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Remembering the real regime

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COMMENT

Gunnar Bergstrom was blind not to see the real DK

Photo by: Heng Chivoan

Gunnar Bergstrom in Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng genocide museum.

The legacy of the Khmer Rouge will live on much longer than its victims, who perished under the brutal regime. Its legacy continues to have visible effects on Cambodian's lives. I, too, woke up with a feeling of denial that April 17th never took place. It is nonetheless still impossible to escape Cambodia; it keeps coming back.

Looking at the recent photo exhibition by Gunnar Bergstrom in August of 1978, the pictures were troublesome and disturbing - an almost deserted city. In 1978, Cambodian were dying in their thousands.

What was it like in Sweden in 1978? I wouldn't know and neither would Cambodians living in a country engulfed in war under the Khmer Rouge. But only Gunnar Bergstrom, himself and his team visiting the country, would know.

Phnom Penh in 1978 may have looked like Stockholm, but it was a city with over two million people at the height of war in 1975. Simply imagine a mass evacuation within days with no humanitarian aid and no diplomatic ties with the outside world.

Does it require critical thinking to see what is so obviously at hand? A picture taken in deserted streets, houses, hospitals and schools. What's not to see or what did his conscience tell him that was morally imperative, for example, in the one photograph Gunnar Bergstrom took standing in front of the deserted bus station in Kampong Cham, a city which used to be the second most populated and once served as a major transit town between Phnom Penh, standing empty.

In his second visit to the country, Gunnar Bergstrom admitted more than his conscience told him in 1978. He was allowed to freely roam the deserted cities, sleep on the victim's bed, wine and dine with Khmer Rouge at the Royal Place. Could the regime be more accommodating to blind him?

Humanity is Gunnar Bergstrom's central misjudgment during his visit to Cambodia in 1978. The team [that travelled with Bergstrom on a propaganda tour] witnessed no torture, saw no starvation, and experienced no misery.

Thirty years on, only five surviving suspects of the Khmer Rouge are now in custody, but none have been charged with genocide. Pol Pot and Ta Mok, Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and Chile's Augusto Pinochet, all died before they could be brought to justice. Yet, it is their victims

that prevailed and outlasted their evil acts.

Anything that nature didn't kill, the Khmer Rouge did in just a few short years. The blame is passing down from highest to lowest cadres,

denial and acknowledgement of the killings. Those that are still alive blame the dead.

Politics is a dirty word and there are many hands in Cambodia's blood. China has been lobbying hard to suppress the trials because of Beijing's support for Pol Pot and its efforts to export revolution to the region, while most believed that the Chinese-supported atrocities during the Khmer Rouge regime could far exceed the horror of the Rape of Nanjing. To date, Beijing claims no criminal liability for alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia. The rest is most likely to follow.

In the 1970s and 1980s, America was still reeling from an embarrassing defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal at home. The Soviet Union was at its peak, expanding its influence in Afghanistan, while the Vietnamese were occupying Cambodia. Yet the West is proud - their people are living in an open society, free. As a war refugee, I have to be optimistic and live my life almost in denial.

Cambodia underwent one of the 20th century's most appalling experiments in both political and social upheaval. I arrived in the US with only a pair of pants, one shirt and a winter jacket given to me at the airport. Books and scrap notes were probably the most valuable items in my possession; the notes that helped me piece together the missing pieces to the puzzle of life under the Khmer Rouge and beyond.

Pol Pot's death may have brought the end of one man responsible for the death of millions of his countrymen and exposed one of the worst genocidal regimes of the 20th century. But to those born after 1980, the Khmer Rouge's legacy is a distant childhood memory of their parents' past. But his death became an unfinished tragedy as Cambodians learned that the cost of justice does not end with the death of their loved ones.

Had one been able to foresee the fallout of the regime and the liberation of Cambodia by the country's historic foe, the occupation of Vietnam in the 1980s, would things have worked out differently? Would the re-education and executions been avoided? Pol Pot and his clique went to their graves without any sense of guilt or regret, and it is unlikely that any of those still living will. It is no coincidence that they are human, just as it is no coincidence that they too were born Cambodian.

The few aging Khmer Rouge leaders indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity have no intention of going down alone and quietly into the history of war crimes and genocide. In his defense, Brother No 2 Nuon Chea wants the evidence held by China, the US and Vietnam to disclose their spy networks and intelligence reports, including names of the US National Security Advisers: Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

I learned to have forgiveness in my heart. The desire for revenge and justice remain. Condoning the Khmer Rouge's brutal acts has been difficult, and revenge largely depends on how much one can accept and understand the true nature behind it.

The world has changed in the 60 years since the Nuremburg trials. With the Khmer Rouge tribunal now in place, I can only hope that justice will find its place and a new chapter can open. Writing helps me recall happy times, and above all, it preserves the voices and faces of my family who I dearly love.

Vorak Ny is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime who now lives in the US state of Washington.

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