In Cambodia, a Painful Hush ; on Tuesday, Leaders Approved Legislation to Form a Genocide Tribunal, to Be Signed into Law Next Week

By Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

In Cambodia, a Painful Hush ; on Tuesday, Leaders Approved Legislation to Form a Genocide Tribunal, to Be Signed into Law Next Week


Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Sok Chhang hasn't forgotten a detail about the days of the ferocious Khmer Rouge, which uprooted her family, destroyed her village, and caused her father's death by starvation.

And although she had her life turned inside out by the 1975-79 regime of genocidal dictator Pol Pot, Sok Chhang hardly breathes a word about what happened to her children or her neighbors.

As the country's officials moved closer this week to creating a war-crimes tribunal that would prosecute the top Khmer Rouge leaders before a panel of Cambodian and international judges, Sok Chhang was unaware that plans were under way to try those responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians in less than four years.

"I've never heard anything about a trial," she says on a steamy August afternoon, as she bundles spice leaves to sell along the dirt road in front of her house, a few miles outside Phnom Penh. "We don't have time to listen to the radio. My husband must look after the cows, and I'm usually out in the rice field."

But then, sitting down for a rest on the bare wooden bed in their laundry-strewn courtyard, where chickens gurgle by, she says no one around here really keeps informed or talks about what happened during this country's darkest chapter. "People don't want to talk. Even I don't want to talk," she says.

Average people like her still find their own government a mystery, its intentions unclear, she says. The government includes many former members of the Khmer Rouge, including the country's prime minister, Hun Sen, who took over during a 1997 coup. "People these days don't even know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy," she says.

Those who are fighting to make the tribunal a reality say that many Cambodians shy away from telling their stories out of fear or reluctance to face the past.

The lack of public discussion about the wartime atrocities is compounded by the country's poor education system, which was obliterated by the Khmer Rouge. The school curriculum was later ossified under Vietnamese and Soviet tutelage, and has yet to recover.

Teacher salaries are so low that pupils are expected to pay bribes to pass tests. In classrooms, there is little or nothing taught about the Khmer Rouge.

To Youk Chhang, who lost two older sisters and tens of relatives during the Pol Pot era, withholding the story is like committing another crime. Youk Chhang (no relation to Sok Chhang) is director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the primary local organization that is collecting documents, evidence, and testimony on the Khmer Rouge's deeds for possible use in the war crimes tribunal.

A ninth-grade history textbook on his desk, whose back cover says it was published with UNESCO funding in 2000, has just one paragraph on Pol Pot, which essentially says he established a government and that "a lot of people were killed at that time."

"This is what happened, and we have to teach it," Youk Chhang insists.

Youk Chhange's crusade to have Cambodia's truth told is dedicated to his mother as much as the country itself. …

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