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In Lowell, Cambodians Expect More from Tribunal

Cambodian-Americans gathered at Middlesex Community College, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to talk about Khmer Rouge issues.
Cambodian-Americans gathered at Middlesex Community College, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to talk about Khmer Rouge issues.

Lowell, Mass., has one of the largest Cambodian populations in the US. Nearly 40,000 Cambodians live here, and many of them were also victims of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians here have followed the Khmer Rouge tribunal with much interest, and on a recent Saturday, nearly 50 of them gathered to discuss more work of the UN-backed court.

They gathered at Middlesex Community College for a discussion called “From Victims to Witnesses,” which was put on by the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia, where they learned updates from the Khmer Rouge tribunal and discussed the impact of the regime.

The aim of the discussion was to promote healing in a community that suffers from trauma and other psychological distresses even more than 35 years after the Khmer Rouge took power.

Fear, distress and mistrust are all problems faced by survivors of the Khmer Rouge, and the goal of the discussion was to promote healing through speaking out, whether in their own communities or as participants in the Khmer Rouge court.

The tribunal is preparing for Case 002, a trial of four senior leaders: Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith. Kaing Kek Iev, the former prison chief better known as Duch, could also be tried for general Khmer Rouge atrocities, even though he has already been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role as the head of Tuol Sleng prison.

The court allows participation from victims, which could help.

“Problematic experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime still have impact on their feelings,” said Nou Leakhena, head of ASRIC and a sociologist. “These brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts of ours don’t know that they have these wounds. The wounds plus their everyday hard lives create a society of suffering. They live hopelessly for no future. They feel they are living under the suspicious watch of all around. And the worst trauma is they don’t trust anyone. Children, mothers, fathers are at odds and don’t understand each other. These are their psychological diseases. If we could give them a chance to take part in Khmer Rouge tribunals, to spell out their disease, it would at least heal some of their psychological diseases.”

But so far not everyone is happy with the court's work. Tribunal judges sentenced Duch to a commuted 19 years in prison last month, following a lengthy trial. This frustrated some members of the Lowell community.

Sam Angsan, a participant of the discussion, said a person of Duch's guilt “must be held in a cave, or grave, for 18 lifetimes.”

At Sunday's event, people exhibited chest sobs and the kind of laughter that comes from stress. Many were angered that the court threw out the claims of 24 participants at the last minute, denying them a piece of the verdict.

“Why did the [tribunal] wait for a year before announcing the denial of the 24 claims?” asked Ny Koeun, who filed a complaint with the court. “In Case 002, please inform people early if there are any files to be denied. I was one of the victims, and I filed a complaint too.”

Some experts say the court is not the only way people can heal. Discussions like Sunday's meeting in Lowell can also help.

“I think gathering is very important,” said Samkhan Khoeun, a student adviser at Lowell Community College. “It helps Cambodians be better informed about events performed by [the tribunal]. Having released their bitter experiences, their stories of suffering, they feel relieved. This is a particularly important lesson, not only as a warning to leaders but also as a lesson for future generations. It proves to them that though the crime passed 20 or 30 years ago, justice ultimately prevails. I hope that present leaders would take this seriously as a model.”

Nou Leakhena acknowledged that the tribunal is undertaking a complicated process and that it so far has not done well allowing participation of civil parties.

Her institute was only able to assist in Duch's hearing, but for the next case it has already helped victims fill out nearly 170 forms, including 41 people filing as civil parties.

“From Victims to Witnesses” aimed to assure people that the surprises they may have experienced in Duch's case do not have to be repeated for the next trial, she said.