PHNOM PENH - Cambodian-American victims of the Khmer Rouge who filed with the court in Cambodia met in Virginia last week to get updates from the UN-backed trials of three former regime leaders.
Among them was Chea Mary, who smiled as she told those gathered that she felt she had become a part of history by seeking justice at the tribunal.
“We have to stand up and speak out on what we want in terms of justice for our lost members,” she told some 30 people who had gathered in Fairfax, Va., referring to family, friends and loved ones who did not survive the Khmer Rouge. “Imagine how afraid they were before being executed. I’ve never forgotten any of them.”
Chea Mary was among several thousand people who filed complainants to the court, which allows such filings as part of key mandate for national reconciliation. She is also among those who have been accepted as a civil party participant in the trial of three regime leaders—Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary—for atrocity crimes.
She and more than 170 others in the US had help in their filings from the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia, a US-based organization that helps Cambodians cope with mental health issues stemming from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge and years of strife that followed.
“We’re very excited that her testimony got accepted, as well as other survivors that submitted their claims via ASRIC,” said Nou Leakhena, head of the institute. “So she is here to share her experience, why she filed, what she is hoping to find in terms of justice, and calling other survivors to join in this continued fight for justice.”
Like many survivors who fled Cambodia for the US, Chea Mary suffers continued psychological distress, including depression. She said she has lost trust in people around her.
“That was because I thought everything was gloomy,” she said. “I saw people as bad people who were unkind to me. I wondered why there was no humanity, and why they killed innocent people. I hated everybody.” That has changed somewhat, she said.
Last week’s meeting comes as a sense of new urgency has come to the tribunal. The court is low on funding, and the leaders are aging. Former foreign affairs minister Ieng Sary has spent much time in the hospital lately. His wife, Ieng Thirith, has been remanded to house arrest, found mentally unfit to stand trial.
Nushin Sarkarati, a US-based lawyer representing some of the survivors here, said that she wants to make sure at least one of them is able to testify in Cambodia.
“The court, because of the problems with Ieng Sary’s health, is trying to move as efficiently as possible and hear only the most essential witnesses and civil parties,” she said. “But we are hopeful that at least one Cambodian from the diaspora will get to participate directly.”
Chea Mary said the proceedings at the court have been slow to heal her wounds, but they have helped.
“After filing my complaint, I can now sleep better,” she told the gathering in Virginia. “I have a feeling that I have achieved some of my wishes. Even though I cannot complete forget it, I feel a huge relief.”