In Cambodia, a painful hush

On Tuesday, leaders approved legislation to form a genocide tribunal, to be signed into law next week.

Sok Chhang hasn't forgotten a detail about the days of the ferocious Khmer Rouge, which uprooted her family, destroyed her village, and caused her father's death by starvation.

And although she had her life turned inside out by the 1975-79 regime of genocidal dictator Pol Pot, Sok Chhang hardly breathes a word about what happened to her children or her neighbors.

As the country's officials moved closer this week to creating a war-crimes tribunal that would prosecute the top Khmer Rouge leaders before a panel of Cambodian and international judges, Sok Chhang was unaware that plans were under way to try those responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians in less than four years.

"I've never heard anything about a trial," she says on a steamy August afternoon, as she bundles spice leaves to sell along the dirt road in front of her house, a few miles outside Phnom Penh. "We don't have time to listen to the radio. My husband must look after the cows, and I'm usually out in the rice field."

But then, sitting down for a rest on the bare wooden bed in their laundry-strewn courtyard, where chickens gurgle by, she says no one around here really keeps informed or talks about what happened during this country's darkest chapter. "People don't want to talk. Even I don't want to talk," she says.

Average people like her still find their own government a mystery, its intentions unclear, she says. The government includes many former members of the Khmer Rouge, including the country's prime minister, Hun Sen, who took over during a 1997 coup. "People these days don't even know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy," she says.

Those who are fighting to make the tribunal a reality say that many Cambodians shy away from telling their stories out of fear or reluctance to face the past.

The lack of public discussion about the wartime atrocities is compounded by the country's poor education system, which was obliterated by the Khmer Rouge. The school curriculum was later ossified under Vietnamese and Soviet tutelage, and has yet to recover.

Teacher salaries are so low that pupils are expected to pay bribes to pass tests. In classrooms, there is little or nothing taught about the Khmer Rouge.

To Youk Chhang, who lost two older sisters and tens of relatives during the Pol Pot era, withholding the story is like committing another crime. Youk Chhang (no relation to Sok Chhang) is director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the primary local organization that is collecting documents, evidence, and testimony on the Khmer Rouge's deeds for possible use in the war crimes tribunal.

A ninth-grade history textbook on his desk, whose back cover says it was published with UNESCO funding in 2000, has just one paragraph on Pol Pot, which essentially says he established a government and that "a lot of people were killed at that time."

"This is what happened, and we have to teach it," Youk Chhang insists.

Youk Chhange's crusade to have Cambodia's truth told is dedicated to his mother as much as the country itself. As a young man working on a communal farm, where starvation was common, he went out once to pick grass for food, banned as a selfish act. He was tortured in front of his mother.

"She held in her tears, because if she cried, it would have made it worse, and now I understand what it means for a parent to do that," says Youk Chhang, now in his early 40s. "She has never talked about it until today. People here are hostages of the past."

While there are no official barriers to speaking about the Khmer Rouge, the press tends to censor itself on controversial issues. And so do many people.

Ta Uok, for one, used to work in the city's market selling fish before the Khmer Rouge came to town. Dressed in black and carrying AK47s, the soldiers told everyone they would have to leave town for three days. More than three years later, Ta Uok was the only surviving child of five in his family. Devastated, he sought shelter at the Cham Pous Kaek pagoda, the sight of one of the country's many killing fields, where people were brought to be executed.

Now a lay monk, Ta Uok prays here for his siblings. But he refuses to give any opinion on the prospect of trying the men allegedly responsible for their deaths.

"I don't know," Ta Uok says, turning away. "It's up to the country's leaders. It's not for us to decide," he says, his hair grown soft and white, his eyebrows drooped with sadness and age. "This is a very difficult case. Who are the real Khmer Rouge? The real leaders have died, so maybe we'll never know."

Such attitudes prevail in some, but not all, corners. Along Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh's most scenic avenue overlooking the Tonle Sap River, a group of men gather each morning for tea. While they want to see the Khmer Rouge tried, they believe it will happen only if the premier deems it to be in his own interest.

Beneath the mango tree, the men take turns describing why they don't buy Hun Sen's argument that a trial could reignite tensions in a society finally entering a period of stability. All want justice. But not all believe they will get it. All lost family members during the Khmer Rouge's rule. Cafe owner Chhum Rin counts 38.

"I don't fear these new 'problems' from a trial at all. If we don't have a trial, Cambodia is never going to develop and this culture of impunity will continue," says Chhum Rin. "If we don't punish them, how can we punish anyone for the simplest crime?"

Chheng Ar, a street vendor who lost five brothers and sisters, says: "It all depends on the prime minister. If he wants it to happen, it will happen."

A third, a governmetn clerk named Soum Say, counts 10. "We don't understand why so many people in the Khmer Rouge time were killed," he says. "This is our greatest mystery. Let the courts help us understand why they killed so many of our own people."

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