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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 May, 2003, 01:48 GMT 02:48 UK
Khmer Rouge's legacy of fear
When the survivors of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime gathered for the annual remembrance service this week, they were finally able to look forward to the prospect that the main perpetrators would face justice.

But, says Eric Unmacht, a big question for many Cambodians is whether the trial will lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

After years of negotiations, the international community has finally agreed to take another plunge into the murky waters of Cambodian politics, by approving a plan for a United Nations role in the trial of senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

Memorial ceremony for those who died
Cambodians still have psychological scars from the Khmer Rouge era
The 191-member General Assembly approved a plan earlier this month to allow for the creation of an unprecedented joint court, designed to prosecute senior cadre for crimes committed over two decades ago - when an estimated 1.7 million people died during the brutal communist regime.

But the outcome of the trial has been largely left in the hands of the Cambodian Government - and many Cambodians doubt it will bring noticeable changes to their lives.

Some even say that after years of negotiating and foot-dragging, the court will be flawed and incapable of bringing justice.

"I don't care about what's going on with a trial, because for years I heard about this idea and even today, there's still been no trial," said 36-year-old Phuong Yan.

Cambodians will assess the trial's success in many different ways, says Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders' Project.

One that often gets drowned out by the chorus of international rights groups, diplomats and legal experts is whether the trial will help Cambodians deal with their personal traumas over the regime's brutality.

"When people still see any word or hear anything about the Khmer Rouge, they get scared," Sok Sam Oeun said. "If they see this trial completed, they can put this behind them."

'I still suffer so much'

San Chreung, a 61-year-old farmer, said "My husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge and my mother died of starvation at that time."

"When I remember that time, I still suffer so much," she said.

"I really regret that [supreme leader] Pol Pot died before he could face trial. I want him to suffer as much as he caused to the Cambodian people to suffer."

Chum Manh, one of only three survivors of the Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison and torture centre, said: "Last night, tears fell down from myself and my family when we heard Prime Minister Hun Sen say that the Khmer Rouge leaders must face trial."

"I can not forget the time I was tortured in Tuol Sleng for 12 days, day and night," he said. "Every day, I'm looking for and wanting this trial."

Human skulls at The Killing Fields in Choeung Ek, a reminder of Khmer Rouge atrocities
An estimated 1.7m people died as a result of the Khmer Rouge regime
"But I still wonder whether they will have it or not," he added. "If not, I worry Cambodia will turn into a lawless country."

Mental health experts say that while many Cambodians have managed to push their personal Khmer Rouge nightmares to the back of their minds, they still suffer as a result.

"Cambodians suffer from collective trauma from the Khmer Rouge time," said Chhim Sotheara, a psychiatrist and the director of the Trans-Cultural Psychosocial Organisation.

"This means that everyone suffers from it, so it's almost simple to ignore it," he said.

Violent society

A glance at the local newspaper headlines shows the violence Cambodians still live under on an everyday basis.

From acid attacks in the countryside to brutal mob killings in the city streets, the average Cambodian is exposed to a level of violence that many Cambodians blame on the climate of impunity.

Some say a big step towards reversing this trend is to try those most responsible for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime.

"The violence that happened in our society every day is mostly caused by the culture of impunity," said Ny Chakrya, director of the investigation and monitoring division of the human rights group Adhoc.

"This culture is pushing the people who commit crimes to commit them again and again and again," he said.

"It's good to have a Khmer Rouge trial, as this trial will look for justice for the Cambodian people who suffered under the Pol Pot regime," he added.

UN warned on Cambodia court
30 Apr 03  |  Asia-Pacific
UN and Cambodia agree on court
17 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Key figures in the Khmer Rouge
17 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Surviving the Khmer Rouge
24 Jan 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Pol Pot: Life of a tyrant
14 Apr 00  |  Asia-Pacific
Masters of the killing fields
02 Jan 01  |  Asia-Pacific

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