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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Trouble With the 'Genocide' Label

The Current Discussion: Today is "Genocide Remembrance Day "in the Armenian community, a particularly strained time of year for Turkey and Armenia. What's a realistic first step forward toward reconciliation for each of these countries?

By Salil Tripathi


Turkey and Armenia have begun the slow, tentative waltz of rebuilding relations, after President Obama spoke in Istanbul, but did not use the G-word.

That was perhaps a wise decision, notwithstanding the strong emotive reason that propelled many to call a spade a spade, a machete a machete, and a genocide a genocide, leading to the Congressional Resolution. The truth is that ultimately only communities themselves can make the decision to leave the past behind. International leaders - even one as gifted as Barack Obama - can only play a limited role. (Sudan's conflict didn't stop when Colin Powell called the killings in Darfur a genocide, and few countries joined him in condemning the Sudanese leadership.)

This is a peculiar period in the world annals of our coming to terms with genocide. Cambodia is trying to account for genocide and killing fields by indicting Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch. India's ruling party withdrew a candidate for Parliament, partially in response to a shoe-throwing incident. (Credible human rights groups allege that the candidate was involved in the 1984 Sikh massacre, after two Sikh bodyguards assassinated former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.) Tamils in Britain accuse the Sri Lankan army of committing genocide in Sri Lanka. Bangladesh's newly-elected government sets its sights on bringing to justice those accountable for the Pakistani Army's widespread killings of Bangladeshis in 1971.

And then there is Rwanda. This month is the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. In a recent issue of Paris Review, the French writer Jean Hatzfeld recalls the uneasy aftermath of dealing with released prisoners who had at one time massacred a community's loved ones. Hatzfeld's books - The Machete Season (2005), Life Laid Bare (2007), and The Antelope's Strategy (2009) -- are required reading for anyone who wants to understand the psyche of the perpetrator and the victim, of what makes a killer, and, as Hannah Arendt observed in the context of Eichmann, the banality of evil.

The fixation with the word 'genocide' comes from its emotive power. Among human rights abuses, genocide is arguably the worst, which is why governments fight tooth and nail to prevent others from calling their heinous acts as genocidal. The definition, developed after we discovered the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, is written bearing in mind the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish community. Those abuses made every preceding abuse seem less significant. With the definition was so precisely drafted, what were we to call Stalin's purges - or even Pol Pot's bloody rule - where a single ethnic group wasn't targeted, and where the masterminds of those genocides did not always get around to implementing policies that would prevent future generations from being born? These were mass killings, massacres, crimes against humanity. But they weren't quite like the Holocaust - just as the Holocaust wasn't quite like what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity are extremely powerful terms, which is why governments resent such characterization. The sad consequence is that diplomats then perform the delicate dance of defining the term more precisely, and argue whether a particularly horrendous abuse was genocide. Lost, amidst all this, are human impulses - of ethics, morality, revenge, justice, redemption, and compassion.

What happened in Turkey nearly a century ago - as indeed in Rwanda, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Sudan - must never happen again. And yet Obama and other world leaders can only nudge governments to do the right thing. Ultimately communities and nations must develop the confidence and face the past, apologize where necessary, and forgive as appropriate. That requires a moral core, not legalism alone. The law helps and is of course necessary. But genocide is wrong not because the law says so, but because it is against our conscience.



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Khmer Rouge prison chief denies waterboarding

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — The former Khmer Rouge prison chief on Wednesday denied he waterboarded or suffocated detainees as he detailed his torture techniques to Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes trial.

Duch -- whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav -- apologised at the start of his trial last month for overseeing the torture and extermination of 15,000 people who passed through the regime's Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21.

But he said he had not used the simulated drowning technique called waterboarding, and had not put plastic bags over prisoners' heads because of the danger they could suffocate to death.

"The kind of waterboarding technique was not employed and the plastic bag was also not a kind of technique," Duch said.

Duch said he discussed interrogation tactics with Khmer Rouge cadres soon after he began working at the prison.

"There were two techniques. The normal beating technique and the electrocution technique with use of a telephone (line)... which was connected to an electric current to electrocute prisoners. That was true," Duch said.

The United States has been heavily criticised for using waterboarding to interrogate suspected Al-Qaeda prisoners, with many commentators citing it as a brutal method of the Khmer Rouge.

Duch told the court that he picked children as young as 12 years old to work as special security guards at S-21 because they were easy to train.

"I regarded those children as a clean piece of paper on which we could draw anything, write anything with communist political tendency," Duch said.

Besides Vietnamese prisoners of war and Cambodians being purged from the Khmer Rouge, Duch said an American, a Briton, an Australian and a New Zealander were also tortured and executed at S-21 on suspicion of espionage.

Duch is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder over the extermination of thousands of people between 1975 and 1979 at Tuol Sleng and the nearby "Killing Fields."

However, he has denied prosecutors' claims that he played a central role in the Khmer Rouge's iron-fisted rule, and maintains he only tortured two people himself and never personally executed anyone.

"The people who were detained had to be smashed. Everyone who was arrested and sent to S-21 was presumed dead already," Duch told the court Wednesday.

"S-21 dared not to release anyone, otherwise we would be beheaded," he said, adding that even those mistakenly arrested could never be let out of the prison.

Duch faces life in jail at the court, which does not have the power to impose the death penalty.

Many believe the UN-sponsored tribunal is the last chance to find justice for victims of the regime, which killed up to two million people through starvation, overwork, torture and execution.

The Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979 by Hanoi-backed forces who discovered Tuol Sleng and established the facility as a museum to display the regime's crimes.

The tribunal was formed in 2006 after nearly a decade of wrangling between the United Nations and Cambodian government, and is scheduled to try four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

But the court has been marred by corruption claims and talks between UN and Cambodian officials ended earlier this month without agreement on anti-graft measures.

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Justice won't be served by KR trial

The wounds inflicted on so many in Cambodia by the radical Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979 are too deep to be effaced by a U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge Trial of five Khmer Rouge leaders, all in poor health.

More than half of Cambodia's current population of about 14 million were born after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed, following the invasion of Cambodia by some 200,000 Vietnamese regular forces in January 1979. In general, young Cambodians today know little of their country's dark history, and some have shown no interest.

With hardly a Cambodian family anywhere untouched by Khmer Rouge's atrocities, the trial of those responsible for the deaths and the suffering of so many, and the destruction of so much, is long overdue.

The trial now underway may have achieved an objective by putting Kaing Khek Eav, alias Duch, commandant of the gruesome S-21 Tuol Sleng torture center, on the stand in February to answer for his actions. His trial is to be followed by the trial of four others: Brother No. 2 Nuon Chea, chief ideologue, who was granted a pardon by Premier Hun Sen; Brother No. 3 Ieng Sary, former foreign minister, who was granted a royal pardon; Ieng Thirith, Sary's wife and former minister of social affairs, a founding member of the Khmer Rouge; and Khieu Samphan, former president of Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Still there are serious questions how the trial will attain its goals to achieve justice, promote peacebuilding, encourage reconciliation and begin healing, as a tribunal should.

Many Khmer Rouge personalities and cadres are still walking free; some are in Cambodia's leadership today.

New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia Director, Brad Adams, said, "It's a ridiculous proposition that only five people should be held accountable" in the mass killings; Amnesty International's Brittis Edman said, "Many more need to face the court to really deliver justice to the millions of victims of these horrific crimes." Old Khmer Rouge suspects could die before facing justice.

Justice, or the rendering of what is due to the victims, or what is due to the accused, is far from being met. Many will never face justice: Brother No. 1 Pol Pot died in 1998; the feared "butcher," Ta Mok, died in 2006 while in prison; Son Sen died in 1997; Ke Pauk in 2002; among others.

In "Little closure for Cambodia," the Bangkok Post editorializes, "It is misleading for the Cambodian government and its supporters to claim that the Khmer Rouge leadership is being brought to the tribunal."

Besides Duch, the Post says, "None seems close to the courtroom steps. All are approaching the natural end of their lives. The reasons why they will escape justice are varied. Among them, long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen was himself a senior Khmer Rouge military officer, who does not want to be mentioned in defense testimony."

The Post posits, "It is a pretense of justice to claim that the trial of Duch is an accounting for that regime."

In the April 1 Cambodia Daily's "No More KR Prosecutions, Hun Sen Says," Yun Samean quoted Cambodian Premier Hun Sen's "absolute stand" not to allow prosecution of more Khmer Rouge because he fears another civil war: "I will allow this court to fail, but I will not allow Cambodia to have another war."

Thus, Sen, the chief executive, decides the judiciary's functions, tramples the principles of a democratic system, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers and their checks and balances, created to combat dictatorial rule.

Cambodian prosecutor Chea Leang's parroting of Sen's view -- that further indictments risk political instability -- raises questions of the court's credibility, independence and competence. U.N.-appointed prosecutor Robert Petit called for further investigations.

The mandate of the KRT is to try Khmer Rouge leaders and those most responsible for the atrocities.

Radio Free Asia of Mar. 22 reported Sen's anger at charges of "alleged corruption" of KRT employees and of his interference in the KRT. He declared: "If there is a judgment, the U.N. should be sentenced first ... including all those countries that supported Pol Pot at the U.N. between 1979 and 1991."

More than 70 countries, including China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, defended the right of the Khmer Rouge to their seat in the world body.

So how will justice be served, and how would the trial hope to bring the victims of brutalities and the accused to reconcile and be no longer at variance, and allow the nation to move on? And how to heal a wound inflicted so deeply, physically, emotionally and spiritually? Peacebuilding follows peacemaking.

In the final analysis, the Khmer Rouge trial may help Cambodians turn the country's dark history pages, but a process of long-lasting national reconciliation and healing will require both the victims and the accused to demonstrate compassion and forgiveness in extraordinary measure.

This may seem like a tall order, but these ingredients exist in Lord Buddha's precepts. Cambodians are Buddhists and can move on, with time and effort to make peacebuilding possible.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years.
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Cambodia installs scanner at airport to spot swine flu contamination

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia installed a thermal scanner at the Phnom Penh International Airport on Tuesday to monitor travelers over possible contamination of swine flu.

The equipment, which was provided by Singapore, can spot passengers whose body temperature exceeds 37 Celsius degrees, saidKet Sovanna, official at the Anti-communicable Disease Department of the Ministry of Health (MoH).

"We also have an ambulance to transport suspected patients from the airport to the Calmet Hospital in downtown Phnom Penh for emergency treatment," he said, adding that another scanner will be installed at the Siem Reap International Airport in Siem Reap province on Wednesday.

These two terminals are the only international airports in the kingdom. A third airport is situated in Sihanouk province, but only serves domestic flights.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and MoH issued a joint statement late Monday, saying that there were no reports of swine flu cases in Cambodia.
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Long Beach woman helped create library in Cambodia

LONG BEACH - One sign came when she couldn't enter the existing library because the floor was covered with six inches of rice that had been put there to dry during harvest season.

Another was the selection of volumes, such as the organic chemistry textbooks, in English, that a well-meaning but obviously clueless charity donated to the rural school in the poor farming community.

Still another was the abundance of books in French and English, but the paucity of books in Khmer.

So, Peace Corps volunteer Emi Caitlin Ishigooka from Long Beach jumped at the opportunity to create a new library when approached with the idea by the director of the Cambodian school where she was teaching high school English.

A 26-year-old UCLA and Poly High graduate who will attend USC graduate school in public administration in the fall, Ishigooka recently returned from a two-year stint as one of the inaugural group of Peace Corps volunteers assigned to Cambodia.

While she has come back to the U.S. with the usual bucketful of stories about life in a village with no running water, strange encounters with the local fauna and edible delicacies such as fried tarantulas, it is the library she built in her second year abroad that has the most meaning.

In the truest of the people, by the people and for the people tradition, Ishigooka says that from the outset she wanted the students to be the driving force.

"From the beginning they had major say," Ishigooka said. "They gave me the titles and subjects that interested them. I did keep one Norton Anthology, though."
Ishigooka applied for a grant from the Peace Corps, eventually raising about $3,500, including $300 or $400 from the students and the families themselves.

Once a new non-produce storing building was found, students began cleaning and decorating the new facility, including painting a large mural of the world on the wall.

"With the grant money, we were able to get books for all grade levels," Ishigooka said. And they were able to get them in Khmer: novels, history, poetry, even an edition in translation of Harry Potter.
The library was also outfitted with a listening center to help students with languages and other learning areas.

For Ishigooka, as important as getting the actual volumes, was giving the students a sense of ownership and responsibility for the library.

This included students volunteering to staff the library, setting schedules and actually be there during operating hours, along with maintaining the facility.

"This was built by an incredible group," Ishigooka says.

The best part, was "to see students make it their own. Now the student librarians are leaders and role models. And in the process we were promoting volunteerism, which for a Peace Corps volunteer is pretty phenomenal."

As she sits at a Starbucks near the Traffic Circle and begins to renew her relationship with coffee, finds a job, visits with friends, checks text messages, prepares for graduate school and negotiates with her mom for use of the car, the 26-year-old is very much back into the hectic flow of life of an young American woman on the upward career and educational track.

But a part of Ishigooka will always be in Cambodia, beyond the retainer a rat absconded with.

When Ishigooka looks back, she hopes she left something lasting and tangible.

"The kids are are so proud and took such good care of (the library) that I'm confident years from now it will still be there and be a big part of the school and community," Ishigooka says.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291
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