Working together with famed war photographer, Richard Butler, who was taking a break from nearly two straight years in combat in Africa and Iraq, we followed up on Khmer Rouge (KR) leads around Phnom Penh.
“DCCAM maintains an archive of three kinds of documentation. These are paper, genocide sites, and testimonies,” explained Youk Chang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DCCAM).
He went on to say that while victim testimonies were relatively easy to come by, to date only one man had confessed to having committed five murders.
“We keep these archives in order to preserve history, and to be used in the KR Tribunals,” he told us.
We were sitting at a long conference table in the DCCAM offices, near the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. Finally, my colleague Richard would get to ask the question he saw as key in the upcoming KR related court proceedings.
“Will this be a trial or a tribunal?” asked Richard.
The newspapers had been liberally switching back and forth calling it both and neither. The difference that Richard pointed out to me was that a tribunal may not have the right to sentence anyone.
“Whether it is a trial or a tribunal is not for us to decide. That is a legal question which should be directed at the courts,” answered Youk Chang.
Youk Chang felt that he would be over-stepping his authority or losing his non-partisan position if he made a legal interpretation. “We don’t analyze data here. We only record and store data,” he went on to say. “Both sides, defense and prosecution, are welcome to use the materials stored in the archive.”
“We maintain 600,000 documents, related to 19,521 mass graves, 194 prisons, and 80 memorial sites. Additionally, we have interviewed 30,000 people. We focus on oral history of the KR, and allow this to stand-alone. We don’t interpret it. We don’t do the prosecutor’s job for them.”
The one area of the legal proceedings that Youk Chang was willing to explain, however, was that the defense would be Khmer, but prosecutors would be a mix of Khmer and foreigners.
According to Youk Chang, DCCAM was supported by donations from the USA, France, Sweden, and a number of other countries. “The king also gave us some funding,” he said.
The history of the archives was a fascinating tour through the history of political intrigue which plagues Cambodia’s past.
“The KR didn’t destroy the Lon Nol archive, and we still have it. The KR used the archives to investigate people from Lon Nol era. They even used the archives to find teachers and students, in school photos, and kill them. The Vietnamese used the documents to find and kill low level KR.”
“And we use documents to prove genocide. KR used the documents to demonstrate the involvement of the KGB, CIA, and Vietnamese, in Cambodia. These questions came up in the interrogations. They would ask you if you were an agent for the CIA, KGB, or Vietnamese. They would torture you until you said yes. Then they would kill you. If all the confessions were true the CIA had a huge number of agents in Cambodia, many of them under the age of fifteen. They were told that if they confessed they would be permitted to live. But then they were killed.”
When asked if everyone respected DCCAM’s neutrality, he had this to say: “The KR used to threaten us. I used to get death threats all the time, but not in recent times. I think they have just accepted that we aren’t going anywhere.”
Richard asked if there had been revenge attacks, against former KR.
“Yes, in 1980 to 1983 there were. But mostly low rank and file KR were killed.”
As someone who had lot family members in during the KR regime, he had this to say: “It would be difficult for me, after twenty eight years, to go and slap a KR, unless he acted very arrogantly. With human rights education, news and internet, people have opened their eyes.” He suggested people who expressed regret probably wouldn’t be condemned by the average Khmer.
“Bun Chea,” the former KR leader who was convicted of the murder of three backpackers in 1994, “did not express any kind of regret. So, people were angry,” explained Youk Chang.
Richard wouldn’t let go of the idea of revenge killing. “Every week the papers have stories of entire streets erupting in violence, and slaughtering a single victim accused of having committed a crime, such as theft.”
In more than one instance the man was then doused with petrol and lighted on fire. In almost all of these incidents, by the time the police arrived, the man was either dead or so horribly mutilated that he died soon after. I personally had seen a street erupt in violence three times. And in one incident in front of my house, when I asked why the whole street had attacked the man they said because he looked like someone who had stolen something.
I could understand Richard’s inability to let this line of questioning go. With this type of violence lurking behind every Khmer smile, how in the world were the KR able to subjugate them, torture them, and kill their loved ones? And how were Khmers, the most polite people in the world, capable of being KR and murdering a quarter of their own population? Then given the violent history of Khmers during the KR period, and given the violence in Cambodia today, how could torturers and victims live side by side?
Youk Chang’s answer was both chilling and revealing. “My sister died under the KR. But I know that if I kill Nung Chea I would be guilty.”
As amazing as it was that Khmers weren’t taking up arms against their former oppressors, it was also amazing that only two KR were in jail. These included Mok, Commander and Chief of the KR, and Duch, who was the commandant of S21 prison.
Many people expect, or even hope that the upcoming legal proceedings will result in former KR perpetrators being sentenced. But, the tribunals or trials are complicated because in 1994 the government gave amnesty to the KR who came in from the jungle.
“Until that time they were still living in jungle strong holds, especially in Pailin, where they are still located today,” explained Youk Chang.