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KR trials and tribute museums

KR trials and tribute museums


Despite recent judicial progress, for many KR survivors, returning to the scene of the crime is more cathartic than waiting for the wheels of transnational justice to grind forward


A visitor walks through the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh last week. The government has just applied for the museum to be listed as a Unesco site.


  • Kaing Guek Eav (Duch), 66 Former director of S-21. Charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

  • Nuon Chea, 82

    Former Brother No 2. Charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

  • Khieu Samphan, 77

    Former KR head of state. Charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

  • Ieng Sary, 82

    Former KR foreign minister. Charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

  • Ieng Thirith, 76

    Former KR social affairs minister. Charged with crimes against humanity.

WHEN I am here, it is as if I were back in Pol Pot's time, said Ly Sideth. Around him were the horrors of Tuol Sleng prison, the Khmer Rouge torture centre turned genocide museum where the Phnom Penh teacher recently spent two hours walking among the memories of Cambodia's apocalypse - the tortured photo-flashed faces captured in stark black-and-white, the rusting shackles and glass-lined cases full of skulls.

More than two years on, Cambodia's UN-backed genocide court is making tangible progress towards justice. Five of the regime's leaders have been arrested. Tuol Sleng's own commandant, one of the five, has been indicted and is to stand trial later this year.

But many Cambodians like Ly Sideth have only a subdued support for the tribunal, saying it is more redemptive to return to these killing places than to rely on the stuttering wheels of justice.

"My memories are so vivid. At the time I was 10 years old, my parents and relatives all died and when I come here it seems to me that Pol Pot's era happens again," Ly Sideth said, surrounded by almost reverent quiet of Tuol Sleng, or S-21 as it was known to the Khmer Rouge.

Legal justice, he said, "is related to political problems, so it cannot be fast because it serves politicians' benefits".

"Every society has law to limit human ambition," he said, quick not to dismiss the tribunal. But the limitations of the court - to try only "senior leaders and those most responsible" for Cambodia's suffering between 1975 and 1979 - are frustrating, he added. 

"I saw a lot of Chinese come to transport our rice [while] the Cambodian people ... could not get enough food to eat," Ly Sideth said.

Artist's impressions

For painter Vann Nath, whose artistic skill kept him alive after his arrest and incarceration in S-21, justice delayed is justice denied.



"The ECCC is coming too late because of my seven comrade survivors [of S-21], four have died already," Vann Nath said.

Earlier this year in a macabre judicial twist, S-21 chief Kaing Guek Eav, who is better known as Duch, was brought back to the prison where he recounted for court officials and a few witnesses, including Vann Nath, how he administered the regime's most notorious death machine.
"I absolutely didn't want to go there because I don't want to revive my bitter memories," Vann Nath said of the re-enactment. But this was the duty of the survivor, he added. 

"I have been [to give evidence at the court] several times now and I always go to tell them the truth," he said.   

But whether this - the re-enactments, indictments or likely convictions - will provide closure for the 63-year-old is unclear.

"We have to wait to see the outcome together because we are ordinary people," he said.

"We don't have the right to interfere in their [legal] affairs."

A torture museum

S-21 was opened as a museum on August 17, 1979, as a monument to the regime's cruelty, just months after a Vietnamese-backed force drove the Khmer Rouge from power, said Chey Sopheara, deputy director in charge of the facility.

"Today S-21 is used keep victim's photos, skulls and handcuffs to show the ECCC when they require this for their [judicial investigations]," he said, apparently pleased that the museum had been instrumental in charging Duch for the crimes he allegedly committed while in charge of the prison.

Like Vann Nath and Ly Sideth, he said he was happy that the tribunal had materialised after so many years and appeared on track to put at least a few top cadre in prison.

But it is places like S-21 where Cambodians will come to terms with their grief, he said.

Chey Sopheara added, however, that only around 40 Cambodians visited the museum each day, saying that he wanted the high school-turned-prison to once again be a place of learning, although of a different kind.

"I plan to promote this issue with the education sector because we want to bring at least 50 or 60 students per week from schools and universities," he said. 

Cambodia's younger generation needs to learn about the history of their country, of their mothers and fathers, Chey Sopheara said. He hoped that school visits to the museum would provoke younger people to talk to Cambodia's older, devastated generation.

"We want our younger generation to understand clearly about their parents' hardships  ... so they never follow Pol Pot's footsteps," he said.


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