Scars from brutal regime still run deep in Cambodia – Sunday Business Post

Downtown Phnom Penh at rush hour (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

SIMON ROUGHNEEN IN PHNOM PENH – For Norng Sarath, the story about a girl named Chea who was kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge and gang-raped in a woodland outside Phnom Penh brought back memories of similar atrocities in Pursat, where he lived during the KR’s brutal 1975-79 rule.

“They took many people, babies, the young, the old, and shot them in the forest”, he said. “No-one knows how many died there”. Around a quarter of Cambodia’s population were murdered by the Khmer Rouge before the invading Vietnamese Army felled Pol Pot’s regime.

At the end of March, the only man so far convicted of crimes committed during the terror appealed the 18 year sentence handed down last July. Comrade Duch, the head of the S-21 detention centre in Phnom Penh, now a museum, says he was compelled to murder by the Khmer Rouge leaders. Norng Sarath disagrees: “Duch ought to get a life sentence”, he said, speaking just hours after the appeal concluded last Wednesday.

Pol Pot died in 1998, with four of the surviving leadership awaiting trial later this year. However there have been allegations of political interference and corruption at the tribunal, says Carlowman John Coughlan, Senior Counsel to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. He adds that the court faces other difficulties: “Japan has provided almost 50% of the tribunal’s overall budget, but is reeling from recent events at home and facing rebuilding costs, so the tribunal faces a very uncertain future.”

Three decades on, as Cambodia struggles to address the unfinished legacy of a brutal past, the country is looking to the future economically,

Norng Sarath recalls horrors under the Khmer Rouge (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

even as it struggles with the unfinished legacy of past violence. Starting from a low base, the economy has grown rapidly over the past decade, posting figures close to 10% per annum on average, in keeping with the dynamism shown by Asia’s bigger economies.

Most development to date has been urban-based, however, and life for the ordinary Cambodian is tough. Many of the 5 million survivors of the Khmer Rouge era live in poverty in rural areas, says Youk Chhang of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, the go-to archive on the Khmer Rouge era.

The garment sector has been central to recent growth, employing around 5% of the workforce and contributing 70% of Cambodia’s total 4 billion euro average annual exports, half of which go to the US, despite China’s growing economic influence in the country. Part of the sector’s success in fending off competition from rivals such as Vietnam, is down to workplace reforms that show Cambodia’s garment-exporting factories as having all but eradicated sweatshop labour, according to the International Labor Organisation (ILO). Catherine Vaillancourt-Laflamme, of Better Factories Cambodia, a project that monitors the factories, says that wages, working hours and conditions in the factories are in now in line with international standards. Local factories produce clothes for brands such Gap, Nike, Marks and Spencer and Inditex , the world’s biggest clothing retailer and owner of Zara.

However, on March 28, the same day Duch’s appeal commenced, eight garment workers were injured in a protest by around 1000 mostly female employees. More protests could arise over a proposed trade union law, which union leaders and activists see as an attempt by the Cambodian Government to restrict and monitor unions. A similar law for NGOs has been tabled, which Naly Pilorge, Director of human rights group LICADHO, describes as an attempt “to take the N out of NGO and bring civil society entirely under the Government’s sway.”


Inside the Tuol Sleng museum, formerly the S-21 prison run by Duch (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

– This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund



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