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Khmer Krom survivors find relief in visit to Khmer Rouge tribunal


Though efforts have increased, outreach to Khmer Krom minority remains limited: experts.


Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal, where former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav is currently on trial.

WHEN Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav began to cry Tuesday morning while testifying about torture methods used at the detention centre, Uth Em, a farmer who lost both parents, five siblings and 20 other relatives to the Khmer Rouge felt something he was not expecting: pity.

"I pitied him. It made me feel a bit of a release and reduced my anger," Uth Em, 53, said in an interview on the grounds of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, which he was visiting for the first time.

As a member of the Khmer Krom community, Uth Em belongs to a minority group that some historians have argued was singled out for abuses by the regime. This week, he travelled from his home in Pursat to Phnom Penh as part of a group of 20 Khmer Krom, the largest such group yet to have visited the court, said several people involved in outreach efforts.

Terith Chy, head of the Victims Participation Project at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), said the number of Khmer Krom who have watched court proceedings in person was "still quite low" compared with other minority groups, particularly Cham Muslims.

Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Association (KKKHRA), which works with Khmer Krom in five provinces, said outreach efforts had been limited, adding that even those Khmer Krom who wanted to visit the tribunal required financial assistance to do so.

"They are poor," he said. "They don't have the ability to visit."

Mahdev Mohan, a lawyer who provides pro bono legal representation to civil parties at the tribunal, said via email: "To the best of my knowledge, there are few ethnic Khmer Krom survivors who have attended the hearings so far, and only a handful have applied to directly participate in the proceedings" as complainants, witnesses or civil parties.

Court spokesman Reach Sambath said the court does not track how many minorities have registered as civil parties.

Ang Chanrith said that, for the Duch trial, only one Khmer Krom applying with the help of the KKKHRA had been recognised by the court as a civil party.  

  It's probably safe to say that the khmer krom were among the groups that suffered a particularly high proportion of killing.

The number of Khmer Krom who perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge is difficult to determine, experts said.

Mohan said some Khmer Krom survivors "believe that hundreds of thousands were singled out and killed, particularly along the Vietnamese border" in Takeo, Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces.

However, as DC-Cam senior legal adviser John Ciorciari noted in an email, "The fact that many [Khmer Krom] have Khmer names makes it tough to distinguish them on many documents and petitions".

Ciorciari added: "It's probably safe to say that the Khmer Krom were among the groups that suffered a particularly high proportion of killing, but I'm not sure whether anyone has a good estimate."

'Contentious' case

The Khmer Krom occupied an ambiguous position during the Khmer Rouge years, viewed warily by both the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, Ciorciari wrote in a 2008 article titled "The Khmer Krom and the Khmer Rouge Trials".

On one hand, the US trained "significant numbers" of Khmer Krom to fight against the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, and the Khmer Krom leader Son Ngoc Thanh tried to "repel Cambodian communist advances", Ciorciari wrote.  

On the other, some Khmer Rouge leaders such as foreign minister Ieng Sary were Khmer Krom.  

Ciorciari said in an email that "most Khmer Krom would treat people like Ieng Sary as ‘traitors' of a sort, and do not consider themselves to have been robust participants on the Khmer Rouge side of the conflict".

But when the Khmer Rouge were in power, he wrote in the article, Vietnamese as well as Khmer Rouge leaders "viewed the Khmer Krom community with distrust".

A different kind of ambiguity complicates efforts to describe what the Khmer Krom endured.

Ciorciari wrote that if the Khmer Krom were viewed as "a group that had to be watched carefully for political reasons", then Khmer Rouge leaders could be convicted on crimes against humanity charges for abuses perpetrated against it.

But if the Khmer Krom were viewed "as an ethnic group or part of a Vietnamese national group that had to be destroyed", then Khmer Rouge leaders could be convicted of genocide if that charge is ever brought at the court.

"The case of the Khmer Krom may prove to be contentious because it sits close to the border of what might be considered ethnically motivated genocide or politically driven crimes against humanity," Ciorciari wrote.

He added: "On the definition of crimes, I've had a tough time gauging the extent to which Khmer Krom are focused on the issue. My impression ... is that most Khmer Krom feel that they were singled out for special abuse and believe they suffered ‘genocide', but are not aware of how that crime's definition differs from the definition of crimes against humanity."

For Meas Chanthan, head of the Pursat branch of the KKKHRA, the purpose of the visit this week had less to do with parsing the particulars of Khmer Rouge crimes than it did with seeing whether the tribunal could operate free of government influence.

Many of the visitors, he said, have "negative perceptions of the Cambodian court system", which they believe is subject to abuses by the powerful.

"They take a very cautious position to come here," he said of the visitors.

Uth Em, meanwhile, described the experience of seeing Duch in the dock as somewhat cathartic.

"I was told to come here to see those who were responsible for the killing of my relatives," he said. "I feel relieved when I see the trial and when I realise that Duch will suffer punishment."



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