Cambodia's killing fields get privatized

Plans for 'renovation' have sparked a row. Last week, the UN gave the green light for a war-crimes tribunal.

The burial pits are shallower now, their banks softened by the wind and rain. Still, a few fragments of bone and faded cloth poke through the red soil.

The bitter harvest of Cambodia's "Killing Fields" is hard to miss. Inside a concrete pagoda, a knot of European tourists gaze silently at the 8,985 skulls on display. Tour guides point out the rusted iron bars used to silence the men, women, and children that the Khmer Rouge deemed enemies of the state during their murderous reign in 1975-79. "Don't be afraid, you're going to a new home," the blindfolded captives were told before their nighttime execution.

Now, in a move that has stirred public anger, this memorial to the genocide that still haunts Cambodia has been turned over to a private company. Under a 30-year concession starting May 1, JC Royal Co. will "develop and renovate the beauty of Choueng Ek" in order to attract more fee-paying tourists.

Critics say such profiting is unconscionable. "This is the memory of the nation. It doesn't belong to city hall. It belongs to the survivors," says Youk Chang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. The site's manager, who first revealed the privatization, has accused the government of "using the bones of the dead to make business."

The municipality of Phnom Penh, which owns the site, says the new owner is forbidden to move the skulls and other remains. The national government has sought to dampen criticism by saying any profits would go to a local charity - run by a senior cabinet minister, Chea Vandeth. Local media have speculated about the ownership of JC Royal, an unknown Japanese company that is run by Mr. Vandeth.

The row comes as Cambodia inches closer to holding a war-crimes tribunal for the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. The UN said Friday it had sufficient funding and asked the government to start organizing the long-awaited trials. Some observers are still dubious about the formula for judging suspects and the government's resolve to probe the past.

Choueng Ek is one of hundreds of sites across Cambodia that testify to the mass killings that, along with overwork and starvation, caused the deaths of some 1.7 million people. Thousands of tourists visit each year. Many also visit Tuol Sleng, a grisly detention center in Phnom Penh that is now a museum.

To Cambodians - especially former guards, bureaucrats, and soldiers who live openly in communities they once terrorized - these sites are evidence of a genocide that some would rather forget.

"We want to know the truth about why so many people had to die ... but people are still scared of the Khmer Rouge," says Kek Galabru, president of the human rights group Licadho, who says witnesses may be reluctant to testify.

First mooted in 1997, the tribunal has stumbled repeatedly on legal and political obstacles. A compromise between the UN and Cambodia envisages a special court to be held in Cambodia based on both national and international law. An Army base outside Phnom Penh is being prepared for a tribunal that could last three years.

But only a few surviving leaders are expected to be tried. Pol Pot, the regime's "Brother No. 1," died in 1998. Two of his senior lieutenants - regional commander Ta Mok and detention camp chief Kang Kek Ieu - are in jail awaiting trial. Other former leaders live freely in a village by the Thai-Cambodian border.

The tribunal evokes a mixed response among Cambodians who lived through decades of hardship and terror. Some fear that reopening old wounds could undermine hard-won stability. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected to the Vietnamese forces who invaded in 1979, often reminds supporters to be vigilant against the return of former tormentors.

Proponents of the tribunal say that its aims go beyond simply judging the ideologues identified with the genocide. "We need to set the record straight. People have begun to deny that it happened.... They say it was the American bombs or the Vietnamese invasion [that caused the genocide]," says Helen Jarvis, an adviser to the government.

A postwar baby boom has spawned a generation who know only fragments of their past, unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. Textbooks omit the Khmer Rouge period, preferring to laud the 1991 peace accord that ended the civil war. "I think the sad story of Cambodia will die with the older generation. When we die, it will be gone," says Kek Galabru, who returned from exile in the 1990s.

Some activists welcome the new ownership of the killing fields. They point to a contract that requires upgrading the unpaved road to the site and building a museum and documentary film studio.

"If a private company can do it better, why not? If they can bring in international visitors and tell them something about our tragedy, all well and good, so we don't repeat it," says Lao Mong Hay, head of legal reform at the nonprofit Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh.

Outside the dusty entrance to Choueng Ek, Hang Dul holds out a baseball cap and asks for a dollar. A former government soldier who lost his left leg to a land mine, he's keen for more tourists. He also wants unsettling truths to linger in Cambodia's future generations. "I must tell my children about the genocide," he says.

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