Gathering at a Buddhist temple in the US state of Maryland over the weekend, a group of Khmer Rouge survivors sobbed as they tried to recall their suffering under the regime and expressed doubts over whether a UN-backed court could deliver enough justice for them.
There were survivors like 67-year-old Ty Kasem, who wore sunglasses to conceal his tears as he recalled leaving his home in Phnom Penh with a wife who had just given birth, to his fifth child, a week earlier. He pretended to be a fool, he said, to avoid suspicion from the guerrillas who had overrun the capital.
And like Keo Veasna, 63, whose name means Lucky, and who successfully hid his background as a soldier from the rebels. He was fortunate enough to escape a Khmer Rouge detention center, after a brief internment, and to escape, on several occasions, death from the regime, who suspected him of Lon Nol loyalties.
Sunday’s meeting, at Buddhikaram pagoda, brought around 30 people and was organized by Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia in collaboration with Cambodian-American Association for Democracy and Human Rights.
Corruption, scandal and restriction of prosecution, to only five suspects so far, have made participants doubt the UN-backed tribunal will bring a satisfying justice to the regime that saw the death of as many as 2 million Cambodians and destroyed the fabric of the country.
The only trial the tribunal has so far managed to muster is that of prison chief Duch, who was arrested in 1999 and held in a Cambodian military prison until he was turned over to the tribunal. Kaing Kek Iev, his real name, 66, faces atrocity crimes charges for his role administering two prisons and an execution site and overseeing the deaths of 12,380 people. That trial began in March, nearly three years after the tribunal was established.
Four more senior leaders are in custody, but Cambodian judges and political leaders have been resistant to indicting more, even though an international prosecutor motioned earlier this year to charge six more.
“There should not be a restriction,” said Tun Sovan, a participant of Sunday’s meeting. “There should be more investigation to uncover more Khmer Rouge leaders. There were not only five of them.”
Sunday’s pagoda gathering was a part of Applied Social Research’s attempts to give survivors a chance to speak about their grief, and to turn that into documentation for upcoming trials in Cambodia. The tribunal provides an opportunity for victims to file complaints.
Applied Social Research believes this is a step toward healing the trauma caused by the Khmer Rouge, which has ripple effects through Cambodian communities today.
But news of the tribunal has cast some doubts as to whether the trials by themselves will be enough.
“Because there are news accounts out there and people have seen through the news that there have been allegations of corruption, sure most people that are following the news have questions about whether these allegations are true,” Julie Sheker, a legal adviser for the research institute, told VOA Khmer after the meeting. “But I think that what we saw today was an interest in the court activities and an interest in being involved and a hope that the court will do justice for the Cambodian people.”