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Cambodia Remembers the Khmer Rouge - 2004-09-03

Cambodia's new government has promised to move swiftly to finally set up a tribunal to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the radical Marxist group responsible for the deaths of close to two million Cambodians in the 1970's. VOA's Sonja Pace looks back at the genocide and efforts to bring at least some of those responsible to justice.

Walking on the gravel path here, it is hard to imagine the terror of the past, when the Khmer Rouge set up one of their most notorious prisons, turning a high school in Phnom Penh into "Security Office 21," better known now as simply Tuol Sleng.

Tuol Sleng has since been turned into a museum to commemorate the genocide and to show those who pass through it now what once happened here. Our guide is 35-year old Sok Chi Vi.

The school buildings were turned into cells, interrogation rooms and torture chambers. Even the courtyard was used to torture anyone the paranoid Khmer Rouge suspected of even the slightest opposition to the extreme communist ideology they were intent on imposing on Cambodia. Between April 1975 and January 1979 more than 14,000 people passed through these gates before being executed.

Only seven prisoners are known to have escaped death at Tuol Sleng. Vann Nath is one of them.

Like so many others, Vann Nath says he has no idea why he was arrested. He was detained in December of 1977 in his hometown of Battambang in the northwest of the country. A week later he was transferred to Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh.

Treatment of prisoners at Tuol Sleng has been well documented, much of it in meticulous records kept by the Khmer Rouge themselves. Routine torture included beatings, electric shocks or hanging victims upside down. Every day life meant being shackled, confined in tiny cells and slowly starved to death. Thousands sent to Tuol Sleng disappeared into mass graves that came to be known as the "killing fields."

Vann Nath doesn't want to talk about his ordeal: the leg shackles, the constant hunger. But there is a detailed account of what he went through in his 1998 book, "A Cambodian Prison Portrait."

What in the end probably saved Vann Nath's life was the fact that he was a painter and the prison commander ordered him to paint a portrait of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot.

The torture at Tuol Sleng ended when Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979.

While the Khmer Rouge were in power, close to two million Cambodians died through torture, execution, starvation and untreated illnesses.

Youk Chhang was 14 when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. He was imprisoned for several weeks where he was beaten and tortured. His crime was picking water grass for his sister to eat. Youk Chhang now heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has been instrumental in documenting the crimes by the Khmer Rouge.

"The Center has two objectives, to preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge period and to support the legal process to seek justice for those who survived the Khmer Rouge period," says Mr. Chhang. "We have collected almost 600,000 documents, we identified over 19,521 mass graves all over the place."

Youk Chhang says the center has more than enough information to help a tribunal bring the surviving Khmer Rouge members to justice.

Justice has been long in coming. Even though the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, remnants of the movement collapsed only after their leader, Pol Pot died in 1998. The remaining Khmer Rouge leaders live freely in Cambodia today - none of them has publicly expressed remorse for their actions and none has been brought to justice.

Negotiations with the United Nations about setting up a tribunal dragged on for years and were only finalized last year. Inconclusive national elections in 2003 and the lack of a government until just recently further held up progress.

A few weeks ago, however, the new cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to speed up the process.

Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh says there have been other hurdles to establishing a tribunal. One problem is the past lives of some current Cambodian political leaders.

"And, here some of our rulers [were] associated with the Khmer Rouge, you see. And who knows when you seek truth, that kind of search could lead to some stories that affect some of our current rulers," he says.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is one example. He was a Khmer Rouge member from 1970 until he fled to Vietnam in 1977. He returned home with the Vietnamese invasion and was foreign minister in the Vietnamese-backed government before becoming prime minister.

His government insists the tribunal will be held and that no one will escape justice.

While politicians have negotiated, average Cambodians have gone on with their lives.

Our guide at the genocide museum, Sok Chi-Vi says three members of her family perished under Pol Pot. She fled with her mother and a sister to Vietnam. "For me, I don't know so I try to forget everything that happened to me," she says.

Sok Chi-Vi lives in Phnom Penh. She is married and has two children.

Vann Nath worked to establish the Genocide Museum in the Tuol Sleng prison.

He says the Cambodian people and the international community must know what happened at Tuol Sleng.

He now lives with his family behind a restaurant he owns in Phnom Penh.

Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center says it is vital to learn from the past. He says documenting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge is part of the process.

"It's something that had to be done," he adds. "It's something to remember about closure about we're moving on with our life, about beyond survival."

Youk Chhang believes bringing those responsible for the Khmer Rouge crimes to justice, even decades after the fact, can ease peoples' minds and can serve as a warning to political figures that no one is above the law.