beyond. A respectful silence is maintained by visitors, including groups of western backpackers, with their cameras and guidebook glaze. The three-storey buildings have been left pretty much as they were abandoned in 1979, slightly dilapidated with jerry-built cells, barbed-wire fences and medieval instruments of torture. The effect is to transport the visitor not just back in time, but also into the reptilian depths of the imagination, a merciless place of zero compassion.

In the courtyard of the prison is a poster listing the rules of the camp. None of them makes for pleasant reading. For example, number 2 states in an imperfect translation: "Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me." It vividly articulates the mentality that shaped S-21, and indeed Kampuchea beyond, the relentless determination to remove every option from the prisoner – and citizen – to reduce them to absolute compliance. But perhaps the most disturbing is number 6: "While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry out at all." Denied every human and judicial right, the inmates were also refused the one prerogative of the tortured: the right to express pain.

I visited the archive on the second floor of the building, where some of the 4,000 files the Vietnamese discovered are housed. Here, I was brought the "confession" of John Dewhirst, a 26-year-old teacher from Newcastle who was captured in 1978, while sailing with friends through the Gulf of Thailand. Intercepted by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat, they were placed in S-21 and tortured over the course of a month. As the weeks passed, Dewhirst made a series of ever more bleakly surreal confessions. They start out as straightforward biography – he explains that he had studied at Loughborough university. Then he admits to being a CIA agent, recruited at Loughborough where the CIA, he is made to say, maintains one of its covert training bases. It "was housed in a building disguised as the Loughborough Town Council Highways Department Surveyor's Office". He also reveals that his father is another CIA agent, using the cover of "headmaster of Benton Road secondary school". Dewhirst was murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1978.

S-21 was not concerned with the truth. Its only aim was to derive the fullest possible confession in accordance with party requirements. In his book Voices From S-21, the historian David Chandler quotes Milan Kundera's phrase (used to describe the Soviet bloc secret police) of "punishment seeking the crime" to sum up the prison's project. To this end, the most depraved techniques – electric shocks, rape, the forced eating of excrement, medical experimentation, flaying, and lethal blood extraction – were employed. It's hard to comprehend that these agonies were not just formalities, they were preliminaries. It wasn't a question, on arriving at the prison, that an inmate would be lucky to get out alive. He or she would be lucky to get out just dead. A guidebook for interrogators clarified the issue: "The enemies can't escape from torture; the only difference is whether they receive a little or a lot."

The precise level of punishment was decided upon by Duch. If the confession was not sufficiently elaborate, the punishment was increased. In these situations Duch impressed upon his staff that "kindness is misplaced". Some interrogators were more disposed to brutality than others. And some were simply demented sadists. The most sadistic of them all went by the name of Toy, a pitch-black irony that his English-speaking victims were in no position to appreciate. In recent testimony, a prison guard recalled that one of Dewhirst's party (either the young teacher himself or the New Zealander or Canadian travelling with him) was burned alive in the street. The order that they be incinerated came directly from Pol Pot.

Just a few months after that grisly murder, Caldwell prepared himself to meet the man who commissioned it. The Scotsman knew little or nothing of Dewhirst's fate. Instead his mind was on agrarian revolution. Caldwell believed that the world was accelerating towards a global famine and that the answer was Developing World self-sufficiency. But Cambodia was a strange place to test his theory. As Professor Ian Brown notes: "This is a part of the world that historically had not been a food-deficient area, so you wouldn't go looking for a crisis there. Again, that seems to indicate a more fundamental flaw in his approach: he comes at it with a theoretical position. And therefore he'd search for an argument, not necessarily evidence, that will sustain that."

In Pol Pot, Caldwell found someone with an argument that suited his purposes. Pol's plan was a massive increase in rice production to finance Cambodia's reconstruction. It required collectivisation and slave labour, though Caldwell preferred to see the effort in terms of spontaneous revolutionary spirit. In the event, owing to the shortage of technicians and experts (who were killed as class enemies) and lack of peasant support, production fell well short of targets. But terrified of underperforming, regional commanders still sent their designated contribution to be exported. The result was the opposite of self-sufficiency: famine. Unable to accept the shortcomings in his plans, Pol instead blamed spies and counter-revolutionaries, and that meant that, in the absence of rice, spies and counter revolutionaries had to be produced. The network of torture camps was the only area of Democratic Kampuchea's infrastructure that met its targets.

Of these dreadful facts, Caldwell remained ignorant on the Friday morning in Phnom Penh that he was taken in a Mercedes limousine to see Pol Pot. The setting for the meeting was the former Governor's Palace on the waterfront, built during the French colonial period. In a grand reception room replete with fans and billowing white curtains, the two men sat down and discussed revolutionary economic theory.

Becker had met Pol Pot earlier the same day, and in When the War Was Over she writes: "He was actually elegant, with a pleasing face, not handsome but attractive. His features were delicate and alert and his smile nearly endearing."

The perennially shabby academic and the fastidious dictator must have made for an odd couple. In any case, Caldwell left the meeting a happy man. He returned to the guest house he was sharing with Becker and Dudman, full of praise for Pol Pot and his political outlook. "We went over stuff," says Becker. "He thought he had had a good conversation. He had avoided at all costs any discussion of Vietnam. And he was looking forward to going home."

That night they all had dinner together and afterwards Dudman went to his room. Becker and Caldwell "stayed at the table to have our last argument about Cambodia". He took the longer view and said that the revolution deserved support. She, on the contrary, was even more convinced of the refugees' testimonies. "That night," she writes, "Caldwell tried once more to get me to change my mind."

Becker went to bed at 11pm and was woken a few hours later by the sound of what she took to be dustbins. Coming to her senses, she realised there were no dustbins in Phnom Penh. What she had heard was gunfire. She opened her bedroom door to see a young man pointing a pistol at her. He was wearing two bands of ammunition and carrying an automatic rifle over his shoulder. She begged him not to shoot and locked herself in her bathroom.

Meanwhile Dudman had woken up and, looking out of his window, saw a file of men running along the street. He knocked on Caldwell's door. The two men spoke briefly and then a heavily armed man approached. The man shot at the floor and Dudman ran into his room. Two shots were fired through his door. The two Americans remained hiding in their rooms for the next hour before an aide arrived and told Becker to stay where she was. Almost another hour passed before she was allowed to come out. Caldwell, she was told, had been shot. He was dead.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) are located in a large, purpose-built court on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh. During the course of last year, hundreds of Cambodians made the trip out from the city and in from the countryside to bear witness to a long-overdue reckoning.

The lone defendant in the trial is a slim, well-preserved 67-year-old with small, sensitive eyes. With his thick grey hair and concentrated expression, he looks like a sprightly grandfather, a little stiff and formal, but sufficiently attuned to the contemporary world as to be smartly dressed in a Ralph Lauren shirt or, on another occasion, a cream cashmere roll-neck sweater. A giant bullet-proof glass screen divides the court from the auditorium, where 500 or more people sit watching the proceedings. Centre stage is Duch (pronounced "Doik" in Khmer), seated with his back to the audience. To his left is a bank of lawyers, and behind them in the corner the relatives of victims. In front of the defendant sit the judges, on an imposing two-tier stand. Ten years, some 400 staff, a dozen judges, a battery of international lawyers, an ongoing legal wrangle, and many millions of pounds is what it has taken to put Duch on trial.

Following Caldwell's murder, four guards assigned to the tourist's protection team were arrested and taken to S-21. Owing to the importance of their alleged crime, the commandant of the prison was instructed to head their interrogation. So the stories of Caldwell and Duch came together at the inevitable point of a torture camp. Here, amid bestial squalor, is where the liberation dream ended.

Two of the "confessions" made by guards referred to in their S-21 files as "the Contemptible Met" and "the Contemptible Chhaan", outline a baroque conspiracy involving many other people. The Contemptible Chhaan gives an explanation for the murder: "First, we were attacking to ruin the Party's policy, to prevent the Party from gathering friends in the world… And in attacking the guests on this occasion, we would not attack them all. It would be enough to attack the English guest, because the English guest had written in support of our Party and the Kampuchean people for a long period of time already… Therefore, we must absolutely succeed in attacking this English guest, in order that the American guests would write about it."

Whether this was yet another example of innocent men implicating other innocent men, it's impossible to know. Certainly there must have been some kind of in-house involvement, as the guests were guarded. But who instructed the guards, and why they did so, remains a subject of speculation. Some argue that the Vietnamese were behind the killing, others that it was a function of an internal party struggle.

Caldwell's brother, David, wrote a letter to the Guardian, expressing his belief that "Mal" had "discovered the truth about the Pol Pot regime" but "dared not admit this to either Becker or Dudman". This seems unlikely. David Chandler told me that he once met the translator of the meeting between Caldwell and Pol Pot, who remembered a very pleasant exchange conducted in a spirit of enthusiastic agreement. If that anecdote suggests Caldwell died a dedicated Pol Potist, it tells us little about Pol, a man for whom the word "inscrutable" might have been invented. As his deputy, Ieng Sary, later recalled: "Pol Pot, even when he was very angry, you could never tell. His face… his face was always smooth. He never used bad language. You could not tell from his face what he was feeling. Many people misunderstood that – he would smile his unruffled smile, and then they would be taken away and executed."

But why would he seek international support by killing one of his few remaining friends from abroad? It makes no sense. "Don't apply rational thinking to the situation," Becker cautions. "It was crazy. Crazy. Malcolm's murder was no less rational than the tens of thousands of other murders." The journalist Wilfred Burchett claimed to have seen a Cambodian report not long after Caldwell's death, which stated that he "was murdered by members of the National Security Force personnel on the instructions of the Pol Pot government". Burchett theorised that Caldwell had changed his mind about the regime, but all the available evidence indicates otherwise. In the end, Becker's conclusion seems to be the most satisfactory: "Malcolm Caldwell's death was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired."

The confessions of Caldwell's alleged killers were completed on 5 January 1979. Either that day or the following one, the four men were bayoneted to death in the prison itself. They were very possibly the last killings to take place at S-21. On 7 January, the Vietnamese army arrived in Phnom Penh, and Pol Pot and his associates fled into the jungle.

The contrast between the care taken to observe Duch's legal and human rights and the indifference with which he dispatched his victims is lost on no one. But as Philippe Canonne, one of the lawyers representing the relatives of the victims, said of the urge to inflict on Duch what he had meted out to his prisoners: "We must give voice to this sentiment, but then have the strength to transcend it."

It's this sort of resolution that has made the trial a legal landmark in a nation that has had little experience of the rule of law. That it was ever staged at all is a major accomplishment. For 20 years after the Vietnamese invasion, Duch lived at liberty. At first he followed the bulk of the Khmer Rouge into exile on the border with Thailand. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the US and China refused to accept the Vietnamese puppet government installed in Phnom Penh. In a shameful version of the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend, they instead persuaded the UN to recognise a coalition resistance movement, of which the Khmer Rouge formed the major player. Thus Pol Pot was afforded the support of China, the protection of Thailand, and the indirect recognition of the United States.

For two decades the Khmer Rouge waged guerrilla warfare against the government in Phnom Penh. Then, in 1997, Pol Pot was placed under house arrest by his fellow Khmers Rouges. He died peacefully in his sleep on 15 April 1998. A year later the photojournalist Nic Dunlop found Duch working for a Christian relief agency. An interview was duly published and Duch handed himself in to the Phnom Penh authorities.

In theory, the trial is a joint effort between the UN and Cambodia, but the effort has been all the UN's. The Cambodian People's Party, which has ruled since Pol Pot was overthrown, is led by onetime Khmer Rouge members who, under threat of purging, had defected to Vietnam. One of these is Hun Sen, a former revolutionary soldier, who has been prime minister since 1985. His government was accused by Amnesty International of widespread torture of political prisoners, using "electric shock, hot irons and near suffocation with plastic bags". And for many years, senior former members of Pol Pot's government lived under protection in Cambodia, some with family links to the government. So there were several reasons why a major trial with international media coverage was potentially embarrassing or inconvenient.

After much pressure, in November 2007 the Cambodians finally arrested the four most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders: Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan. Their trial is scheduled to start in 2011, though few observers will be surprised if it is indefinitely delayed. All of them claim ignorance of any wrong-doing. Perhaps the most galling example is a long letter of evasion and self-justification that Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot's chief ideologue, wrote to Cambodian newspapers in 2001. "I do not see any importance in bringing up this tragic past. We would be better off to let everyone be at peace so that all of us can carry on our daily tasks… I tried my best for the sake of our nation's survival, so that we might enjoy development and prosperity like other nations. I am so surprised that this turned out to be mass murder."

In one form or another, this exculpation has been used over and again by the supporters of communist revolutions, from the Russian via the Chinese through to the Cambodian. Each new manifestation commanded the fervent advocacy of a new generation of radicals. Sooner or later the grim reality was revealed, which, paradoxically, only raised the hope that the next version would get it right. As the French philosopher Jean-François Revel has remarked: "Utopia is not under the slightest obligation to produce results: its sole function is to allow its devotees to condemn what exists in the name of what does not."

Somehow the link between Marxist-Leninist ideology and communist terror has never been firmly established in the way, for instance, that we understand Nazi ideology to have led inexorably to Auschwitz. As if to illustrate the point, earlier last year the ECCC announced that Helen Jarvis, its chief of public affairs, was to become head of the victims unit, responsible for dealing with the survivors, and relatives of the dead, of S-21.

Jarvis is an Australian academic with a longterm interest in the region, who was recently awarded Cambodian citizenship. She is also a member of the Leninist Party Faction in Australia. In 2006 she signed a party letter that included this passage: "We too are Marxists and believe that 'the ends justify the means'. But for the means to be justifiable, the ends must also be held to account. In time of revolution and civil war, the most extreme measures will sometimes become necessary and justified. Against the bourgeoisie and their state agencies we don't respect their laws and their fake moral principles."

Jarvis refused to speak to me about these matters. But Knut Rosandhaug, the UN's deputy administrator for the tribunal, said that the administration "fully supports" her. In this sense, although she was never a Pol Potist herself, Jarvis shows that the spirit of Malcolm Caldwell has survived the last century. It lives on in the conviction that the ends justify the means, and in the manner that liberal institutions can house the most illiberal outlooks.

The means, of course, always become the ends. Duch or someone like him is the method and the madness, the process and the final product. At least the man himself claims to grasp what continues to elude too many who should by now know better. In his deposition to the court, he said: "I clearly understand that any theory or ideology which mentions love for the people in a class-based concept is definitely driving us into endless tragedy and misery."

The following day, his lawyer, Kar Savuth, asked that Duch be acquitted and set free.

Caldwell didn't trouble himself with the means in Cambodia. He was too focused on an imaginary end, which meant that he never glimpsed the deadly real one approaching.

"He may have been starry eyed," says John Cox. "But we all do that. Even my local football team I support long after they've been destroyed match after match. It's a human failing."

A few days after Caldwell's murder, a testimonial was published in the Guardian.

"Caldwell," the writer said, "was an irreplaceable teacher and comrade whose work will undoubtedly suffer the customary fate of being better appreciated after his death."

As it turned out, history has forgotten Caldwell. But the amiable apologist for tyranny should be remembered, if only so that we don't forget history.★

On a temple trail
Shriti K Tyagi is charmed by Cambodia's temples, tuk-tuks, the floating village and even discovers a new tourist attraction — a tree that Angelina Jolie jumped off

Shriti K Tyagi

Posted On Saturday, January 09, 2010 at 09:18:55 PM

A great package, interest in the 'exotic' and words of encouragement from friends (especially NOT been-there-done-that ones) got us packing for Siem Reap, Cambodia.

We were to fly to Bangkok, take a bus ride to the border at Aranyaprathatet, get stamped out of Bangkok, walk into Poipet, get stamped and get driven to Siem Reap in two hours flat. That was the Big Plan.

It was mostly successful. The bus from Bangkok took an awfully long time. The Cambodian immigration office was like a shed and though we were the only ones in the line, we were asked to pay extra for an express visa. An amount that seemed more like lunch and tea money. We paid and within minutes, we were being driven to our destination.

Siem Reap charmed us with old French shops, small houses, narrow, clean lanes and a relaxed air. Our hotel, The Villa Siem Reap was one of many small boutique hotels that offer excellent service and great ambience - run by Australians in keeping with the Khmer hospitality. The best package is where they take care of your daily travel to the temples. The wheels offered were that of the most comfortable tuk-tuk ever made unlike the rickety ones in Bangkok.

Sunset at Angkor Wat

Once settled in, our hotel offered that we go for their 'sunset experience' outside the Angkor temples. At the banks of the moat surrounding the Angkor Wat temple, our driver, an English-speaking Buddhist Cambodian, spread out a rug, got this wonderful box out and spread out some goodies - complete with wine, olive, cheese, chicken satay, mini garlic bread and with proper plates. It was a wonderfully different way to start our Angkor experience - dusk, the temples in the background, wine in our hand, toasting history.

The next day we actually got to enter the temple with a guide who took us through the history of the temple of Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II in the honour of Lord Vishnu. The temple structure is a symbolic representation of Hindu Cosmology - Mt Meru (where the Gods reside) surrounded by a cosmic ocean (the moat around the temple). It has great stories, Hindu mythology, apsaras and other divine beings carved onto its walls.

Following Angkor Wat, we entered the magnificent gates of the city of Angkor Thom, flanked by huge sculptures of asuras and devas on either sides. Inside we engaged with Bayon Temple, at the heart of the capital city that boasts of bas relief work that depicts daily life as well as mythological events.

Jolie good!

What gets a special mention by the people of Siem Reap is the Ta Phrom temple. Ask them why and the answer echoed will be 'Angelina Jolie shot a sequence for Tomb Raider here!' That was enough to go for an early morning visit, we needed to identify the tree she had jumped from - we didn't have to try very hard: everyone was willing to point it out to us.

A 1000 Lingas

We then journeyed on to Kbal Spean - a temple trek through a forest to reach a river at the end that is temple. Carved into the river bed are 1000 shiva Lingas, Hindu mythological motifs and lingam-yoni designs. The Lingas were believed to fertilise the water of East Baray to irrigate rice fields in Cambodia.

The Floating Village

The day trip to Kompong Khleang village on the Tonle Sap Great Lake reveals the 'real' Cambodia - with its stilted huts, floating villages, curious children and quaint itinerance. The stilted houses are almost 10 meters over the river, the children cheekily pose, the boatman calls himself captain and the floating Vietnamese and Khmer village complete with a market, school, health centre (all afloat) and TV sets in nearly all the boats.

Happy hours

The local food draws a lot from Thailand and Vietnam, but it is not as spicy. Try the Khmer Amok, Bi Cha (Cambodian style fried rice) and Bok'Lohng (green papaya salad pounded in a mortar and pestle) - Cambodian chaat! Pub street is a delightful lane packed end to end with restaurants, pubs, art galleries, bookshops, shiny, happy people. What else can one expect when happy hours start from some 3.30 in the evening till the street officially shuts? The energy on this one street is electric. At the end of five days, we had made friends with the locals as we became the regulars at Pub street.

Mondolkiri Canceled Economic Land Concessions of 50 Companies – Saturday, 9.1.2010

Posted on 9 January 2010
The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 646

(CAAI News Media)

“Mondolkiri: The Mondolkiri provincial authorities had decided to cancel the concessions of 50 companies that had planned to invest in agriculture in Mondolkiri, because those companies do not operate.

“According to different sources of information, some companies received economic concession land in Mondolkiri, but they do not develop anything following their contracts, and some cut trees and sold them, affecting the lives of the citizen. Therefore, the authorities decided to cancel the concession contracts of those companies.

“The new Mondolkiri provincial governor could not be reached for comment regarding this issue, because he had a meeting. The Mondolkiri deputy governor, Ms. Si Sokuntheary, could not be reached either, as she was busy. Anyway, according to a notification by the Mondolkiri authorities dated 4 January 2010 that Kampuchea Thmey received on 8 January 2010, the Mondolkiri authorities announced to cancel the concessions for land of 50 companies located in Mondolkiri. This was done by a letter dated 25 December 2009 of the Mondolkiri authorities canceling the legal validity of the concessions giving control over concession land by 53 companies. But 3 companies asked for a delay.


“The present notification of the authorities identified the three companies which had asked for a delay: the Heng Heang Siv Chanthou company, the Green Resources company, and the Agri-Resources company. The notification stressed that the canceling of 50 concessions became valid from the day it was signed. In the meantime, the authorities emphasized that they will not take responsibility for any companies that continue to operate, violating this notification, and the authorities informed the companies that really intend to invest there, to come to contact the Mondolkiri authorities.”

Kampuchea Thmey, Vol.9, #2146, 9.1.2010
Newspapers Appearing on the Newsstand:
Saturday, 9 January 2010

Elixir in Cambodia deal

8th January 2010
By Simon Liddle

(CAAI News Media)

Elixir Gaming Technologies has signed an agreement with NagaWorld, a subsidiary of Hong Kong listed NagaCorp, under which it will place an additional 200 electronic gaming machines on a participation basis at its NagaWorld casino resort in Cambodia.

The deal also amends an earlier agreement to increase the overall average revenue share to Elixir Gaming to 25 per cent and extend the duration of the contract.

Elixir currently operates 440 gaming machine seats at NagaWorld, which achieved average win per unit per day of over $200 for in November and December.

Commenting on the new agreement, Clarence Chung, chairman and chief executive officer of Elixir, said the company was pleased to expand its slot floor operations with NagaWorld.

“With these additional units, Elixir Gaming will have gaming machines installed covering most of the currently available prime ground floor space at NagaWorld,” he remarked.

“Given NagaWorld’s position as the exclusive casino licence holder in the Phnom Penh area and our demonstrated success with our current slot operations at NagaWorld, we feel confident that we can continue to drive strong growth in participation revenue and cash flow with these additional placements.

US Delegates Promised to Improve Ties between Cambodia and the United States – Friday, 8.1.2010
Posted on 9 January 2010
The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 646

(CAAI News Media)

“Phnom Penh: An assistant of Samdech Akkak Moha Senapadei Dekchor Hun Sen, Mr. Eang Sophalet, said after a discussion between the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Samdech Akkak Moha Senapadei Dekchor Hun Sen, and the US congressmen, Mr. Eni Faleomavaega, Mr. Mike Honda, and Mr. Joseph Cao, in the morning of 7 January 2010 at the National Assembly – that it is the second time that Mr. Faleomavaega visits the Kingdom of Cambodia, and the three congressmen welcomed the 7 January memorial day of Cambodia, the second birthday of the Cambodian people.

“Mr. Eni Faleomavaega said that he is glad to express his appreciation towards all Cambodian citizens. He will take the recommendations of the Prime Minister to encourage better cooperation and improved ties between Cambodia and the United States. As the chairperson of the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment, he hopes that he can act as a bridge to enhance better relations between the two countries in order to contribute to make the world a better place for all people.

“As for Mr. Joseph Cao, he told Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen that after returning, he will make efforts to contribute to assist Cambodia in child health care and education problems.

“In response,the Prime Minister expressed his gratitude towards the US congress delegates led by Mr. Eni, and he expressed his great appreciation regarding Cambodia-US relations. Samdech Dekchor said that this is the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Cambodia and the United States, and a significant achievement is that recently, for the first time, the United States built an embassy complex in Cambodia, which shows how the relations have developed.

“Samdech Dekchor expressed his gratitude towards the United States for the cooperation with and assistance to Cambodia in HIV/AIDS education and children’s heath care, for which American volunteers come to Cambodia, a bridge to strengthen the relations between both countries.”

Koh Santepheap, Vol.42, #6852, 8.1.2010
Newspapers Appearing on the Newsstand:
Friday, 8 January 2010

Ailing Cambodian toddler gets help from Long Beach group

Socheat Ngor

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer
Posted: 01/08/2010

(CAAI News Media)

When the toddler steepled her fingers in the traditional Cambodian greeting, she earned their smiles and good will. But it was the somber results of her physical exam and tests that put Socheat Ngor on the fast track to treatment as the newest child to receive help from Hearts Without Boundaries.

Socheat, 2, lives in poverty in a village in southern Cambodia. At the age of 4 months she was diagnosed with a heart ailment that would require surgery not readily available in her home country.

Hearts Without Boundaries, a Long Beach nonprofit that has helped bring two Cambodian children to the U.S. for life-altering surgery, learned of Socheat's ailment from family in Long Beach.

At that time, she was put on a list of children in need of help and it was arranged for Socheat and her family to meet with members of the Hearts Without Boundaries team, who were in Siem Reap with doctors from Variety Children's Lifeline who make annual trips to Cambodia to help children with mild heart ailments and diagnose and assess others.

Susan Grossfeld, a volunteer who was instrumental in brokering the deal that brought one of the Cambodian children to the U.S. last year, said she was instantly enamored of Socheat.

"She's tiny and has a tiny voice," said Grossfeld.

Grossfeld added that what the girl lacked for in size she made up for in spirit and vivacity.

"People fall in love with her right away," Grossfeld said.

In the past two years, Hearts Without Boundaries has helped arrange for two children with heart defects to come to the U.S. for life-altering surgeries they could not receive in Cambodia.
The first two patients, Davik Teng, 9, and Soksamnang Vy, 1, had congenital defects called ventricular septal defects, or holes in their hearts.

In the case of Socheat, Hearts Without Boundaries had started working with her family to raise money to send the child to Singapore or Thailand for the procedure.

However, when Socheat was examined by Dr. Paul Grossfeld, a cardiologist from Rady Children's Hospital who helped with the successful treatment of Vy, he found her ailment was worse than expected and her need for more rapid treatment became evident.

Socheat suffers from a defect known as tetralogy of Fallot.

"This is a much more complex defect and surgery," said Susan Grossfeld, who is Paul Grossfeld's wife.

In addition to having a large hole in her heart, Socheat also suffers from a second hole in the heart, an obstruction of blood flow to the lungs and other problems.

And in recent weeks, her health as suffered.

According to Dr. Luy Lyda of Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, Socheat has had difficultly breathing and has visited the emergency room three times in recent weeks.

Susan Grossfeld, who brokered a deal with the Children's Heart Center and the Sunrise Children's Hospital in Las Vegas to perform surgery on Vy, has gone back to the Nevada heart group and hospital.

They have agreed to donate their staff and facilities once again.

Because of the severity of the ailment, however, time is short. Grossfeld says the hope is to have Socheat in the U.S. and operated on within a month or two.

"We don't want to wait any longer than necessary," Grossfeld said.

It also has to be determined if the child is healthy enough to travel.

Hearts Without Boundaries is rallying to prepare and pay for travel documents, arrange lodging and find funding for Socheat and her mother to come to the U.S.

Hearts Without Boundaries founder Peter Chhun, who is still in Cambodia, was thrilled when told of the Las Vegas offer.

"I am so excited, I don't know if I will be able to sleep tonight," Chhun said via phone from Cambodia.

Anyone interested in donating to Hearts Without Boundaries for Socheat can find information on-line at

Cambodia Confronts the "G" Word

The horrors of the Khmer Rouge's rule may be in the past, but the question of whether its crimes amounted to genocide lingers on.


(CAAI News Media)

The Khmer Rouge liked to say, "When pulling out weeds, remove the roots and all." Fulfilling this dogma, the ultra-Maoist regime killed the babies of supposed traitors of the revolution and "smashed" -- its euphemism for executed -- pregnant women carrying the children of men whose loyalty was in question. The term genocide is often used reflexively to describe the Khmer Rouge's rule of terror that led to the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians from overwork, starvation, and murder from 1975 to 1979. It was not, however, one of the charges former Khmer Rouge leaders had faced in the three-year-old U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal. This is changing, though, and the new move is controversial.

The hybrid Cambodian-U.N. tribunal has been trying five former top regime officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Its first trial, of Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), the warden of a prison code-named S-21, where an estimated 15,000 prisoners deemed enemies of the revolution were tortured before being executed in the nearby "killing fields," concluded in November. A verdict is expected in March. Last month, the tribunal added genocide as a charge against the four remaining defendants for their alleged role in the slaughter of ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims in Cambodia. The charges need to be finalized in the court's closing order, but it is widely thought that they will all be included in the formal charges against the defendants.

Duch admitted to his role in overseeing the S-21 prison. But the regime's chief ideologue, Nuon Chea (known as "Brother No. 2"), former President Khieu Samphan, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, and his wife and social affairs minister, Ieng Thirith, have all denied culpability for the charges they face. By all reliable accounts, however, they were the chief architects of the regime's catastrophic experiment to forge an agrarian utopia by methods that included forcing the population onto rural collectives; abolishing money, schools, and religion; and exterminating perceived enemies of the revolution.

In 1999, U.N. experts concluded that the Khmer Rouge should face charges for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. They said there was strong evidence -- including Khmer Rouge statements, eyewitness accounts, and the nature and number of victims of each group -- pointing to genocide against the Cham and Vietnamese as ethnic groups and against the Buddhist monkhood as a religious group.

In light of the denial and obfuscation of the former regime's leadership, the court's role in clarifying the historical record is now especially important. "That is part of the healing process," says David Scheffer, a former U.S. war crimes ambassador, "to confront these charges head-on inside the courtroom rather than see them abandoned forever." It was for this purpose of direct confrontation that the tribunal included an innovative "civil party" system allowing victims into the courtroom to air grievances and question the defendants.

Many advocates of minority rights applaud the addition of genocide charges as a way for these groups to reaffirm their rights in Cambodian society. Lyma Nguyen, a lawyer representing a group of 17 ethnic Vietnamese survivors, says the genocide charge would allow her clients to formally pursue the truth about why they were targeted and, in the process, "reconstitute their identity." Lawyer Lor Chunthy said the more than 200 Cham Muslim civil parties he represents are still consolidating their place in Cambodian society. "There is still discrimination against the Cham, so this sends an important message that Muslims in Cambodia are part of the country," he notes. Both lawyers said the groups they represent unequivocally think they were singled out because of their ethnic or religious identity.

Cambodian advocates of the charge also say it carries enormous symbolic weight that will help the tribunal receive local support. "The addition of genocide charges reflects what the millions of Cambodians who survived have wanted since 1979," says court spokesman Reach Sambath. The charge resonates with all Cambodians, he says, because, according to their understanding of the term, it best describes the crimes inflicted upon them. The Khmer term for genocide is pralaay puch sah, as it approximately sounds transliterated from Khmer, and literally means to "destroy from the root" or "kill the seed of the race." Given the Khmer Rouge's maniacal obsession with cleansing society of unwanted elements, it is not hard to see why Cambodians frequently use this particular expression to describe the regime's policies.

But genocide, in an international court, has a strict definition and is notoriously hard to prove. There is little doubt the Khmer Rouge led a campaign to wipe out groups it considered incompatible with the revolution. The question is whether the groups were targeted first and foremost because of their ethnic or religious identities, or because they represented perceived political and economic enemies of the state -- categories that fall outside the crime's definition. The fact that certain ethnic or religious groups suffered disproportionately and sustained severe repression of their practices does not necessarily constitute genocide.

This point is still vigorously debated among academics who study this bloody era in Cambodia's history. "They weren't mowed down because they were Cham. They were mowed down because they resisted and anyone who resisted during that time was killed," says David Chandler, a scholar on the Khmer Rouge and the author of A History of Cambodia. "They were forced to eat pork because they were Cham -- but that's not genocide."

Some observers fear that the genocide charge is being wielded by international powers for political gain. Philip Short, author of Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, a biography of the now deceased Khmer Rouge leader, argues that the term genocide has been bandied around by foreign powers as a "political commodity." Short says that the U.S. government, whose war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s is often believed to have contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, has pushed for genocide to be applied to the regime so it can condemn the crimes and assume a moral high ground, while distancing itself from the circumstances that lead to the horror and terror.

"The Jews were killed in Germany because they were Jews. Not because of any resistance to the Nazis, but because they were considered detritus or scum. In Rwanda, the Hutus killed Tutsis simply because of their racial type," Short says. "But this wasn't the case in Cambodia. This regime was one of the greatest abominations of the 20th century. It's bad enough without now trying to [add] politically motivated charges."

The court's coinciding request for an additional $93 million from donor countries to finance the court over the next two years has also prompted murmurs that ulterior motives lie behind the new charge. "It smacks of a publicity stunt," says Michael Karnavas, the international defense lawyer for one of the accused, Ieng Sary. "It seems like this new charge is a way to show the importance of the tribunal and to help get funding." The court says there is no connection.

Piyamin Yusoh, an enlisted civil party with the tribunal, holds out hope that the genocide charges can draw attention to the persecution his people experienced during the Khmer Rouge's reign. He is the current Muslim leader, or hakim, of Svay Khleang village, the historical heart of Cambodia's minority Muslim community. It was here that the Cham staged a bloody, and unsuccessful, uprising after the Khmer Rouge carried out secret executions of their men. "I'm hoping the tribunal will acknowledge the particular suffering of the Muslim people," Yusoh told me in an interview I did for IRIN News. "We weren't allowed to practice our religion; we were forced to eat pork; our women couldn't wear hijabs. For us, this was humiliating. The Khmer Rouge wanted to annihilate all people who practiced Islam." The Khmer Rouge, he says, tried to "destroy us from the root," referring to what he perceived as genocidal intent.

But, as a participant in the tribunal, Yusoh is an exception -- many victims are unfamiliar with the tribunal and the legal classifications of the Khmer Rouge's crimes. A month before proceedings opened in the Duch trial last February, a survey showing that 85 percent of Cambodians had little or no knowledge of the tribunal was published by the University of California-Berkeley's Human Rights Center. That number would now certainly be lower following the publicity of the initial trial, but it nonetheless reflects the disparity between Cambodia's impoverished countryside and the highly technical legal machine in the capital, Phnom Penh.

For regular Cambodians, the tribunal's most important task may be delivering some sense of justice in the form of concrete results, rather than contributing to endless legal debates that could risk prolonging the process. "Scholars have been debating [whether the Khmer Rouge's crimes constituted genocide] for 20 years," says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a custodian of primary documents on the Khmer Rouge. "For the victims, it meant watching someone take a piece of wood to the back of your husband's head. You can call it smash, crush, or whatever, but it was, most importantly, what people experienced."

That is how Ly Sarfyas, a 66-year-old woman in Svay Khleang, feels about the tribunal. "I would just like to kill them myself," Sarfyas, who was left without any family after the Khmer Rouge's rule, told me. "It's difficult to wait for the court, but it's what we are relying on."

Cambodia: As rickshaws get cycled out, some look back

In Cambodia a decade ago, some 10,000 cyclo drivers – as rickshaws are called here – wheeled along Phnom Penh streets. Today there are fewer than 1,500.

Cyclo driver Porn Eab stands by his machine. Arantxa Cedillo

By Irwin Loy Contributor / January 8, 2010

(CAAI News Media)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia —

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

For six years, Porn Eab has pedaled his rusting rickshaw along Phnom Penh’s narrow lanes and wide avenues. The work leaves him exhausted at the end of the day, when the wiry man parks his rickshaw in an alleyway and beds down for the night on its bucket seat.

“It’s a hard job. It makes my legs tired,” says Mr. Porn while he waits for customers, one hand resting on his cyclo, as the vehicles are known here.

But the cyclo, once an iconic fixture in this bustling Asian city, has seen better days. Some 10,000 cyclo drivers wheeled along Phnom Penh streets a decade ago. Today there are fewer than 1,500 cyclos here, according to a local advocacy group that helps the often-impoverished cyclo drivers.

“People take pity on the cyclo drivers,” says Im Sambath, a project officer with the Cyclo Center. “They think the work is too hard for the drivers, so they are reluctant to take them.”

It’s also a sign of changing times. Although Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the region, its economy has pushed forward over the past decade. The city’s once placid streets have become thick with traffic. “Cambodians want to be modern,” says Mr. Im. “The economy is developing. People want to use faster vehicles because they think the cyclo is slow.”

Indeed, wheeling down Monivong Boulevard, a main thoroughfare that bisects the city, a cyclo is passed by a swarm of motorcycles, trucks, and flashy new cars. Huffing and puffing in the curb lane, traffic whizzing by just inches away, the man pedaling the cyclo is quickly left behind.

And although he would rather be doing anything but this, Roeun Rom, a part-time driver and farmer, says it’s the only way to make money for his children back home in the provinces when the rice isn’t ready to be harvested. “I have no choice,” Mr. Roeun says. “I need to keep driving cyclos.”

Love in the Time of Genocide

John Vink/Magnum Photos

Published: January 8, 2010

(CAAI News Media)

Kim Echlin’s novel “The Disappeared” contains many elements that might doom a lesser book: the deaths of multiple characters (among them the narrator’s baby); an unabashedly effusive love story; a mix of first- and second-person narration; and, as a setting, the bones and ashes of the Cambodian genocide, which claimed approximately 1.7 million lives between 1975 and 1979. Yet the book manages to be spellbinding.

When the narrator, Anne Greves, first meets Serey, the Cambodian man who will remain the object of her desire and unflinching love for decades to come, she is a 16-year-old high school student in Montreal who frequents smoky blues clubs in the company of older girls. Serey, a math student five years her senior and the long-haired, exotic lead singer of a band called No Exit, catches her attention. The two talk, then kiss, and the rest, as they say, is history — though in this case it is truly history: a love story spanning decades and geographies, involving some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

Absence is an initial magnet between the two. For Serey, who is in exile in Canada because the borders of Cambodia have closed, the absence is that of his family, from whom he has had no word for four years. Hanging on to their photograph and to the final, yellowed telegram from his father, Serey carries “a survivor’s pinprick of despair” in his eyes. That his band is called No Exit is no coincidence — Sartre’s play of that name, of course, supplied us with the saying “Hell is other people.” For Anne, the absence is that of her mother, who was crushed by a truck on an icy road when Anne was 2, and also the emotional absence of her kind but inattentive father, an engineer and maker of medical prosthetics, with a penchant for calm and order. “He believed that if he worked hard enough I could be shaped like a mechanical limb,” Anne says. But this turbulent teenager is anything but mechanical, and the sexual desire and eventual love she feels for Serey is raw and unfettered. “I never felt any forbiddenness of race or language or law,” she says. “Everything was animal sensation and music.”

The Cambodian border eventually opens and Serey leaves Montreal — and Anne — to find his family. Eleven years later, believing she has spotted him on television at a political rally, Anne buys a ticket to Phnom Penh and sets out to find him. And she does.

There is something of Marguerite Duras in these pages, something of the lust between the young Western girl and the Asian man that drove novels like “The Lover” and “The North China Lover.” But while Duras focuses mostly on desire, Echlin focuses on absolute love — physical desire coupled with the need to know ­everything about the beloved, to follow him even to the grave and beyond. For Anne, knowing Serey means trying to understand Cambodia, with all its dire secrets. As Serey says to Anne’s father during a brief, uncongenial meeting, “My country is my skin.”

Echlin captures the beauty and horror of Cambodia in equal measure. “The smell of the River Bassac,” Anne says, describing her first day in Phnom Penh, “meltwaters from distant mountains tangled into humid air and garlic and night jasmine and cooking oil and male sweat and female wetness. Corruption loves the darkness.” Of the killing fields, she writes: “Depressions in the earth overgrown with grass. Stupas of skulls and bones. The sky.” And later: “We watched two small boys catching frogs in the gullies of the fields, running past paddy and sugar palm and cloth and bone. The grass had done its work.” Most memorable is the lingering stench of death: “People startle at cigarette smoke and rotting garbage and gasoline,” Echlin writes, “surrogate odors of torture and dead bodies and bombs. A bad smell makes them jump.”

It is fitting, then, that when Anne presses Serey to reveal his nightmares, or to say what he has been doing in Phnom Penh, he deflects her with a compliment: “You smell so good.” Despite their love, these two are still foreign to each other. Borders persist. Boundaries can be stretched only so far. Anne, not of Cambodia, does not carry its smell. She is both savior and outsider, at once revered and reproached. The same can be said of the foreign aid workers, who speak of democracy but are impotent to change anything. “Foreigners come and bark but everything just keeps going the same way,” Serey says.

Worse still are the backpackers, who “drifted through Phnom Penh, explored sex and skulls and temples, talked about going to the beaches in the south for New Year’s.” Much has been said of the banality of evil. Here we are made to think of the banality of indifference.

But if Echlin makes note of the indifferent, her novel is anything but. Love and death pulsate through its pages, interlaced. When Anne speaks of her first kiss with Serey, she writes, “I remember . . . the touch of your hand against my skull.” Not her head — her skull. In Anne Greves’s world, everything is felt to the bone, even love. Her most tender memory of her father involves the study of anatomy, “his strong fingers tracing the lines of muscles and bones on my small foot.” In Phnom Penh, the traced bones become all too real: she meets a man whose job is to count the dead, opening mass graves to “release the bones.” And she befriends a woman called Grandmother Fertilizer, who during the Pol Pot era made fertilizer from human ashes.

It is amid such decay that Anne and Serey conceive their baby girl, who arrives into the world stillborn (this information is revealed early on) — another addition to the list of the disappeared: mothers, fathers, former leaders, all vanish into the “line between life and death.” Later, addressing Serey, Anne says, “I am afraid you will disappear and no one will remember your name.”

This novel is her memorial to him, and to the “nameless missing.” The second-­person narrative is apt here, as it is a very specific “you” — the “you” of song lyrics. In Montreal, Serey sang to Anne of love and longing. This novel is Anne’s song to him.

Briefly, near the book’s middle, Echlin loses this specific “you” and slips into the generic instead, directly asking the reader to imagine the horrors of Cambodia. This device is distracting, turning a mesmerizing ballad into a history lesson. On a few other occasions the prose loses some of its control, the list of atrocities sounding like a United Nations manifesto.

But these faults detract little from this exquisite novel. Early on, when a young Anne complains to her father about having no mother, he tells her, “Think of yourself as a solitaire, . . . the philosopher’s stone.” And like the philosopher’s stone, she creates alchemy. She permits what has been unsaid to be said, and what has been nameless to be named at last.

Dalia Sofer is the author of the novel “The Septembers of Shiraz.”

Cambodians commemorate the end of the 'Killing Fields'

Members of the Rochester Cambodian community, led by Sarasarith Pum Chhum, senior minister of Rochester Cambodian Church of the Nazarene, march Thursday in front of the Olmsted County Government Center in Rochester. Cambodians mark the anniversary of Jan. 7, 1979, the end of Pol Pot's killing fields. Michele Jokinen/Post-Bulletin

By Christina Killion Valdez
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

(CAAI News Media)

Newly married in 1974, Sarasarith Chhum, 57, had everything to look forward to. Unfortunately that newlywed bliss was short-lived.

Months after Chhum and his wife,Vanna, embarked on their life together in their native country of Cambodia, their world was ravaged by misery, starvation and executions during one of the worst genocides of the century.

Yet on Thursday, Chhum was able to look back with gratitude that he, his wife and their young daughter survived the "Killing Fields."

"We saw death in front our eyes day and night. We thought we'd never survive," Chhum said.

About 2 million people, approximately 25 percent of the country's population, died between 1975 and 1979 under Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. On Jan. 7, 1979, Pot was deposed during an invasion by Vietnam.

"We remember Jan. 7, 1979, as the day we live again -- the new resurrection of Cambodia from the killing field," Chhum said.

Commemoration march

To commemorate the occasion, Chhum contacted several other Cambodian families living in Rochester to gather at the city-county Government Center and a couple of Asian grocery stores Thursday in remembrance. While marches are held in Cambodia each year on Jan. 7, Chhum said this was the first time Cambodians stepped out in Rochester.

The demonstrations were important he said so that people never forget and so that new generations understand what happened, he said.

"I remind my children all the time," Chhum said.

Among the dead were Chhum's father, brothers sisters, uncle and wife's uncle, said Chhum who moved to the United States in 1982 with his family.

Remembering the past

Still today, he said he wakes up at night thinking he's living in a dream and cries for those who didn't survive.

Recalling a night spent listening to a man cry out for food, Chhum said that in the morning the man was found dead, holding a spoon, fork and plate.

"I didn't let my wife see that," he said.

Lack of food was an issue for them, too. When Vanna was pregnant with their first child, Chharvina Senevisai, now 32, she labored for nine days without food, Chhum said.

"At the time, a lot of mothers and babies died when giving birth," he said.

And while starvation was a problem, so was lack of education, he said.

Much work was needed to reconstruct the country, but today students in Cambodia can obtain a master's degree or Ph.D., something they couldn't have done before Jan. 7, 1979, he said.

"We are thankful for the 7th of January," Chhum said. "It gave life back to Cambodia and the light of education."