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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Khmer Rouge survivors speak out

Um Sath (left), 89, of Long Beach, Calif., a Khmer Rouge survivor who lost her husband, three sons, and other relatives, at a Cambodian New Year celebration this month. She is one of many submitting testimony for a tribunal in Cambodia. (Barbara Davidson/ Los Angeles Times)

LONG BEACH, Calif. - At night, the old woman hears the voices of her children crying out for her. She knows they will never stop.

Um Sath is 89, and three decades have passed since the Khmer Rouge laid waste to Cambodia. But she shuts her eyes and taps her temples to show where the genocidal regime still rules with impunity.

"We miss you, Mama," the voices cry.

Sath spends much of her day sitting in silence. For years, she rarely left her house in Long Beach. Although she now finds peace chatting with the other haunted figures at a senior center, she has kept the echoes of the "killing fields" sealed tightly inside her head.

In March, she let them out - joining dozens of survivors at a recreation center in Long Beach to face their memories. They longed to see a reckoning for perpetrators of one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

Since February, a UN-backed tribunal in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh has put on trial the first of five Khmer Rouge leaders charged with crimes against humanity, for the brutal experiment in communism that took at least 1.7 million lives between 1975 and 1979.

Activists in the United States want refugees outside Cambodia to submit testimony in an effort to spur a judicial process beset by delays, limited funds, and allegations of corruption. They hope, along the way, to relieve the emotional torture of survivors.

"I'm hoping it will allow them to tell the world what happened," said Leakhena Nou, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach who is leading the outreach effort in southern California, home of the world's largest Cambodian refugee community.

In the recreation center at a park, Nou explains to Sath and other victims the importance of submitting written testimony.

Nou understands this tribunal has problems. She knows it won't touch even a fraction of the era's killers. She knows political forces in Cambodia want to limit the tribunal's reach. She knows survivors' memories are fragmented and muddled. Asking them to condense incomprehensible horrors of that time into a few lines on a government form borders on cruel farce. And Nou hasn't even been assured that prosecutors will read the forms. But she still hopes this could be a starting point for Cambodians around the world to rally for justice.

She asks the survivors if they want to tell their stories to the group first. Sath stands up.

Sath and her husband were farmers and merchants along the Mekong River, south of Phnom Penh. In the middle class, with enough money to own a modest brick house, they were targets when the Khmer Rouge swept into power in 1975, brutally turning the country into a collective society of farm peasants. Intellectuals, teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, and soldiers were executed.

Khmer Rouge soldiers showed up at Sath's home with rifles, took her husband and told her to walk with her eight children. They had nothing but their clothes. Sath held her 6-year-old boy's hand. For days they wandered, following orders. Anyone who complained was dismissed by a bullet to the head.

One day, soldiers locked Sath in chains and took her husband. Days later, she overheard soldiers mention his execution.

Other stories poured out. One woman gets paper towels to hand around to wipe the tears.

When they get to the government forms, 21 people fill them out. No one remembers dates. Only one victim names a perpetrator. The rest do not remember their tormentors' names, never knew them, or are still scared.

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Pakistan in danger of falling to Taliban

Joel Brinkley

As everyone knows, President Obama inherited a multitude of domestic and international problems. But of all the foreign dilemmas right now, none rivals Pakistan. It is in serious danger of falling to the Taliban.

Can you imagine - a large, nuclear-armed state in Central Asia, ruled by cousins of the people who governed Afghanistan when it served as a congenial home for Osama bin Laden and all his murderous minions?

But the warnings are coming fast and thick from the highest officials, including Gen. David Petraeus, commander of American forces in that part of the world. The Taliban and allied extremists, he told the Senate this month, "could literally take down their state." Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president, reflecting on American proposals for saving his nation, told a group of reporters: "It's a long walk. And in that long walk, I am losing the people of Pakistan."

In February, Taliban extremists fought the Pakistani army to a draw and won agreement to establish a safe haven in the Swat Valley, just 100 miles from Islamabad, the capital. At that time, I.A. Rehman, head of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, said the Taliban and their militant allies were poised to take over the Punjab province, home to 60 percent of the population. That has begun. Militants are taking control, one by one, of poor villages in northwest Punjab - beginning the spread of an insidious fungus that could eat the state.

On Wednesday, Taliban militia took control of the Bunar district, just 70 miles from Islamabad, prompting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to warn: "I think that we cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by the continuing advances" of the Taliban.

The Pakistani police and military seem powerless to stop it. They lack the will to take on this fight, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has been arguing in recent days.

"They're in denial," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan. "There's no sense of urgency," even though Pakistan is staring down the barrel "of a full blown, indigenous insurgency."

Even now, with the state's very existence at stake, military leaders continue their feckless debate over whether their central mission should be to prepare for a war with India - or take on these domestic threats. At the same time, American officials have begun urgently warning (what everyone already knew) that Inter-Services Intelligence agency officers are actually aiding the militants.

Meantime, Zardari provided a powerful symbol of his government's impotence. Earlier this month, a cell-phone video showed a Taliban enforcer flogging a 17-year-old girl lying face down in the dirt. Her crime: refusing a marriage proposal. The video made its way onto the Web and spawned outrage across the nation and the world; Pakistan's Supreme Court opened an investigation.

Well, amid all of this, Zardari signed an order codifying the Taliban's right to extend Islamic law across the Swat Valley. A Taliban spokesman said that if the order had been signed earlier, the Taliban would not have merely whipped that unfortunate girl. They would have shot her.

Haven't we seen this play before - in Cuba, Cambodia, Nicaragua? In all three states, richly corrupt governments that were ill-serving the people still received unqualified support from Washington. American patronage of corrupt leaders fed enthusiasm for Fidel Castro's guerrilla army in Cuba, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua.

Certainly each of these previous revolutions had its own unique dynamics, but in each case Washington and the threatened foreign leaders remained in denial until it was too late.

This time, Washington is waking up. But there's not much the United States can do. As Weinbaum put it, "if we put our hands on it, it's not helpful." He also told me that he used to discount the doomsayers who prophesied Pakistan's downfall. "This is not Afghanistan," he would say. "Pakistan has institutions and people advantaged by them who won't let Pakistan fall apart."

But he has changed his mind. "It's a feudal conflict now, class warfare. We weren't thinking of it in the terms that we are today."

At a conference in Tokyo this month, a dozen nations pledged $5 billion in aid to Pakistan. At the same time, a prominent radical leader in Islamabad made a loud public call demanding imposition of Islamic law nationwide. Which, I wonder, had the greatest impact inside Pakistan?

Pakistan's oligarchy is beginning to realize it cannot rely on the military for protection; the generals now know that they cannot assume all of their men are on their side. Soon, as the situation deteriorates, we could begin to see wealthy political and business leaders pack up and move out of the country. The Pentagon may have to pull up its contingency plans for safeguarding Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
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