Thursday, February 19, 2009


My last trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia was in 2004, and having been there the first time in 1992 as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force, I witness a startling change this time, in the life and activities around the city as well as across the countryside, The city is so vibrant with business activities dominating the daily chores of its people, and the countryside remained sparsely developed. I saw no tanks and military vehicles patrolling the streets, and soldiers with AK 47’s and B 40 rocket launchers bunkered at strategic points within the city centre. There were still roadblocks manned by the police at some point along the roads at the outskirt of the city, but not the militia.

I read that there is now an on-going UN-backed trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders in Phnom Penh, the first of which is the infamous torturer of Toul Sleng prison, Kaing Guek Eav, popularly known as Comrade Duch. He is said to have tortured and presided over the execution and murder of no less than 16,000 Khmer women and children. Duch who is now a born again Christian had sought forgiveness for his heinous crimes, for which he claimed to have acted on the orders of his superior.

Besides Comrade Duch, there are four other Khmer Rouge leaders that will also face trial. They are Nuon Chea who was deputy to Pot Pot, Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister Ieng Sary, Minister of Social Affairs and wife of Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, and finally Khmer Rouge’s official Head of State, Khieu Samphan. All four are scheduled to undergo trial in 2010.

Toul Sleng prison was formally a school, but was turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge regime. I visited the prison while accompanying the former Chief of Army, Gen Tan Sri Abd Rahman Hamid on his official visit to the UN Headquarters in Phnom Penh. Evidence of torture and the smell of dried blood still lingers in the air, and inside the class rooms-turned torture chambers. Hundreds of skulls are still stacked up in glass shelves, as reminder of the untold brutality of the Khmer Rouge over thousands of innocent Cambodians.

In the province of Battambang where the Malaysian Army contingent were deployed, there were still signs of torture and execution found in the hills and countryside around the province. Getting a skull isn’t that difficult, but that does not bring solace to those who had lost their family members to the dreaded Khmer Rouge. They claim that taking back any part of what remains of their dead will only unsettled the tranquility of the soul of the dead.

All five former leaders of the Khmer Rouge that will undergo trial for their crimes certainly have blood in their hands. They may not have participated directly in the murder, but at the least, in allowing or having the knowledge in the execution and murder to proceed unabated. I do not believe that they have not witnessed an execution, and neither do I believe that they have not ordered one, consciously or otherwise.

The trial and the subsequent judgment to be meted upon them, will not end the horrors and sufferings of those who are witnessed to the crimes, and those who had lost members of their family. A mother seeing her child’s head being bashed against a tree, or being thrown into the air to be punched by a bayonet will never forgive the perpetrators. Likewise, a son having to witness the mother being raped by Khmer Rouge soldiers and subsequently shot dead will remain vengeful of the Khmer Rouge for as long as he live.

We were told of many other horrifying stories that happened to the Khmers, and we should be grateful that a similar fate did not reached our shores. Had the domino theory of the early 70’s been realized, we are not certain whether we could remain alive till this day.

Posted at 14.30 pm on Feb 19, 2009


maurice said...

The lesson to learn is that it was due to the extreme political instability,rampant corruption, abuse of power of the ruling elite and exploitation by the business class at that time that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge which largely comprised of peasants from the countryside.In the eyes of the Khmer Rouge peasants they were the exploitative class that bled the nation to death.

The inteligentsia class suffered too for it was mistakenly believed by the Khmer Rouge leadership that they were part of the national problem.

The hatred of the Khmer Rouge leadership towards anything other than the peasantry group was so extreme that hed led to the bloody purges of the other classes of society which eventually led to their downfall.

The Khmer Rouge leadership mistakenly believed that they could transform the country into a classless and egalitarian society by violent means.

Had the Khmer Rouge not embarked on the unnecessary and tragic political persecutions against their own people, Cambodia could be a different story today.

ArshadRaji said...

Dear Maurice,

Thanks for your comment. Are we not moving towards a society that you have so aptly described in your first paragraph? I believe, the results of PRU 12 clearly exemplifies public anger at the political elites for having inherited all (by dubious means) and gave away nothing. We are fortunate to have a society that believes in the ballot box, and not otherwise. The elites must understand that public anger can be explosive, if they continue to ignore the plight of those deprived.