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
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
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