Distance from ECCC proves a problem in the provinces
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP
Students from a Phnom Penh fine arts school reenact murders committed by the Khmer Rouge during a "Day of Anger" ceremony held at the Choeung Ek killing fields on May 20. The macabre reenactment is performed every year in remembrance of the 1.7 million people who lost their lives under the Pol Pot regime.
RATANAKKIRI – When news first reached Banlung’s ethnic minority Kreung community that the Khmer Rouge’s top remaining leaders had been arrested by Cambodia’s genocide tribunal, Teal Perng was eager to add her story to the court’s growing record of regime atrocities.
But nearly two years since the start of the court, convened to try those responsible for the deaths of a quarter of the country’s population during the communists’ 1975-79 rule, Perng and many other tribal people feel increasingly left out of Cambodia’s bid for justice.
Separated by culture and language, Cambodia’s ethnic minorities have historically been placed apart from Khmer society.
But it is physical distance, more than anything else that has kept those living in isolated pockets in the wilds of eastern and northeastern Cambodia from adding their voices to those of other regime victims.
Like other Cambodians, minority groups suffered greatly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, whose radical restructuring of society emptied cities, abolished money and destroyed families in a frenzied bid to forge an agrarian utopia.
“I saw a lot of indigenous people beaten and killed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers,” said Perng, who was 12-years-old when the guerillas took control of her village in northeastern Cambodia.
“Two of my nephews were taken and killed. I was separated from my parents and had to work far from them,” she said, describing workdays that stretched deep into night and one incident where she was forced to pull a plow through a field “like an oxen.”
“I want to see the faces of those KR leaders directly when they are on trial,” she said.
“But we do not have the money to travel to Phnom Penh to visit the court.”
Of the more than 1,000 civil complaints filed with the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) only a handful come from minority communities.
“Some show fear at the mention of the words ‘Khmer Rouge’, but most show their satisfaction to hear that these leaders have been arrested and jailed,” said Nget Nara, who monitors the tribunal’s progress for the rights group Adhoc and has interviewed tribal members.
“I think if the transportation is provided most of them would come to the court to see the trial process,” he added.
The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), a research group that has spent the last decade compiling evidence of Khmer Rouge crimes, said only 12 of the 896 complaints it has received by the end of April came from ethnic minorities.
“Every effort has been made to include all groups in the trial process but minority groups are often hard to reach in isolated areas,” said DC-CAM director Youk Chhang.
ECCC press officer Reach Sambath also said that only a small number of people from ethnic minority communities had visited the court or filed complaints.
“At the court we open to the door to anyone that wants to participate and we appreciate their help, but we do understand their problem because most of the minority groups live far from Phnom Penh,” he said.
Five former Khmer Rouge leader are currently detained by the tribunal pending trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The first public trials are expected to start later this year.