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A silence at Tuol Sleng

Dear Editor,

I just returned from a week-long trip to Phnom Penh, during which I visited the former

Khmer Rouge security bureau "S-21" prison exhibit at Tuol Sleng. I also

travelled out to one of the "killing fields" from that time.

On the same day I watched the televised proceedings of the Milosevic war crimes trial

currently under way at The Hague. The documentation being presented by the UN prosecutors

is devastating, horrific, yet utterly necessary.

I was immediately puzzled by something I had seen, or rather, not seen, at either

the prison or the killing field. Then it came into focus: Conspicuous by their absence

were plaques or other forms of written documentation to explain to observers the

significance of the horrific physical artifacts of mass murder and torture that they

are witnessing.

Visitors' questions about the origin, circumstances, causes, goals, progress, outcome,

and especially the identity of the perpetrators, of those atrocities, all such questions

go largely unanswered.

At Tuol Sleng there was one explanatory plaque, which concluded by giving a website

visitors could consult, and a compelling one-page brochure was also supplied at the

entrance. Is it politically still dangerous to provide answers to such questions?

This mute presentation of the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime is like watching

history vanish before your eyes.

This does put into context the UN withdrawal a week earlier from the largely symbolic

war crimes trial the Cambodian government had been planning.

The fallout of "not" having a war crimes trial will be considerable. Not

only will the current generation of Cambodians be denied (by their own government)

the necessary catharsis a trial would afford for a nation and people to move forward

after such devastation, but, more tellingly, future generations are seriously at

risk of losing knowledge of their history - or at best, the history will come to

be seen as unreal, or invented.

On the one hand, it is the responsibility of the Cambodian people and their government

to make possible a war crimes trial that is legitimate by achieving a minimum standard

of fairness and thoroughness.

However, on the other hand, it is as much the world's responsibility, and accordingly,

at a bare minimum the UN must actively renew, periodically, its offer to co-mediate

a war crimes trial.

Also, it must vigorously pursue such negotiations when a change of regime occurs

in Cambodia.

It is hard to escape the irony in all this. I was most impressed during my visit

by the warmth, humor, compassion, and friendliness of the Cambodian people. Foreigners

truly admire this.

A serious effort to come to terms with its recent history would enhance respect for

Cambodia and its wonderful people.

What is the alternative? The unacknowledged past imposes silence and despair on ordinary


The future recedes. Foreigners interpret the paralysis as systemic injustice. The

assumption is made that development assistance would presumably be subject to the

same paralysis, and misuse.

In short, the future - social, economic, political - recedes ever further. It does

not have to be this way.

- Stephen Carter, Bangkok



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