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The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

Clint Reilly

The lines of photographs stare blankly like rows and rows of stark mug shots. These are not criminals, but the faces of innocent victims of the twentieth century’s second holocaust.

The Khmer Rouge murdered almost two million Cambodians during a bloody four-year purge in the 1970’s. Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was a school converted into a prison where more than 14,000 men, women and children were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1976 and 1979. My wife and I visited Tuol Sleng last week.

The Khmer Rouge photographed every prisoner on the day he or she was processed into Tuol Sleng. Throughout the prison, the faces of Cambodians who were incarcerated there line the walls of cells where prisoners were beaten, tortured and then murdered. Nearly two thousand children were killed here. The horror is magnified by the extreme contrast between the innocent purposes of a school and the nightmarish butchery of a torture chamber.

The slaughter of nearly two million people represented one quarter of the population of Cambodia. Incredibly, the architect of the genocide, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, was never prosecuted and died in his sleep. More than twenty-five years after the atrocities were committed, none of the ruling Khmer Rouge elite has ever been prosecuted.

On September 19 of this year, The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – the war crimes tribunal – arrested the highest ranking Khmer Rouge leader still alive to stand trial. Nuon Chea, 82, the chief propagandist of the Khmer Rouge, was placed in custody by Cambodian troops and flown to Phnom Penh to face charges of genocide. One other elderly leader also awaits trial: Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was the warden of the Tuol Sleng prison.

We arrived in Phnom Penh from Bangkok. The capital of Thailand, Bangkok has close ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors: Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar), China and India. While we were traveling from Cambodia to Thailand, an extraordinary protest exploded in Burma. Overnight, the world’s front pages and news programs pictured iconic photographs and footage of saffron-robed monks with shaved heads protesting a military Junta that controls Burma with a 500,000-man army. The contrast could not be more stark: gun-toting soldiers in uniform facing humble monks armed only with a just cause. Watching the monks confront the soldiers, I was reminded of the children’s school that became Duch’s torture chamber.

Soon the Junta’s soldiers invaded the monasteries, cut off information to the outside world and strangled the protests. Already, the Junta had banned journalists from Burma. Seth Mydans, the New York Times lead reporter, and the rest of the international press corps covered the story from Bangkok rather than Rangoon, the old capital of Burma. The September 30 edition of The Bangkok Post saw headlines like “Rangoon residents tell of Terror” and “True death toll being hidden” and “The smiles have gone, along with the tourists.”

The naïve hope is that Burma will respect human rights and the generals will cede power to a democratically-elected government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic woman leader who has been under house arrest for seven years. The reality is that Burma’s generals control huge stockpiles of natural gas, forest products, gems and natural resources. The generals have forged close ties with the governments of China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as India. Economic self-interest so far trumps human rights as these nations continue to trade with the Junta and mute any public criticism.

Both the dead of Cambodia and the living in Burma await justice. Human rights is still the world’s number 1 problem.

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