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Tuesday, 7 August, 2001, 18:18 GMT 19:18 UK
Cambodia faces up to its past
Choeung Ek memorial
Will those responsible for the Killing Fields face justice?
By Clive Myrie in Cambodia

Samrit Pon visits the Sung Prison outside Phnom Penh, where her husband was beaten to death by the Khmer Rouge. In front of her are piles of skulls and bones - the legacy of four terrible years in the 1970s.

Khmer Rouge leaders must stand trial, she told me. Every skeleton demands an answer, every family has lost someone.

People who are responsible for the death of millions of innocent people are still living free

Sam Rainsy, Cambodian opposition leader
It was a monumental period in 20th Century history yet Cambodia's children know nothing of this land's genocidal recent past.

And if the authorities had their way, they never would. The murderous history of the Khmer Rouge regime is not taught in Cambodia's schools. There is no mention that 1.7 million people died in a failed Communist experiment. It is as if there were no killing fields.

A school teacher says it is because of national reconciliation that it is all better left buried and forgotten.


But there are some who believe other motives are at work in denying Cambodian children their own history.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy believes the ruling government does not want future generations knowing so many of those who have blood on their hands have never been punished. He believes Khmer Rouge trials, if handled properly, can cleanse the whole nation.

Pictures of victims at the genocide museum in Phnom Penh
Victims are remembered at Phnom Penh's genocide museum
"It would allow us to face our history," said Sam Rainsy. "It would help put an end to the culture of impunity prevailing in this country. People who are responsible for the death of millions of innocent people are still living free and sometimes leading a very comfortable life here."

The United Nations is very concerned that some of the key Khmer Rouge leaders may not be brought before a tribunal because they have been given amnesties.

They say if the most important suspects are not put on trial it makes a mockery of the whole system.

Surya Dugal, of the UN Human Rights office in Cambodia, says attention must also be paid to the concerns of the international community.

"The legitimacy depends upon how this trial proceeds and the attitude that in order to have the legitimacy, then the Cambodian Government knows that the support of the international community makes a big difference," he said.

Pol Pot

The man most responsible for the killing fields of the 1970s, Pol Pot, died in a camp in 1998, and with some of the other Khmer Rouge leaders ailing and in poor health there are real fears some of them might also die before they can be brought to justice.

Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok shown shortly after his arrest in 1999
Ta Mok: A feared Khmer Rouge commander
At the moment, only two Khmer Rouge leaders are in jail awaiting trial - Kang Kek Ieu, alias Duch, a notorious prison governor, and Ta Mok, a Khmer Rouge regional commander, nicknamed 'The Butcher'.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told me that to push for too many prosecutions might destabilise the country.

"This is a matter of war and peace," he said. "That is why we are very careful. Otherwise the peace that we have achieved will be destroyed."

While everyone is agreed that Cambodia needs Khmer Rouge trials, the question is how far will they actually go in helping this country come to terms with its past?

The BBC's Bill Hayton
"The leader of the organisation will never be brought to trial"
The BBC's Jonathan Head
"This has been a very long and drawn out process"
Cambodian human rights activist Kek Galabru
"We question whether there is real political will from the government"
See also:

07 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Khmer Rouge leader 'wants to testify'
02 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Cambodia backs genocide law
14 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Pol Pot: Life of a tyrant
02 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Masters of the killing fields
13 Jan 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Cambodia: Life after death
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