Trying times in Cambodia – Asia Sentinel


Hints of a diplomatic tussle behind Cambodia’s troubled tribunal find their way to the country’s best-known Killing Field, which with better management would be a must-see for any visitor.

Skulls of the dead inside the stupa at Cheoung Ek (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

CHEOUNG EK, Cambodia. It has been over three decades since the night-time convoys of trucks bringing the emaciated, the half-dead and the terrified from S-21 jail in Phnom Penh rolled into Choeung Ek, 17 kilometers from the centre of what was then a deserted city, after  the Khmer Rouge  forced all residents out to rural labour camps.

Whether or not the blindfolded and shackled men, women and children knew in advance of their fate is unclear. Some surely did, but all were murdered in this flood-prone former orchard, mostly by a blow to the back of the neck with an iron bar, followed by a knife ran across the throat. The dead or almost-dead were piled in the freshly dug pits, as a generator ran in the background to drown out any screams or moans or death-throes.

As they admit in S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, some of the executioners soon became oblivious to the stench of death, which became ever more intense as the thousands of murdered filled the field full to bursting. After covering up the dead with a flimsy layer of topsoil, they made their way back to S-21 before light. There they began another day of interrogation, torture and some murder, before returning to Choeung Ek, often the following night, with another convoy of the brutalised and the doomed. So it went during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, not just at Choeung Ek, but at an estimated 20000 killing fields all over the country.

At the Killing Field

A Buddhist memorial high tower or stupa dominates the site, stacked with around 8,000 human skulls dug up from the ground around it, where around 17000 people were murdered. Most of the skulls are behind glass, but some, lower-down at human-eye level, can be touched. Many are damaged, probably due to the method of execution. In front of the tower, visitors light incense and candles and wait their turn to photograph or video this gruesome memento of Cambodia’s greatest tragedy.

Elsewhere in the field, various different mini-memorials are arrayed, from “The Killing Tree” where comrades cracked open the heads of babies by swinging them by ankles against the trunk, or another mass grave where hundreds of women were killed alongside their children.


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

On the ground, scattered here and there, sometimes alongside discarded cigarette butts and drink-can lids, lies a few bones of those dead who are left in the field. Elsewhere, edges of bones protrude though the earth, a sight that becomes more common after rain rinses off more topsoil. At the back of the field, a dyke has been built to stop floodwaters from deluging the site, doubling as a handy walkway for visitors who want to go full circle around Cheoung Ek, or rest awhile on a bench emblazoned with the logo of Angkor, one of Cambodia’s better-known beers. Outside, as an intermittent breeze rustled the branches around the barrier, the sound of a child singing in a nearby farmhouse carries on the wind, a macabre real-life parody of the horror movie trope.

Royalties for who?

Earlier, at the gate on the way in, I met Cham, as he called himself, one-legged and bedraggled. “I have children, they go school”, he implored. He said that he lost his right leg in Battambang province in 1988.He was there as a soldier, but refused to divulge who he fought for. His main source of income, he said, was begging visitors to Cheoung Ek for money, a dollar here and there to keep his family fed and housed and in school.

Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DCCAM) said in an interview at his office in Phnom Penh, many of the 5 million Khmer Rouge survivors live in penury in the countryside, some without family and without anything like state support or social welfare. 80% of Cambodia’s people live in the countryside, in a country where despite a decade of economic growth verging on 10% per annum, the average per capita income is US$2000 each year, but in reality is much lower for the majority of rural poor.

In a much-criticised deal signed in 2005, the Cambodian Government sold the rights to run Choeung Ek to a Japanese company, JC Royal, which pays US$15000 per year to the City Government in return for managing the site. The ticket on the gate says US$3, the actual fee I paid to get in was a dollar less. Does any of this go to help the surviving members of families killed by Khmer Rouge? Or those still living in Cambodia, whose relatives’ remains are now the skulls peering out of the stupa? It seems not.


This bench on the walkway/flood dyke to the rear of the site carries an advertisement for one of Cambodia's well-known beer brands (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

On the ticket is the following reassurance: ‘Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, in collaboration with Sun Fund (affiliated to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen), sponsors the poor and talented students. Your admission fee, a kind charity will ultimately contribute to development, conservation of the centre and sponsorship for education of the poor students’. Sic in places, maybe sick in other places. When I asked, staff at the centre could not give any more details about the poor and talented students referred to on the ticket, the presumed beneficiaries of the US$600-800 the centre makes per day on gate fees, based on what the gatekeeper said was a 300-400 average daily visitor number.

While most Cambodians are likely motivated firstly by day-to-day living and making ends meet, memories of the Khmer Rouge live on, with one-third of the current population having survived the brutal Communist regime’s rule. For some, that hurt is perhaps compounded – if not so much by the commercialisation of a site that is such a profound and necessary reminder of man’s worst side – but by the failure to at least ensure that the proceeds are used to help those who survived the brutality commemorated at Choeung Ek.

Asia’s Auschwitz?

Angkor Wat, the Khmer-built temple in the northwest, and physically the world’s biggest religious monument, is the country’s single biggest tourist attraction, pulling in 3 million visitors in 2010 after numbers increased by 30% per year in the last decade. It is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site – as is Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. However local residents near the temple do not benefit materially from the millions of visitors and growing revenue, with most visitors staying in the nearby city of Siem Reap.

Cheoung Ek is a necessary and moving memorial, Asia’s Auschwitz-Birkenau perhaps, and a compelling reminder of what man can do man when the madness of ideology takes hold. Why not add it to the UNESCO list, boost the visitors to Angkor Wat levels, but on condition that at least some of the revenues be used to help Khmer Rouge survivors?


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

Hearing trouble

At the end of March, Duch, the man who ran Choeung Ek and the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, and sole person so far to be convicted for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, appealed the effective 18-19 year sentence handed down to him last year by the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Despite previously expressing contrition and remorse for his crimes, Kaing Guak Eav, to give him his full name, has inexplicably changed his tune, now saying that he cannot be held fully responsible as he was directed to kill by the Khmer Rouge leaders.

I attended part of the latest hearings, held March 28-30, at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal’s official title. There, Duch’s defence team told the court that their client “tried to isolate himself from the crimes at S-21”, and asked, “what would you or anyone have done in his shoes, it would be like trying to disobey orders from the SS?” Lead prosecution lawyer Andrew Cayley is seeking an increased sentence, and described Duch as “selective and opportunistic” in his cooperation with the court, adding that his case “did not meet the standards for mitigation”.

Duch – who on occasion accompanied his subordinates out to Choeung Ek from S-21 to oversee a night’s murder – will be the key witness in the upcoming Case 002, in which the four main surviving Khmer Rouge leaders and associates of the late Pol Pot will stand trial. Some say his credibility as a witness has been damaged by his u-turns and appeals, and in turn, the case against the 4 could be damaged as a result.

As a result, there are rumours doing the rounds that Case 002 is being undermined, and unthinkably perhaps, that Pol Pot’s chief surviving lieutenants could escape justice. Even if that sounds overly-alarmist, there is a determination among Cambodia’s rulers to ensure that no second-tier Khmer Rouge men or women other than Duch face trial. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen — himself a mid-level Khmer Rouge before turning against the group – says that additional trials could spark off another civil war. Late in 2011, Hun Sen told visiting United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that new cases would not be permitted.

Since Duch’s appeal, Theary Seng, an outspoken US-schooled lawyer whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge, has lodged a civil suit naming the former commanders of the Khmer Rouge navy and airforce as among the defendants in Cases 004 and 004, which at the moment are not scheduled to go before the ECCC. Lars Olsen, a spokesman for the ECCC, described as Theary Seng’s lawsuit as reckless. One of the men she named, Meas Muth, former Khmer Rouge navy commander, said he had no part in the regime’s mass killings, Rob Hamill, a former New Zealand Olympic rower whose brother was killed by the Khmer Rouge after the regime’s navy arrested him at sea off the Cambodian coast, has also filed a suit regarding Cases 003 and 004.

The issue touches on a sensitive topic: whether the Tribunal should be limited to those deemed most responsible, or whether second tier figures should be tried as well. Duch, overlord of S-21 and Choeung Ek, has used a similar argument, saying he is being made a scapegoat while hundreds or more of similar-level Khmer Rouge killers get off scot-free.

Tribunal geopolitics

While the role of Japanese private investment at Choeung Ek remains questionable, the Japanese Government has been the largest single donor to the local-international tribunal set up to try Comrade Duch, the man who ran Cheoung Ek, as well as the four main surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. According to the ECCC website, Japan has provided US$67million to date to the court, 49% of the total pledges and contributions. Tokyo’s latest pledge of US$11.7 million was made in early 2011. Whether or not Japan can follow up on the pledges – made before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis hit late in February – remains to be seen. It could be a crippling blow to the ECCC if Tokyo backtracks.

If there are difficulties with the ECCC going forward, China, and to a lesser extent the United States, could emerge as beneficiaries. The US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War has been cited as facilitating the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s, as the group fought its way across the Cambodian countryside to Phnom Penh. Case 002 could see the US embarrassed by whatever the aged Khmer Rouge leaders say about the impact of the bombings on their conquest of Cambodia.

These days China provides Hun Sen loans and grants that do not come with the conditions required by western donors, with whom Hun Sen has had a testy relationship. All told, Chinese investment in Cambodia exceeds that of any other country, with US$8billion in projects lined up -so far – for this year. Chinese development projects have sparked anger among some Cambodians. In one high-profile case, thousands of residents around Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake have protested at forced evictions, right in the heart of the capital, with a Chinese-funded project seeking to fill in the lake and build a residential and shopping complex.

Japan’s backing for the court should be seen in the context of the still-touchy history and recent diplomatic wrangles between China and Japan, as well as China’s growing economic and strategic weight in east and southeast Asia. For its part, China has stated that it wants nothing to do with the tribunal, describing it as a “domestic matter”. However, Beijing supported the Khmer Rouge, financially, diplomatically and militarily, before, during and after the group’s 1975-79 rule. Duch is said to have taken sanctuary in China after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and the four senior surviving Khmer Rouge indictees may have more to say about the extent and nature of Chinese backing for their regime, if and when they face trial.

Stupa as viewed from entrance to Cheoung Ek (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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