Bones stored at Wat Sgnoun Pech in Kandal will soon turn to dust without
UNPRESERVED bones crumble, after 20 years. It's natural. When the bones are those
of victims of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, however, their deterioration may be
cause for concern.
This is worrying genocide researcher Youk Chhang, who claims that the government
is neglecting to preserve evidence that could be valuable in case of any Khmer Rouge
"I question myself, what am I doing, when I collect data but it seems like the
government doesn't care," Chhang laments. His office, the Documentation Center
of Cambodia, has made a 15-province survey, mapping over 4,000 mass graves with an
estimated 250,711 victims.
"It's important to preserve the evidence... to identify the mass graves where
the Khmer Rouge killed people, but everywhere we go, the skulls are all over the
place, nobody takes care of them. Cows eat them," Chhang says.
Indeed, at Wat Sngoun Pech, in Kandal not far out of Phnom Penh, a series of skulls
and bones are lined up in a crumbling shack among weeds. A roof protects them from
the elements, but the deputy head of the pagoda says they are deteriorating.
"The Pol Pot bones are not well kept," says Ham To Ho, 29, adding that
insects were taking their toll on the remains. "No one pays attention, that's
why they disintegrate."
Chhang says that before 1993, the Ministry of Culture had a budget to preserve the
bones and the small buildings they are usually housed in. The sites were often a
focal point of the State of Cambodia government's May 20 National Day of Hate, when
party members gathered to vent anger at the Khmer Rouge.
Today, the ministry has no budget for such things, according to an official from
the finance department.
"We haven't seen any documents from the provincial culture departments to request
the money," said the official, who asked not to be named.
Chhang is worried that, with the defection of most of the remaining Khmer Rouge,
the government is losing its oft-trumpeted will to prosecute KR leaders for genocide
- and the neglected bones are the symptom.
"They say they want a trial, but by doing this [welcoming KR defectors], what
is the real message?" Chhang asks.
Monk Ham To Ho reported that in 1996, "people from somewhere" came to the
pagoda and told him to burn the bones. Although he says he did not know who the people
were, he did as they said, burning most of the bones - albeit reluctantly.
"When I went to burn them, I got a bad reaction from the villagers around,"
he said. "They said it was eliminating the evidence."
In past years, King Norodom Sihanouk has advocated cremating the remains to give
Khmer Rouge victims a proper Buddhist burial.
The proposals were not well-received from CPP government officials, including Second
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who cited the need to keep the remains for evidence against
the Khmer Rouge and to remind future generations of the atrocities that were committed.
National Human Rights Committee member Svay Sitha said that his committee's mandate
may include preservation of KR evidence. He said the government had not ordered the
burning, and reaffirmed the government's commitment to preserving physical evidence
and an eventual trial.
"The position of the government is unchanged," he said. "We have to
try Khmer Rouge leaders." He added that it was against CPP policy to destroy
Ham To Ho says if someone gave him money, he would build a better shelter for the
bones and pay someone to take care of them.
"The bones and skulls should be kept to remind [us] of the past experience,"
he says. "These people did not commit any crime ... everybody has to wish for
their souls to rest in peace."