Villagers in former Khmer Rouge stronghold call for reconciliation

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 14, 2010
ABC Radio Australia

The trials of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge are going ahead but not everyone is enthusiastic. In the last stronghold of the brutal regime Anlong Veng, villagers have been invited to join in a program of national reconciliation. But respect for Cambodia's former extremist rulers is still high in the town.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael
Speakers: Daravuth Seng, head of Cambodia's Center for Justice and Reconciliation; Lars Olsen, spokesman for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal; anonymous participant at the Khmer Rouge gathering


CARMICHAEL: The song you are hearing is a Khmer Rouge tune that tells of extreme hardship and suffering: of war and bloodshed, of being wracked by malaria, of having insufficient food.

It is being sung by a former Khmer Rouge soldier in the town of Anlong Veng in Cambodia's northwest near the border with Thailand.

Anlong Veng was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, and surrendered to the government a little over a decade ago. Many former Khmer Rouge and their families live here, and unusually for Cambodia some of the movement's leaders are still held in high regard.

The man singing the song is one of a group of former Khmer Rouge who have come together to discuss what reconciliation and justice mean to them.

The event, which was held on Friday, was organised by a Cambodian NGO called the Center for Justice and Reconciliation.

The NGO is headed by Daravuth Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer, who grew up in the United States after his family left Cambodia in 1979.

Seng says reconciliation requires a two-way conversation - so to succeed at it means coming to places like Anlong Veng and listening to what former perpetrators have to say, despite knowing that many still support what the Khmer Rouge stood for.

SENG: But yet we have to somehow include them without compromising our message, without compromising our stance, in this reconciliation process as far as we can't say black is white and white is black just to try to accommodate. So there is a fine balance between accommodation and understanding.

CARMICHAEL: Seng says his organisation's role is to start that discussion.

On the day of the meeting 150 former Khmer Rouge and their families turn up, as do five Buddhist monks, the district governor, and staff from the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal that is underway in the capital Phnom Penh, 300 kilometres southeast of here.

In the morning the participants divide into four groups and discuss the meaning of terms such as reconciliation, justice and reintegration. In the afternoon they regroup and present their thoughts.

There is a consistency on certain topics. For one thing the attendees are satisfied that five former Khmer Rouge leaders in custody at the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh will be tried.

But on a related matter, they are utterly opposed to further prosecutions. Holding five people accountable is fine, they say, but pursuing another five - which the tribunal is looking at doing - is not.

PARTICIPANT: We should only try those top revolutionary leaders. We should not try those middle or lower ranking officers because they are only the followers of the leaders.

CARMICHAEL: And there is a none-too-subtle warning that to try more people could lead to war, a direct echo of controversial comments made last year by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen.

For those present today, justice and reconciliation mean no further prosecutions.

It is not an opinion that is widely shared in the rest of the country.

During a break in proceedings, tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen says other Cambodians routinely ask why so few people are being tried. After all, the Khmer Rouge are reckoned to be responsible for at least 1.5 million deaths.

He says the people of Anlong Veng are clearly concerned that prosecutions could ensnare more and more of them, which is not the case. He says the court must better communicate its plans to former Khmer Rouge.

OLSEN: The big difference is of course that we need to try to de-dramatize what we are doing here, because there is a fear we can see here that we will prosecute a lot of people, and they feel that can create instability in their communities.

CARMICHAEL: Away from matters of the tribunal and further prosecutions, those attending agree that reintegration has been beneficial. Their children can now go to school, there is health care, and the roads are much improved.

They are also tired of being referred to as former Khmer Rouge - that, they say, stigmatizes their children since the term speaks of killings and persecution. Instead they want to be referred to simply as Cambodians.

One notable feature of the meeting was that there were few outward signs of regret from those present or understanding about the damage done by the movement to Cambodia.

Daravuth Seng says the event is the first step of many on the road to reconciliation.

But the day also shows Cambodia has a long way to go to repair the legacy of one of the 20th century's most brutal regimes.


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