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War Crimes Trial for Khmer Rouge leader

March 31, 2009

Brendan Brady and Keo Kounila of the LA Times have a story on the war crimes trial of Kaing Kev Lev, also known as Duch, the head of Tuol Sleng prison when the Khmer Rouge were in charge of Cambodia. According to the prosecutors, Duch presided over a prison where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed.

The attempts by the nation of Cambodia to deal with the Khmer Rouge legacy have been hampered by the passage of time and the overall lack of familiarity of the nation’s people about the rule of Pol Pot:

Half of the population is under 20 and did not live under the Khmer Rouge. Much of the younger generation is unfamiliar with the details of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities — an ignorance compounded by the lack of Khmer Rouge history in school.

More than 80% of the population lives in rural areas, and even for most of those who survived the regime’s three-year rule, the tribunal in Phnom Penh is a distant, even if welcome, phenomenon. Unlike other international war crimes courts, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has not had community-based truth and reconciliation committees to extend its reach to the population.

But the court may now be finding more of an audience.

Alexander Hinton, author of “Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide,” said the start of substantive hearings that include witness testimony “has absolutely made the tribunal more relevant.”

“This is broadcasting on TV and radio — the whole countryside can hear about it,” he said. “This will go out to those kids who still haven’t heard about it. Unless the tribunal reaches those people (in rural areas), it won’t have met its goals.”

The Khmer regime lasted less than four years and resulted in the death of something like 1.7 million people. (If you’ve never seen the movie, “The Killing Fields”, it’s a somber but revealing look at that time.) It’s hard to comprehend that any process could help a people or a nation reconcile that kind of catastrophe. Even harder when the crimes were committed by one segment of the population against another, rather than coming from an external threat. But the application of a dispassionate method of truth-seeking, if that is at all possible under the circumstances and after the passage of so much time, represents an opportunity both to inform the country and the world about the details of that horrible time as well as reminding us, as if we needed more evidence, of the price that is paid when the international community ignores political violence and humanitarian tragedy…be it in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan or anywhere.

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