War and Forgetfulness

Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge

by by Dan Sherrell

illustration by by Diane Zhou

Nuon Chea, the genocidaire, tells the court he needs a hat. The air conditioning, apparently, is making his head cold. After a five minute deliberation, permission to retrieve the hat is granted.  Hundreds of eyes follow the octogenarian—former Brother Number Two of the Khmer Rouge, second only to General Secretary Pol Pot—as he totters out of the glassed-in courtroom on the arm of a bailiff, returning shortly with a blue and white wool cap pulled defiantly low over his eyes.

I watch him sit back down and try in vain to muster the outrage that the occasion deserves. I feel nothing. This man was partially responsible for the murder of over two million innocent people. I stare harder. He looks small, with bloated cheeks and skin like a potato’s. Two million is the equivalent of murdering every last person in the town where I grew up 143 times over. Zero valence. A purely numerical understanding. How can I grapple with genocide when its perpetrator is sitting right in front of me? When he’s an old man with sneakers and a head cold?

I look around at the hundreds of others seated near me in the gallery and wonder how they’re faring. Every seat in the room is filled. Khmer schoolchildren, Buddhist monks, reporters from every major foreign news outlet, relatives of those killed—all of them have come to this administrative building 40 minutes outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia to witness the first day of preliminary hearings in what many are calling the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg. Outside the media is hosting a circus. All the photographers barred from the gallery snap photographs of the building’s drab exterior while journo-types prowl for an interview. For my part I’m here on behalf of the Phnom Penh Post—a minnow of a bilingual newspaper based out of the capital where I’ve been interning for a few months.

On trial in Case 002 at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodi (ECCC) are four former leaders in the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, responsible for causing the deaths of an estimated 2.2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 in a merciless, ludicrous attempt to establish a Marxist-Leninist agricultural utopia. Inaugurated in 2006, the ECCC was created after the Cambodian government requested United Nations assistance in prosecuting senior KR officials, “those believed to be most responsible for grave violations of national and international law.” In 2010, Case 001 tried and convicted Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), director of the regime’s infamous S-21 prison, from which only seven of the 14,000 imprisoned managed to escape alive. After a three-year trial with a price tag of almost $80 million, the ECCC took its first steps toward enacting justice against the KR and vindicating the regime’s victims. Duch was sentenced to 19 years in prison—farcically lenient but still effectively a life sentence for the aging sociopath. Case 002 got off to a halting, controversy-ridden start in 2011, and it may be years before a verdict is reached. Being tried along with Nuon Chea are Khieu Samphan, 79, former Khmer Rouge Head of State; Ieng Sary, 85, former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs; and Ieng Thirith, Sary’s 78-year-old wife and former Minister of Social Affairs. The sheer feebleness of the elderly autocrats lends a degree of absurdity to the proceedings.  While the bench wades slowly through a list of procedural matters, Ieng Sary shuffles to the bathroom with the help of his walker.  At one point, Ieng Thirith appears to fall asleep in her seat. The mantra “Never Again” feels blunt and opaque here. The question I’m asking, that I can’t stop asking, is: “How, Ever?”

Misplaced idealism, latent class warfare, the time-worn hubris of dictators. Paranoia, loathing, blatant hypocrisy-the KR elite who made it their mission to massacre the educated, urban, ‘new people’ and return the country to ‘Year Zero,’ were very careful to disguise the fact that many of them had been educated in Paris.  Ieng Thirith, for example, was a Shakespeare scholar at the Sorbonne). The study of genocide was inaugurated long before the KR first came to power. Historians’ explanations for their atrocities seem all too familiar, fulfilling our general rubric for genocide so well that they have an almost desensitizing effect. Murderous autocrats exploited misplaced political ideals in a quest for personal gain. It is, at first glance, maddeningly predictable.

But the terror perpetrated during the Pol Pot years was unique in a way that still manifests itself, everyday, in Cambodian society. This was not Hutus killing Tutsis or Nazis killing Jews. Under the KR, no consistent ethnic or religious differences separated the party faithful from the people they killed. And as much as we’d like to imagine that genocide comes to a clear end, that victims and perpetrators separate and move on, when the regime fell, KR cadres and labor camp detainees moved back to the same streets in the same villages. Cambodians had to pick themselves back up again, even if that meant holding hands with the enemy, or at least acquiescing to rebuild alongside him. For better or worse, Cambodia never fully tore itself apart. And in the years since the Vietnamese army toppled the KR in 1979, zones of political and ethical ambiguity have grown up around this reality.

Many former KR, low enough in rank to maintain some degree of retroactive deniability, now occupy positions of power in Cambodia’s current constitutional monarchy. Prime Minister Hun Sen, the controversial leader who has dominated Cambodian politics for nearly three decades, was himself a member of the KR, although he denies being anything more than a foot soldier. During Pol Pot’s reign he fled to Vietnam to join forces that would later depose the KR, halting the genocide but continuing with injustices of their own against the Cambodian people. Due perhaps to his history, Hun Sen has publicly called for a halt to all trials after the completion of Case 002. Allegations abound that Hun Sen’s government has put pressure on the court not to pursue Case 003, and in the months the investigation has been open, judges have failed to examine a number of alleged crime sites or even question the suspects, former KR naval commander Meas Muth and air force commander Sou Met. The former now lives in a cushy retirement in Battambang province, giving regular donations to his local Buddhist pagoda (more irony: the KR banned all religion and persecuted those accused of worship).  Until recently, the latter was a top commander in the Cambodian army. The fourth and final case, intended to prosecute unnamed mid-level KR cadres, is unlikely ever to begin. Drawing the ire of international legal scholars and Cambodian human rights activists, government officials have insisted that exhuming those skeletons could “spark unrest” and “plunge the Kingdom back into Civil War.”

This is how it goes: history gets buried and the feathers of the powerful remain unruffled. Stability and justice are pitched as mutually exclusive. All this is a testament to how deeply Cambodia’s past is embedded in its present.


A few weeks after the trial, my friend Ravi and I are at a bar in downtown Phnom Penh, talking family. Born to an American mother and a Khmer father, Ravi moved to Lowell, Massachusetts at age six, where his father became the first Khmer elected official in the United States (Lowell City Council), and Ravi slowly forgot how to speak Khmer. During the KR years, his father was placed, along with thousands of others, into one of the regime’s forced labor camps where workers (slaves) were supposed to grow rice and build infrastructure in a burst of inspired proletarian do-gooding among comrades. What they got instead were meager rations, arbitrary beatings, and back-breaking toil. Many of his family members were killed before the regime finally fell in 1979. In the chaotic interregnum of the early ’80s, he made money smuggling various goods across Cambodia, from Thailand to Vietnam and back, all by bicycle, dodging itinerant bandits and KR patrolmen. Two decades later, the man has made a new life for himself in the states. Next year he plans to run for a seat in the State of Massachusetts House of Representatives.


Next my friend tells me about his uncle, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who moved to Long Beach, California in the ’90s. “Yeah I only found out last year,” he says.

At first I don’t believe him. “What’s he like?”

My friend shrugs. “Nice guy.” Does he talk to your father?  Does he talk about his past? How awkward are family barbeques? Yes, no, not very. “It’s really not a big deal, somehow” he tells me.

Many Cambodian family trees are similarly gnarled. Brother turned on brother during the KR’s Orwellian purges of imagined ‘subversive’ elements, but once the fighting ended they were still family. Faced with the impossible task of moving on, perhaps some have mirrored on a small scale what Hun Sen’s government is using its corrupt leverage to enact nationally. That is, to choose familial stability over dredging up past wrongs, to swallow memory for the sake of harmony. This begs the troubling question: do people here really want to forget? It’s hard to say, and many Khmers would probably have a hard time providing a clear answer even for themselves. But while Ravi’s family chose the path of tacit reconciliation so that life could be lived, it seems the nepotistic ruling party is advocating a similar amnesia in order to protect its own members from judicial scrutiny, scared that a widening scope of justice could mean a fall from grace and political predominance.


Not long afterwards, Ravi and I embark on a multi-day trek through the Cardamom Mountains, a vast swath of as yet untouched forest in the country’s southwest.  The Cardamoms are remote.  We drive for six hours to get to an unmarked dirt road turnoff that takes us 20 pot-holed kilometers up to a river where we hire a boat to ferry us upstream to get to the village where we begin the trek. We sleep in hammocks and eat fish and rice three meals a day. The scenery is breathtaking and the leeches are insatiable. Along with us we have a cook, Seang Ny, and a guide, Somnang, an irrepressible 25-year-old who goes by “Lucky.” Lucky is a reformed poacher, with impeccable English and a working knowledge of, for example, who 50 Cent is. Seang Ny, 44, is of another generation. Cheerful and detached, he speaks no English. Between cigarettes, he remarks to us off-hand (through Lucky’s translation) that he’d been a soldier in the Cambodian Royal Army. It doesn’t really register at first.


Later that night we sit around the campfire trading war stories. Lucky and I talk girls, Seang Ny talks bombs. He mentions, almost as an aside, that he once fought Khmer Rouge in these very mountains, as recently as 1999. Far from disbanding in 1979, the Khmer Rouge fled to the country’s remote west, which they controlled sporadically for decades, perpetuating the violence until finally succumbing to factionalism and penury in the ’90s. Even today, the Thai border town of Pailin remains a haven for ex-KR cadres, Cambodia’s version of Argentina for the Nazis, except that it’s only a six hour bus ride from the capital. Encouraged by our curiosity, Seang Ny describes ducking behind the giant mahoganies for hours, jumping out to chuck grenades into the forest, sometimes fighting at night by the light of a lantern.

On our final day we pass an otherwise unremarkable patch of dirt in a thicket of tall grass. Seang Ny points.  “On that spot I shot a Khmer Rouge soldier,” he says. “Bazooka…amputated both legs.”  We look down at the spot he’s pointing to. It’s just dirt. And Nuon Chea is just an old man. Memories are turned into stories are turned into objects, and the violence seems to wax surreal as it recedes into past.

At one point I ask Seang Ny, through Lucky, whether he knows any former Khmer Rouge.  “Yes,” he says. “My neighbor.”  I ask him if that’s strange and he tells me no, they’re friends. It’s also possible that they fired rounds at each other in the swamps and fields we’re now walking through. Somnang pipes in with a clichéd tautology: “people are people.” The conversation is dropped.

Tour books love to extol Cambodia as “a land of contrasts,” spouting something about “the transcendent beauty of Angkor Wat and the harsh realities of the killing fields.”  What they don’t understand, and what Cambodians seem to innately, is that these are not contrasts. Rather, they are two sides of the same human coin. This ad hoc ethical relativism is used not as a definitive explanation so much as a salve, a socially pragmatic tool for individual forgiveness. But Hun Sen’s government is supplanting private forgiveness with public forgetting.

When Pol Pot first came to power, he declared 1975 to be ‘Year Zero’, the symbolic end of a shared historical memory and the beginning of a new history controlled by the state.  The KR ransacked libraries and murdered historians, obscuring the past to erect a new future. By stymieing the KR Trials and preventing the investigation of past wrongs, Hun Sen has adopted Pol Pot’s legacy, repeating history by erasing it.

DAN SHERRELL B’13.5 is, at first glance, maddeningly predictable.