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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Public forum highlights need for KR trial outreach

Public forum highlights need for KR trial outreach

The sense of confusion and emotional angst was palpable. About 150 citizens from

Ratanakkiri, Stung Treng, Kratie and Mondolkiri had been invited to attend a Public

Forum in Kratie town sponsored by the Center for Social Development (CSD) entitled

"Justice & National Reconciliation." Over 90 percent of them had lost

family members during the Khmer Rouge years in power and the forum was an opportunity

to vent their spleens.

The night before the September 28 event, CSD's director, Theary Seng, was adamant

that the plastic chairs in the Hor Bunny Spean Sor Hotel's conference hall be painstakingly

arranged in tight semicircles to engender a sense of casual intimacy that would encourage

openness and free discussion. Not an easy thing to accomplish in an environment that

in times past has seen Cambodians tortured and killed for expressing an opinion that

deviated from that of those in power.

She and her staff shuffled chairs around for over an hour in an effort to find an

elusive, ideal formula.

It is most likely the participants had never attended such a forum in their entire

lives; it is equally plausible that they had never been asked publicly what they

thought about the Khmer Rouge years in power or the impending Khmer Rouge Tribunal

(KRT).

In the event, the Public Forum - the third in a series - offered the attendees an

opportunity to ask questions that may have been burning inside them for over three

decades.

"What about countries that supported the Khmer Rouge? What about before 1975?"

asked one participant.

"Please clarify clearly. The leadership? What model of politics did they follow?"

asked another.

"I have waited 30 years. Who ordered people to be killed?" asked an elderly

man.

A man from Kratie implored: "They murdered six members of my family in Takeo.

In Kratie I went to jail with my family... I beg the NGOs to find the power to give

me and my family justice."

"I have been waiting for 30 years for you to come here. Will you punish the

ghosts?" queried another participant.

CSD had invited the Khmer Rouge Tribunal's (KRT) two co-prosecutors, Cambodian Chea

Leang and Canadian Robert Petit, to attend the forum.

Both had their hands full as they patiently explained how the KRT was structured

and how the trials would proceed.

Petit was particularly methodical and deliberate in explaining the reasons why people

commit crimes.

"First, because they think they can get away with it. Nobody commits a crime

if they think they will get caught," he explained slowly. "That's why tribunals

- and laws - matter. That's why every government in the world spends money on a justice

system."

"The second reason why people commit these crimes is power. These people killed

to get and remain in power."

Petit then elaborated on what he saw as one of the KRT's more difficult tasks.

"Because of the system [the KR] set up and followed, it was almost impossible

for people to know why they were being killed. But a very big part of our responsibility

is going to be to try and answer the 'why' so you can know why your family members

died. This is not something courts do well. History is not black and white. But sometimes

courts are the best way to tell a story and maybe we will know the real reason why

they did what they did."

It was difficult to tell whether people were satisfied with what they were told.

Theary Seng said there were no surprises.

"Even when questions are answered, there is still confusion," she said.

"Right now, Cambodians know nothing. Their knowledge about the KRT is extremely

limited. All over Cambodia people are lacking general information on anything, not

only the KRT. But the interest is there."

Clearly, civil society and the KRT both have a huge challenge before them. As the

trial unfolds, how will Cambodians become informed about its proceedings?

For its part, CSD says they have on the drawing boards another 18 public fora over

the next three years, plus three conferences to be held in Phnom Penh.

The KRT's Public Affairs Officer, Peter Foster, said by email that tribunal staff

will continue to work with civil society. He declined to specify what budget was

available for outreach purposes, saying only that it was "limited" and

that by next year they expected to have a staff of 12.

According to Foster, the actual trial proceedings will be recorded and then, when

it is determined that witnesses are protected and closed discussions are not accidentally

broadcast, they will be made available to the media.

The KRT's outreach plan also envisions the production of "daily, weekly and

monthly summaries of the court activities in video and audio formats" which

will be distributed around the country. It remains to be seen how much footage will

be aired by Cambodian television stations.

It's clear the KRT has large shoes to fill. In a survey CSD had participants complete

at the Kratie Public Forum, 96 out of 126 respondents said that they knew nothing

or little about the KRT. At the same time, 104 out of 126 respondents answered 'Yes"

to the question: Do you think the ECCC will bring justice to the Cambodian people?

And then there are the doubting Thomases. One of the respondents to the question

about the ECCC bringing justice to Cambodians answered with a Khmer proverb: the

monkey eats the rice and puts some on the mouth of the goat; when the owner returns

he does not see any rice, so he kills the goat; the monkey escapes (Sva sii bai,

leap moat popae; pel mchas mokdol ortkheng bai, mchas samlap popae; sva rouch khloeun).

Sound familiar? One can almost hear the refrain when those accused stand trial: "I

just followed orders. Pol Pot was responsible for everything."

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