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Confronting the reality of genocide

Saturday, February 14, 2009

On the 17th February a former Cambodian prison chief will go on trial accused of presiding over thousands of murders during the genocide of the mid-1970s. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as ‘Comrade Duch’, headed the Khmer Rouge Special Branch and ran the infamous prison known as S-21 or Tuol Sleng. Of the estimated 20,000 prisoners who entered, only 17 were found alive at the fall of the regime.


Prisoners were routinely starved and tortured in order to make them confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. Their lifespan in prison was around three months; they were brutally killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and other makeshift weapons. Every prisoner was photographed when they entered the prison, and the pictures of the men, women, children and babies remain to remind us of their fate.


Now the Genocide Museum, the building was a former high school before becoming the notorious prison. I visited it in the searing afternoon heat last June, the stories of those who died there are hard to hear. The rooms where prisoners were kept are laid out as at that time, and the graves of those who had just died when the prison was liberated are tended in the grounds. The instruments of torture are present too.


This terrible period in Cambodia’s long history has seen very little representation in popular culture, with the film “The Killing Fields” one of the few visual representations. Having steeled myself to watch it again recently, I understand why Cambodians who lived through that period call it a sanitised version.


The Pol Pot regime lasted only 4 years, but up to two million people were systematically murdered. Its thirty years ago, but it’s only now that anyone is going to court to face charges, 5 people so far charged in connection with the genocide and an expectation that the maximum number who will face charges will be 10. The process to get to trial has been long and complicated but it has been the trigger for many who survived to tell their stories for the first time.


The court process, known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, has a special status. It’s a hybrid between an international criminal court and Cambodia’s own judicial process. A new dedicated court building has the facilities to ensure transparency. Hearings will be able to be observed and those giving evidence will be supported throughout the harrowing process. Special attention has been given to collecting statements from witnesses at last able to tell their stories to their children.  


During my visit last summer I heard some of those stories.  The guests at a dinner - an advisor to the Prime Minister, a junior Education Minister and a retired civil servant unprompted recounted their experiences. Each had many relatives killed. The Minister, a former teacher, told how lucky he had been to survive. The anti-intellectual Khmer Rouge murdered 80% of teachers. He was banished to the killing fields to undertake backbreaking work. Food was in scarce supply and anything edible was snapped up including the smallest insects.


When the Khmer Rouge regime were forced from power by the Vietnamese there were scarcely any people living in Phnom Penh, those not captured and banished having fled to the countryside. It’s now a bustling capital city in a country with a growing population. Cambodia, like many of its South East Asian neighbours, has enjoyed impressive economic growth rates.


Tourism is a growing industry and in Phnom Penh the hotels are impressive. A short flight takes visitors to Siem Reap and the ancient city of Angkor Wat. Across the area are many ancient Hindu temples, some reclaimed by the jungle trees entwined through the ruins. Siem Reap is also the base of the HALO Trust the humanitarian mine clearance organisation. Much of the north of the country is still mined from its days as the base of the insurgent Khmer Rouge. These mines continue to maim and kill.  


Cambodia is not yet a fully functioning democracy but it has made great strides. Recent elections were deemed to be the most democratic for some time violence was low although the opposition parties complained of dirty tricks.


As Cambodia seeks to bring to justice some of those responsible for the most terrible period of its history, it also tries to educate those under 30 about these crimes against humanity. The country is trying to find a way to deal with its unspeakable history as it becomes an ever more successful and more democratic country.


Few places I have visited have raised such powerful emotions in me. Not just those created by confronting the reality of genocide but a sense of awe that people who have experienced so much are building a society and a democracy that acknowledges the past but is focussed on building a better future. It gives me hope. 

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