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Sunday, August 01, 2010

A small measure of justice in Cambodia

The punishment given the ex-chief of the Khmer Rouge's most notorious prison appears to be too lenient. And culpability for the reign of terror extends far beyond him.

By James Pringle

Last week in a Cambodian courtroom, I watched as the former commandant of the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng prison and torture center was sentenced to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

During Monday's 70-minute session, the former executioner, now a born-again Christian, listened attentively from the dock, holding what appeared to be a small Bible. "If you want to stone me to death, as they did when Christ was with us, the Cambodian people can do so and I will accept it," he told the tribunal during his trial. But he also asked for mercy.

Kang Kek Ieu — known in tribunal filings as Kaing Guek Eav but best known by his revolutionary name, Comrade Duch — fled Phnom Penh when the Vietnamese invaded and deposed the Khmer Rouge in 1979. He remained at large for more than 20 years until he was found, working for a Christian aid agency, by Irish photographer Nic Dunlop

To many survivors of the Khmer Rouge era, last week's sentence seemed far too light for a man who was "addicted to the sight of blood," as one of them described Duch in trial testimony. After taking into account the time he's already served and other considerations, he is likely to serve 19 more years, which leaves the distinct possibility that the 67-year-old will live to see freedom again.

Is that too lenient a sentence? Probably. But it's hard not to also think about how the culpability for Cambodia's horror extends far beyond one prison commander.

The first time I saw Cambodia was during the American "incursion" in the spring of 1970. Flying over the country in a rickety Vietnamese helicopter, I beheld a landscape pocked with craters, the result of the secret bombing that had been ordered by President Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, in 1969.

Some commentators have wondered since just how much the American bombings, which killed tens of thousands of Cambodians before being stopped by Congress in 1973, had to do with the ferocity of the Khmer Rouge, under whose rule an estimated 1.7 million people were put to death or died of hunger or overwork.

In 1979, I went to Phnom Penh as part of a press tour for half a dozen Western journalists who had been brought to see the "new" Cambodia. But everywhere we looked were signs of the despot Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

In the countryside, skinny oxen pulled wooden carts along mine-laden and bomb-blasted roads. In the city, mountains of wrecked automobiles stood alongside hillocks of rusting refrigerators, unacceptable bourgeois toys in Pol Pot's "glorious" Democratic Kampuchea.

At one point, having evaded our minders, we came across a handful of ordinary Cambodians who had crept past government barriers into Phnom Penh. They were kneeling in tattered clothes on the ground picking up individual grains of rice. The pathetic cavalcade of skeletons smiled shyly at a couple of foreigners before hauling themselves to their feet and tottering off, as if they felt their suffering was an eyesore to us.

Among the places we visited on that trip was Tuol Sleng, also known as the S-21 prison, where Duch had ordered the killing of thousands of Cambodians. Blood was still congealed on the prison floor when we visited, and it felt as if the last desperate scream still hung in the air. The whole awful place stank of death, fear and neglect.

Today, of course, Phnom Penh is a very different place, a busy city full of bars and restaurants. For decades, Cambodians have wanted to forget the past and move on with life, and it remains to be seen whether the government will muster the will to aggressively prosecute other war criminals. Only recently have young people even been taught much about the Khmer Rouge regime.

But as I watched Duch's sentencing last week, I found the past hard to forget. I remembered speaking to a mother and her 11-year-old son in 1979, soon after Pol Pot's ouster. The boy had lost both his legs in a mine blast while watching their cow. And he wasn't alone.

"The children of Cambodia have no legs," his mother, half-demented with grief, told me.

James Pringle covered the war in Vietnam and Cambodia as a correspondent for Reuters and Newsweek.
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Poll: Respondents fear temple row will impact Thai-Cambodian relations

BANGKOK, August 1- The Thai public is concerned about the impact of the current diplomatic wrangling and four out of 10 respondents in a new poll -- 40 per cent -- expressed concern that the current dispute over Preah Vihear temple could negatively affect relations between Thailand and Cambodia, according to a survey conducted by Dusit Poll.

The survey conducted among 1,148 people from July 30 through August 1 showed that one in four -- some 25 per cent of respondents worry that Thailand might eventually lose the area adjoining Preah Vihear temple.

Almost 21 per cent of the respondents fear that more clashes between soldiers of the two countries would take place, causing unsafe conditions for residents living near the border, while 14 per cent said the dispute would affect the livelihood of people living near the border and those in the tourism business.

The survey was conducted after UNESCO's World Heritage Commission on Thursday deferred its decision on Cambodia’s request to review its management plan for the temple for one more year. It will be reviewed during next year's WHC meeting in Bahrain.

Thailand and Cambodia recognise different border demarcations, having resulted in clashes along the disputed border between the two countries. The clashes have occurred periodically since the temple was awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962.

The situation has worsened after the UNESCO named the temple a World Heritage site in 2008 after Cambodia applied for much-valued status.

The Dusit Poll said one third of the respondents -- 33 per cent -- believed the government should present facts on the temple to Thais and foreigners, 26.5 per cent said Thailand must prepare information and maps marking the boundary between the two countries in details and that it must work on an proactive basis.

Twenty-one per cent said Thailand must monitor Cambodia's movements and provide security to residents the border and 19 per cent suggested the Thai government to be patient and resolve the problem through negotiations. (MCOT online news)
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