From a political viewpoint this is an interesting time to be in Cambodia – with “Duch” (pronounced “doik”) , the director of the largest Khmer Rouge interrogation and torture center “Tuol Sleng” or S21, finally having received a verdict – more than 30 years after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and several other high ranking Khmer Rouge officials have already died of natural causes, without having had to face a court for what they have done to their own people.
For those of you not familiar with the details about the KR regime: the KR were obsessed with the idea of “agricultural communism” – in its extremest form. They were in power for about 4 years between 1975 and 1979 – with civil war raging for many years before and after that. Between 1.8 and 2 million people were killed during that time – through individual and mass executions, torture, starvation and exhaustion.
The KR took power on April 17th and within hours forced everybody to leave the cities, intentionally separating children from their families and sending everybody to labor camps across the country. (People were lied to and told they had to leave only for a couple of days, as the Americans are about to bomb the cities – little did they know that many of them were never to see any of their family members alive again.)
The KR executed everybody who looked or behaved “intellectual” or “rich” or “urban” in the slightest way (in other words: capable of starting or participating in a counterrevolution…) – countless people and their families were killed for wearing glasses or being overweight. People were not allowed to have contact with other family members, and they were forced to eat in huge dining halls, never in small groups. Falling in love was a deadly sin – people were immediately executed when suspected of that. Money, clocks, religion, culture was abolished, in order to start a new “time”, Year Zero.
We had a guide at the National Museum in Phnom Penh who was 7 years old when it all happened. She was forced to walk for 3 months from Phnom Penh to Battambang, with people dying left and right from exhaustion and undernourishment on that journey. And she had to watch the KR kill her father and one of her brothers. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and the Khmer Rouge fell, she walked back to Phnom Penh to find her home occupied by squatters. It was first-come first-served.
The Cambodian people are silently outraged by the fact that it has taken so long for Duch to have to face the court and that now he has been sentenced to “only 19 years” of prison – after having admitted his responsibility for killing thousands and thousands of men, women and children. Duch was personally responsible for at least 14.000 people being sent to the killing fields – and in order to save bullets he ordered his soldiers to kill babies by smashing them into a tree.
Below you can see a pile of clothes from Duch’s victims; people had to take their clothes off for their march into the killing fields so that they could be reused.
So – spending time in prison with the hope of walking the streets as a free man with age 86 is the “just” punishment for that?
Why – somebody tell me WHY – this man should not be in prison for life?
The Khmer Rouge era is over – definitively. But some people who lived through it are still scared to talk about the Khmer Rouge period, as former Khmer Rough soldiers are a part of today’s government and former executioners live undisturbed among “normal” people in villages – causing fear and uncertainty for the village inhabitants. Our guide at Tuol Sleng lowered her voice when she told us that she is scared of them. There are also dubious and corrupt government initiatives and programs going on – and it is possible that abuse and terror is still happening.
After a couple of days in Phnom Penh I was actually surprised not to see more streetchildren and homeless people – and I have now learned that the government has started a “program” under which it regularlysweeps children and homeless people of the streets and sends them to a “reeducation camp” nearby. This camp is not accessible, closed to the public and UN watchers can only visit once a month at a preannounced time.
Not good. Not good at all.