If Samuel Beckett met Pol Pot – Asia Sentinel/Irish Examiner

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TIK PANHAO – In some of Cambodia’s thousands of killing fields, the bones of the dead sometimes appear, after heavy rain loosens and washes away the topsoil. It’s as if the dead want to resurface, not only to remind people of their grisly and unmarked demise, but to tell Cambodians not to forget what happened during Khmer Rouge rule.

Perhaps 16,000 died at the s-21 Detention Camp in Phnom Penh and at the Choeung Ek death camp outside the city, where signs warn of rising bones and of babies that were beaten to death off tree trunks.

Vast numbers of people and bones bludgeoned and buried in a small space, but still but a fraction of the estimated 2 million people killed during Pol Pot’s 1975-1979 terror.

Breaking the silence onstage (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

On a Wednesday evening in late March, Tik Panhao – a bumpy hour’s motorcycle ride from downtown Phnom Penh – was the scene of a stark drama performed at a dimly-lit marketplace.

For those in the  audience of an age enough to remember the Khmer Rouge,  the play, “Breaking the Silence,” was stirring. Tears ran down Nhem Roeun’s face as she watched the actors on a makeshift stage in front of the village pagoda.

“Where was my father? Where did you kill him?” a woman asked. The Khmer Rouge cadres she accuses deny foul play or knowing where the missing man is. Based on historical accounts of the Khmer Rouge era, the dramatisation brought back memories, not only for Nhem Roeun.

Encouraged beforehand to speak about their experiences after seeing the play, the older audience members nodded in recognition of the themes and events recounted. The sparse, Beckettian presentation meant that the audience were not distracted by an ornate stage or by changes in layout from one seven scene to the next.

The audience had time and space to think about the messages coming from the stage. And, as in Beckett’s plays, the characters sometimes don’t speak, pausing between laconic monologues or exchanges. In between the real quotes that made up much of the pithy script, there was sometimes a hush in the open-air theatre, and sometimes chatter in the crowd. The apparent vacuums in the script hinting at things that could not not be said, or did not need to be said: communicating without words, drawing the audience in.

Sayana Ser works for the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which maintains a vast repository of real-life accounts of the Khmer Rouge era. Some of these personal histories were reproduced, often verbatim, in ‘Breaking the Silence.”

“The people identify with what they see. We have staged the play twenty times now, and often there is an emotional reaction”, she said, watching the drama unfold, again, at Tik Panhao.

As the drama moved through its seven mini-plays, all played by the same group of actors and actresses, the impact of ‘Breaking the Silence’ on the audience becomes clearer, and wider.

During a scene in which a daughter steals rice from her family, as they all faced starvation, older men and women turned to each other. “It’s true,” some whispered, to the rest of the two hundred or so people sitting in the night-time warm, was fanned by an unseasonal cooling breeze.

From Svay Rieng in the east of Cambodia, Nhem Roeun, 58, was in her twenties when the Khmer Rouge killed her father and brother in Battambang, in the west of the country.

“It is good that children see this,” she said of ‘Breaking the Silence.”

Wiping dry a teary cheek, Nhem Roeun said that she does not want the past to be forgotten. She then took the conversation back to the present day. “ I am not happy that Duch is appealing,” she said.

So far Duch,  or Kaing Guak Eav, to use his full name, is the only person convicted of crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge, even though a quarter of the country’s population during the regime’s rule. He is appealing his 35 year sentence, which was handed down in July 2010 by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) –  to give the Khmer Rouge tribunal its full title.

Duch was the head of S-21, a detention and torture camp  – a former school in the heart of the nearby capital. S-21 is now a museum, preserving the layout of the Khmer Rouge jail from where inmates were sent, after torture, to Cheoung Ek, where they were executed and rolled into mass graves.

Duch said that he committed his crimes under duress from the senior Khmer Rouge leaders, 4 of whom are scheduled to go on trial later in 2011. The prosecution is saying that Duch should face a longer jail term, given that he could conceivably emerge a free man after spending 18-19 years in jail, with the sentence effectively commuted due to time already served in detention.

From behind the wire in S-21 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Lawyer and writer Theary Seng’s parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, and she says that a reduced sentence for Duch would be an injustice. However, looking ahead to the trial of the main surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, she thinks that the inconsistencies shown by Duch during his trial and appeal could jeopardise the bigger Case 2.

“Duch will be the star witness when Nuon Chea and the others face the court,” she said. “What better way to discredit the witness by having him flip-flop before the court already?” She believes that Duch came under pressure to amend his remorseful stance, adding to long-standing allegations of political interference with the court.

Duch himself claims to be a scapegoat, the only one selected from hundreds if not thousands of other Khmer Rouge of similar profile or standing to face trial. “S-21 was not unique. It was like all the other security centers where torture was employed,” he said on Wednesday, at the closing of his appeal hearing.

According to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, “allegations of political interference have also caused uncertainty over the likelihood of further indictments beyond Case 002, complicating the development of a completion strategy for the tribunal.”

According to John Coughlan, a Carlowman and UCC graduate now working as senior counsel to the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, the tribunal is vital to ensuring that some justice is given to Khmer Rouge victims. However, he says that there are problems with the court. “The findings of investigations into corruption at the court have never been made public and this year the tribunal refused to remove a judge who had publicly admitted taking bribes in his capacity as a judge in the Cambodian courts,” Coughlan said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge member, has made public his reluctance to have senior colleagues testify in Case 002, and previously, the Pre-trial Chamber’s international judges claimed “reason to believe that one or more members of the RGC (Royal Cambodian Government) may have knowingly and wilfully interfered with witnesses.”

Sadly, with growing doubts over the trial of the old Khmer Rouge leaders, Cambodia’s tragic and traumatic drama may not be over yet.

After rain washes away topsoil, human bones and teeth often protrude through the ground at Cheoung Ek (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

After rain washes away topsoil, human bones and teeth often protrude through the ground at Cheoung Ek (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Scene from 'Breaking the Silence' in which the Khmer Rouge interrogates a prisoner (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Scene from ‘Breaking the Silence’ in which the Khmer Rouge interrogates a prisoner (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

'Killing Tree' where babies and children were murdered at Cheoung Ek. To the bottom right are some human bone remains (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

‘Killing Tree’ where babies and children were murdered at Cheoung Ek. To the bottom right are some human bone remains (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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