After finishing our tour of Choeung Ek and thanking our guide Mr. Chanteng for guiding us, we checked out a small museum on the Choeung Ek grounds that had more display to educate the visitors about the Khmer Rouge atrocities. In the museum, they had a display showing a sampling of tools that the Khmer Rouge used to kill people. There was also an exhibit showing the organization structure of the Khmer Rouge leadership, and some information about the Khmer Rouge tribunal that was still ongoing to put the ex Khmer Rouge leaders on trial for crime against humanity. It’s been more than 30 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge reign, but the tribunal process was still going on.
The tribunal process only put the leadership of Khmer Rouge on trial. The other ex-Khmer Rouge members were re-integrated into the Cambodian society as the organization was disbanded. I asked Mr. Chanteng how people dealt with this. He said most people didn’t really discuss much about it and moved on, so over time you wouldn’t be able to distinguish those who were part of Khmer Rouge in the past anymore. I also asked him if people thought these ex-Khmer Rouge cadres should also be punished for their role in the past atrocities. He said it’s not an easy decision to make, as many of the ex-Khmer Rouge cadres were young, uneducated people who were brainwashed by those in Khmer Rouge leadership, and many joined the Khmer Rouge out of need for survival (either they followed, or they would die themselves). So, the common position is to put the blame on the leaders, and let the others go.
The tribunal process had been going on for several years and had cost more than USD$70 million, and only recently (July 2010) it yielded one guilty verdict (on Duch, the head of Tuol Sleng Prison, who admitted his guilt and was sentenced for 35 years in prison — considered inadequate sentence by many Cambodians). There were five more Khmer Rouge leaders currently waiting for trials — they were already in their 80s in 2010. Some people questioned whether the tribunal was worth doing, given that the large of money spent ended up consumed by a corrupt administration. In the meantime, many of the victims, the Cambodian people, still lived in poverty. Many suggested that the money would be better spent if used to build infrastructure in the country. Again, this was another difficult question that the Cambodians had to wrestle with.
After we’re done checking out the exhibits at the museum, we spent a little bit of time resting outside the museum before we left Choeung Ek. As we sat there, we saw in the distance the tall memorial stupa and a Cambodian flag flying next to it. It felt quite peaceful at that moment — I think it’s a good symbol for what the Cambodians hoped for the future: a peaceful and prosperous Cambodian society that doesn’t forget its past to ensure that the dark history will not be repeated again.
I saw the photo below at the museum in Choeung Ek. It’s a photo taken of Duch during the initial trial that’s mentioned above. One interesting development that happened since then (early this month, February 2012) was that he appealed the conviction under the arguments that he’s only following orders from those above him, but in a surprising turn of events, the appeal was denied, and instead his sentence was changed to life in prison instead.