Ordinary Cambodians speak up

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Cambodia, 2004 - After 27 years of waiting, Cambodia and the international community are at loggerheads over how to try those who led the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.

But while the politicians spar with the United Nations on how to conduct the trial, average Cambodians have had little say in the process. Local groups are trying to change that by organizing a series of public forums, where for the first time in three decades of war, Cambodians feel safe to speak of the atrocities.

Also for the first time, survivors of the starvation, overwork and mass killings were able to face those responsible for their misery. Gathered in a small meeting room in Southwest Cambodia, survivors and soldiers alike await their turn at the microphone.

One survivor, Em Poung, can barely muster the strength to speak about what happened to her during the Khmer Rouge regime. She later describes how she survived the Khmer Rouge's brutal schemes. "I was moved from my original village to come here," she says. "My husband and three children were killed in 1977. I remain alone. One of my children was killed when she stepped on a land mine. Another was shot for picking her own fruit. And my son was shot trying to escape. Then they called me to work but I was worried they would kill me, so I fled to the jungle. I thought it would be better to die in the jungle than to die by their hands."

Em Poung says she slept in the trees and lived on whatever fruits and vegetables she could find in the jungle. "After a while, I could not stand up very easily because I was skin and bones. In the whole of my life, I do not know if I ever will forget these things. I have so much to say, but I don't feel there is enough time left in my life to say it all now."

At the forum, a few Khmer Rouge soldiers say they are not responsible for what happened to people like Em Poung, that they were merely following orders from their leaders. Em Poung could barely stomach their logic. "So this means my husband died alone for no reason? This means my children died alone for no reason? I want someone o answer my question. I am not afraid of dying now. I am old. But we need to be fair"

Forum organizers said it is people like Em Poung who most need information about what kind of trial might take place.

Several hours from Cambodia's capitol, she says she receives very little information. She spends most of her days now selling cakes on the street to earn her living. "I don't know what the government will do. But they must know we still have pain in our hearts, even when we sleep. We don't know what to do with it. Luckily, this forum was close to me, so I can come and say some of these things. When I see people now with children living together with happiness, I am reminded, and I can not stop my tears." "I must stop now," she says after a pause. "I am hungry."

Khong Ny is a former Khmer Rouge soldier who also attended the forum. In his mind, national reconciliation means those who left the movement should give something back to society. For the last five years, Khong Ny has worked at a vocational training organization to help rebuild a province that was torn apart by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s.

Khong Ny's organization holds a graduation ceremony each year where children sing of community pride. We sit next to one another during the ceremony, and later, he tells me about how he first joined the Khmer Rouge movement.

"In 1977, when the Vietnamese army came to fight against the Khmer Rouge, I was sent to fight them," he recalls. "My mother, my uncle and my great uncle had already been evacuated from Phnom Penh to a (nearby village). Then they were killed by the Khmer Rouge . During that time, the educated people were killed, and they left the ignorant people like me to fight. High-ranking authorities told the local leaders to kill the people, and then they came and killed the local leaders."

I ask him how it is possible he joined an organization that killed people in such a way. "Because they persuaded us: 'How can you stand by and not join the movement? We must fight the Vietnamese, who are coming to steal our territory!' they told us."

I ask him what he thought of Em Poung and what she said at the forum. "I think that not only her but most Cambodian people who underwent the regime, they all have strong revenge against Khmer Rouge."

"I saw for myself at that time what was happening, but I didn't know how to stop it. We couldn't do anything at that time, even though we knew it was wrong. We couldn't ask for help from anybody. It was a communist regime. That woman, when she cried, I know she has had a lot of suffering. But there was nothing I could do for her then."

I ask him if he feels any guilt. "If I am accused, I won't refuse to go to court. I am not a coward. As a man, if I have done something wrong, I bear responsibility for that."

Khong Ny says the forum is a good place to start, but it will take a long time for the truth to be known about the Khmer Rouge, if ever. "If we want to talk about the Khmer Rouge regime, it takes more than one day to talk about that. If we used a book with one hundred pages, it wouldn't be enough to write down everything that happened."

It's likely that low-ranking soldiers like Khong Ny would not face a Khmer Rouge trial. Besides, he says he left the movement for good in the late 1980s after a tragic accident in the jungle. "I was laying land mines for the Khmer Rouge. But other Khmer Rouge soldiers also were laying mines. So we didn't know who was laying mines where. So one day, I stepped on a mine. I was a victim of my own soldiers' doings."

"I lost everything when I lost my leg. But I could never have imagined what I would be doing today. Now I have a new life. I am happy because I can help people. Because I can stop killing my people."

"Now I am responsible for potable water around the province. I have so far built more than 100 wells around the province. Every village in this province has my wells. Now, the war is over, so I want to contribute what I can to my country."

Both Khong Ny and Em Poung say they can barely fathom how much time it would take to say everything that needs to be said. And it's likely they will have little say in how a trial eventually is set up. But at least they're talking, forum organizers said. At least they finally have a chance to let the healing process begin.

* * * * *