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Cambodia: Confronting Its Past

Cambodia, News

Editor's Note: This week, and 30 years in the waiting, an international tribunal was convened in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to try leaders of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the death of an estimated 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s. In 2002, reporter Amanda Pike traveled to Cambodia in search of the infamous leaders and to find out what happens to a country where perpetrators of a genocide still live side by side with the families of their victims. She found the second most powerful man in the former regime, Nuon Chea, known to some as "Pol Pot's Shadow," living deep in the country and showing little remorse. In the dispatch below, Pike explains why she doubted that he and others would ever be brought to trial in a country where the prime minister once urged everyone to simply "dig a hole and bury the past."

The first hearing in the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal officially began this week -- 30 years after the collapse of the Pol Pot regime, which was responsible for the deaths of almost a quarter of the Cambodian population.

The first defendant to face charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes is Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Duch." As the director of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison and torture center in Phnom Penh, Duch was not a high-ranking leader, but he is believed to have overseen the torture and execution of an estimated 14,000 men, women and children between 1975 and 1979.

In 2002, most of Pol Pot's senior cadre were still living freely among the relatives of the estimated 2 million people who died during their regime.

When I traveled to Cambodia nearly seven years ago to film the FRONTLINE/World story "Pol Pot's Shadow," the possibility of a trial or public reckoning seemed remote. The U.N. had just pulled out of talks to form a tribunal after four years of frustrating negotiations with the Cambodian government, declaring that a fair and impartial trial in Cambodia would be impossible.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is himself a former Khmer Rouge member, though he has never been accused of any war crimes. In 2002, most of Pol Pot's senior cadre were still living freely among the relatives of the estimated 2 million people who died during their regime.

I never met Duch. At that time he was one of only two former Khmer Rouge officials in prison. He had been discovered on the Thai border in 1999 working as a member of a Christian aid organization. To this day, he is the only member of the regime who has ever confessed to any wrongdoing, albeit claiming that he was merely acting under orders. Another Khmer Rouge leader, General Ta Mok, known as "the butcher," was also in prison with Duch, although he died in 2006 before ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.

After weeks of negotiations, I was able to interview Pol Pot's second in command, Nuon Chea, who was living with his wife in a simple two-room shack in the woods near the Thai border. He was more interested in talking about his poor health and his esteem for George Washington than discussing his role in the Cambodian genocide. Nuon Chea calmly told me he would appear before a tribunal -- should one ever take place -- but he consistently denied any responsibility for the deaths that occurred on his watch.

In the fall of 2007, after Cambodia and the U.N. finally agreed upon a trial accord, the first Khmer Rouge indictments were handed down. Not long after, a helicopter landed in the clearing by Nuon Chea's house and flew him back to the capital. He is now in jail awaiting trial along with three other senior members of Pol Pot's inner circle-- former Khmer Rouge President Kheiu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, the former Minister of Social Affairs.

Their trials aren't slated to begin until 2010 and there are concerns about their health -- all four defendants are over seventy-five. While the U.N. prosecutor Robert Petit has been pushing to bring more people before the court, his Cambodian counterpart Chea Leang has objected that additional indictments aren't necessary and might cause unrest.

Despite its flaws, many hope that the tribunal will finally allow Cambodia to write its own official history of the Khmer Rouge era.

Just getting to this stage has been a long and fraught process, as the tribunal has been plagued by massive cost overruns, allegations of corruption and concerns about government interference. One of the original stalling points for the U.N. to endorse the trial was a concern about whether the corruption-ridden Cambodian legal system -- which was itself decimated by the Khmer Rouge -- was up to the challenge. In the city of Battambang in the northwest of the country, I interviewed a local judge, Nil Nonn, about some of the problems that the Cambodian legal system faced.

He admitted that he took money from the people who appeared before his court, but only after their trials were over. He said there was no other way to survive on his salary of $30 a month. He is now the chief judge presiding over the Khmer Rouge Trial Chamber.

Despite its flaws, many hope that the tribunal will finally allow Cambodia to write its own official history of the Khmer Rouge era. Pol Pot and his circle so completely crippled the country, and the regime was so shrouded in secrecy, that there is still a lot of confusion in Cambodia over what exactly occurred during that time and who was responsible.

I spoke with many young Cambodians who said they didn't believe their parents' stories of the hardships and atrocities. Others said they had heard that the U.S. or Vietnam were ultimately responsible. Even Chea Sopheara, the curator of the Tuol Sleng Museum on the grounds of the former death camp, said his sons openly doubted that so many could have died so horrifically and accused him of spinning nightmarish tales.

In a recent survey conducted by the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley, 75 percent of Cambodians polled said they would like to learn more about the Khmer Rouge era. However, 85 percent of those polled said they had little to no knowledge of the ongoing trial.