05/06/2011, 00.00

Study the Khmer Rouges to avoid the same mistakes, young Cambodian woman says

A young woman writes a letter to a newspaper, saying that the country’s history includes both the “marvellous period” of Angkor and the hellish nightmare of Pol Pot’s regime. For many others, the country’s recent history is painful, useless and better left forgotten. Activists warn that UN trials of Khmer Rouge officials are at risk.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – “I believe that if we do not learn from mistakes, the same mistakes will happen again,” wrote a young Cambodian woman, Kunty Seng, in a letter published on phnompenhpost.com. For her, Cambodians must study the “marvellous period” of the Angkor era as well as the genocidal “reign of horror” under Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge acolytes. In the meantime, human rights groups are sounding the alarm because the United Nations tribunal currently trying former Khmer Rouge leaders, including former deputy prime minister and “Brother Number Three” Ieng Sary, could close before it finishes its work. Likewise, many are concerned that prosecutors are not conducting investigations properly, which could compromise future prosecutions.

Cambodia still bears the scars of the four years of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-1979), which killed almost two million people (about a quarter of the population), including the country’s elites (intellectuals, doctors, teachers and artists)

Sociologists and Catholic leaders have told AsiaNews several times that Cambodians are not much inclined towards in-depth self-analysis and historical introspection. Largely, “money and economics”, not the past, are what counts. Still, there are some signs that something is changing.

In her letter, Kunty Seng wrote that some of her friends “say we should not talk about it because it is painful to be reminded of such a horrible time in our history.” They “view the Khmer Rouge tribunal as being useless because it can never bring all of the Khmer Rouge cadres to justice. They say: ‘The tribunal is a fake symbol; it is for a political gain only’.”

“I have a different view. I think that one needs to talk about what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime. I know that Cambodian leaders made a big mistake and future leaders must not make the same mistake again. I believe that if we do not learn from mistakes, the same mistakes will happen again.”

“Since my childhood, I have been taught about Cambodia, the Land of Sovann Phumi or ‘Golden Land’,” about “the marvellous period of Angkor era”, a place with beautiful temples that are now part of the world’s heritage.

However, “I have learned very little in school about what happened during the reign of horror of the Khmer Rouge,” she wrote. “What I have learned I have learned from my parents and other survivors.”

“I believe that [the] younger generation should be taught both the good things about Cambodia” during the “Angkor era” and “the terrible history of the Khmer Rouge.”

Meanwhile, legal and human rights activists are concerned that Cambodia's UN- backed genocide tribunal might shut down before the main accused, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirith, are tried, undermining any future trial against other former Pol Pot officials.

Defence lawyers have in fact demanded the release of their aged clients, who are on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Last week the co-investigating judges, a Cambodian and a German, officially informed the court that their investigation for Case No. 3 was complete. The names of those being probed have been kept secret, but they are believed to include at least five second-tier Khmer Rouge officials.

Critics including Human Rights Watch say the co-investigating judges have done an incomplete probe in an effort to scuttle future prosecutions.

So far, the only accused that was convicted is Kaing Guev Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, who ran the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh.

He admitted his guilt, saying he followed orders, and for this was sentenced to 35 years in jail.

His lawyers have appealed the sentence.

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