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As Khmer Rouge Trials Come, Center Looks Ahead

A dream of the Cambodian people to have peace and happiness after the fall of the US-backed regime of Lon Nol turned to disappointment and pain in April 1975, as the Khmer Rouge came to power. No Cambodian family survived the tragedy without loss.

For some survivors, the tragic events are still fresh. For others, the memory is too painful to recall. For Youk Chhang and his team at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the collection of records and documents covering the regime’s four years of power is a work in progress.

Created in January 1995, one of the center’s main missions was to advocate for an international tribunal to see former leaders of the regime face justice for the nearly 2 million lives lost under the Khmer Rouge.

“Ten years ago, our target was to push for a tribunal that could bring to trial those who committed atrocities during the regime of Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979,” Youk Chhang said in a recent phone interview with VOA Khmer. “Now there is a court in place.”

The UN-Cambodian hybrid tribunal, known officially as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, came about after marathon negotiations between the government and the UN. The Khmer Rouge tribunal, as it is better known, received close to 1 million pages of documents on the Khmer Rouge, in hard copy and micro-film, from the Documentation Center in 2006.

But with that documentation being used by the courts, the center is looking forward.

The Documentation Center has now established a three-year strategy aimed at promoting memories of the regime and educating the younger generation on its atrocities.

The organization hopes to establish a permanent research center, the Sleuk Rith Institute, named for the dried leaves once used for record-keeping in Cambodia, which will also serve as a memorial, encouraging visitors to remember those who perished. It will be linked to other research institutes in Asia and the world, with construction slated to begin in 2010.

“This is a new turning point for the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, to move from a center that supported for the creation of a tribunal that will seek justice for Khmer Rouge victims to a permanent institute,” Youk Chhang said. “The institute is not just for people in Cambodia, but for the region, and will link to other institutes specializing in the studies of serious violations in the past.”

The institute will be built on top of a former Khmer Rouge prison on the campus of Boeung Trabek high school, not a coincidence, Youk Chhang said.

The Sleuk Rith Institute has received backing from Cambodia’s Ministry of Education.

“It is an institute with resources that enable us to do research, especially not just on the history of Democratic Kampuchea, but other documents related to Cambodia history,” Tun Sa Im, secretary of state for the ministry, told VOA by phone last week.

However, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is not yet ready to store its documents there after the trials are finished; it will be up to judges to decide which documents can go public.

“We welcome any initiative to collect information and documents [related to Khmer Rouge regime] for young people and future generations to have access to for their research,” a tribunal spokesman, Reach Sambath, told VOA by phone last week.

The tribunal is currently holding five former Khmer Rouge leaders for atrocity crimes: ideologue Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan, S-21 chief Kaing Kek Ieu, foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, minister of social affairs.

The Documentation Center also included in its strategy the dissemination of a new book, “A History of Democratic Kampuchea,” written by Khamboly Dy, the first Cambodian author to write in detail on the regime.

The book, which Tun Sa Im called a detailed examination of daily life in the Khmer Rouge regime, will be used as a reference for school curriculum in late 2009.

“The history book has been approved by the ministry for use as a reference document. It is for teachers to refer to when they need to highlight certain aspects during the Khmer Rouge time, for example on how difficult lives were, so that students have a better understanding, as it is broader and more detailed than our current textbooks,” Tun Sa Im said.

As his center continues its work, Youk Chhang said only looking at the killings perpetrated by the regime was to miss many angles. Other aspects of the period include social issues, culture, art, economy, diplomacy and trade.

Still, the Documentation Center will compile and publish a book of names of all those known to have perished under the regime, which it will distribute to every commune in Cambodia. That book, together with other documents, will be digitized and put online.