Cambodia's Day in Court

Five ex-leaders of the Khmer Rouge go on trial, and Cambodia's youth get a chance to learn the truth about an era kept secret for the last 30 years.

khieu_305 Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan (C) at a pre-trial public hearing, Feb. 27, 2009.
Photo: AFP/Pool/Tang Chhin Sothy

PHNOM PENH—On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge troops “liberated” Cambodia from the Khmer Republic led by president Lon Nol.

Huge crowds lined the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh, welcoming the Khmer Rouge army. Some waved white flags, expressing more enthusiasm than fear—believing that war in Cambodia was finally over.

“City-dwellers queued along the pavement, applauding the soldiers and expecting victory and peace. The soldiers smiled and didn’t take any actions against the people, so we trusted them,” one witness recalls.

“When they entered the city,” says another, “the people cheered, and Khmer National Radio broadcast songs of victory.”

Kem Sokha, now president of the Human Rights Party, in Cambodia, was 22 and a law student at the time.

He wanted a change of regime because he saw too much corruption in what was then the Khmer Republic. He says that he, along with countless other Cambodians, welcomed the Khmer Rouge soldiers.

“I was a student at the law school. At the time, I was demanding freedom and social justice and fighting against corruption in society. I wanted a change. So at that moment, I thought this new group would be for the better,” Kem Sokha says.

The welcome was short-lived.

Less than 24 hours after they marched through the city, Khmer Rouge troops began to evacuate Phnom Penh.

“The began forcing people to leave the capital,” one witness says. “Then we began hastily gathering up some belongings. They told us to take something with us and walk straight out without returning.”

“Many intellectuals were executed right away. We saw many dead bodies along the way as we marched out from the capital.

Pol Pot regime

More Cambodians were killed in the years that followed under a government that called the country Democratic Kampuchea—but that became known to the world as the Pol Pot regime.

“One of my children was killed in Prek Tamak and so was my husband,” one woman recalls. “My younger brother was accused of being a thief ... Then he was beaten every night."

"My mother was so fatigued ... She told me that she was dying and [said], ‘Go with your family, and try to go back to our hometown.’ We didn’t return home, and then my younger brother was executed.”

Swift destruction

From April 17, 1975 to Jan. 7, 1979, Cambodia was subjected to one of the swiftest and most destructive revolutions in world history. No one was untouched.

In less than four years, as many as 2 million Cambodians—or one in four—died from overwork, malnutrition, suicide, execution, or lack of medical care.

All the executions and most of the other deaths can be traced directly to the policies imposed on the people of Cambodia by the Communist Party of Kampuchea and led from the shadows, in the name of "Angkar Padevat," by Pol Pot.

And in tiny, impoverished Cambodia, the horror unfolded largely unnoticed by the outside world.

Not taught

Many young Cambodians now know little about the Khmer Rouge era, because the government hasn’t allowed Khmer Rouge history into the national curriculum.

Eng Sodavy, a student at Boeung Trabaek High School, says Khmer Rouge history was hardly taught.

“I was told little about the Pol Pot time. I knew about it not from my studies, but from elderly people,” Eng Sodavy says.

“I want to know more about what difficulties people encountered and how much struggle they endured. I seem [only] to have heard of killings during the Pol Pot regime.”

The exclusion of Khmer Rouge history from schools partly reflects political conflicts, says Sim Soriya, deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

He says lessons about the Khmer Rouge were at first incorporated into textbooks but were later removed for political reasons.

Youths note tribunal

But students have taken note of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which will try former Khmer Rouge leaders.

Teacher Sambo Manara said the creation of the ECCC to try former Khmer Rouge leaders has attracted his students’ attention.

“When the courts were established, there seemed to be some … momentum in the students’ curiosity,” he says.

“In particular, they became extremely interested because they had never before believed” accounts of what had happened during the Khmer Rouge regime, he says. “They began to learn.”

Five on trial

After years of negotiations, the United Nations and the Cambodian government agreed in 2005 to set up the ECCC.

On July 3, 2006, 17 Cambodian and eight international judges were selected to preside over the proceedings of former Khmer Rouge leaders.

The long delay saw Pol Pot himself die, in 1998, before he could face trial.

His lieutenant Ta Mok, known as “The Butcher,” died a prisoner in July 2006. Other top leaders of the regime—Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, and Nuon Chea—are alive but elderly.

Only five top Khmer Rouge leaders are expected to face trial. First in the dock is Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch.

He has already admitted and apologized for his role in the deaths of thousands of Cambodians as head of Phnom Penh's notorious S-21 torture center.

His trial opens Monday, March 30.

This segment was first in a series by RFA's Khmer service, broadcast ahead of the trials that will bring to justice top leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Written by Sok Ry Som and Maly Leng with David Chandler as historical consultant. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery.


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