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