On July 26, 2010, the verdict was pronounced. Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was found guilty of the torture and killing of more than 12,000 Cambodians during his directorship of the Tuol Sleng prison from 1975 – 1979. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a patched-together tribunal made up of Cambodian and international judges sentenced Duch to 35 years in prison minus the 19 he has already served while awaiting trial.
Duch is the only one of the still-alive leaders in the Khmer Rouge who has admitted any guilt in what happened thirty years ago, yet even though he expresses remorse, he says that he had no choice but to obey. He was only one cog in a giant wheel.
Responsible world leaders care. It is important for nations to be held accountable for the crimes of their leaders. It is really the only way that a nation can come to grips with its past and move on to a future somewhat free of the encumbrances of its past. Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, together with the United Nations, was instrumental in bringing about the tribunals, the first of which is now over.
Yet, the Cambodian people themselves are less invested in the trial of Duch or any of the other Khmer Rouge leaders. A couple of weeks ago, I attended an excellent presentation by two of the American lawyers who were involved in long-running tribunal that convicted Duch. When the time came for questions from the audience which consisted almost exclusively of Cambodians who had fled the Khmer Rouge, it was like the presenters and the people to whom they were presenting were not on the same page at all! The two lawyers gave a top-down big-picture approach while the Cambodians, well-educated and articulate (including several Buddhist monks), saw the trial as irrelevant because it did not address the crimes of the people against each other. The disconnect between what the trial was about and how the Cambodians felt about the verdict was profound.
For the past seven years, I have been working with a Cambodian man to write his memoir of living under the Khmer Rouge in Battambang Province. Chhalith Ou was twelve years old when Battambang City was evacuated and sixteen when he and his family reunited to make one of the most harrowing escapes ever recorded. His story gives a graphic representation of why the Cambodian people do not care about Duch and the upcoming trials in “Case Two.” These trials seem far removed from what happened to the people themselves. They ask: Where is the justice for what happened to my family?
I understand the need for these trials, as flawed as they are, because every nation must be held accountable for what their leaders have done. Yet, after working with Chhalith, I understand the point of view of the people also. The disconnect between the two is agonizing for those people in Cambodia and those who have fled to other countries who cannot purge from themselves the memories of what happened to them personally and to their families and friends.