Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – Last week, Cambodia marked the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover. In less than four years, the bloodthirsty Maoist revolutionaries led by Pol Pot killed nearly a quarter of the country’s population.
When Phnom Penh fell on 17 April 1975, a time of violence, terror and extermination camps was ushered in, an age that even today Cambodians find hard to deal with from an historical and social perspective.
Most people want to forget. The common feeling is one of oblivion, as if removal was the only way to overcome a trauma that is too hard to handle, analyse and surmount.
The few studies that have been done are usually the work of foreigners, who are interested in better understanding the tragic events that unfolded during those years.
This is why the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge seizure of power was so low key, said Fr Mario Ghezzi, a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) who has been 15 years in the Asian country.
"No special event was held,” he told AsiaNews. “The anniversary was not commemorated,” the missionary added. “People chose instead to celebrate Khmer New Year, have a good time. Everything stops at this time of the year. People prefer to forget, bury the past."
There is no real will to find justice, because for Cambodians justice lies in karma. It "therefore seems pointless to reconstruct, analyse, and re-evaluate . . . No one really wants to reopen deep wounds.”
As a “minor player” in the country, the Church has little power to spark critical interest. Most of its limited resources go into the pastoral ministry, social work and evangelisation.
One of the few initiatives, mostly by outsiders, especially Westerners, is a photo gallery by a Cambodia-based British photographer, Charles Fox, who has set up an online memorial titled Found Cambodia.
Through it, he wants to “give a gentle insight into people's day-to-day, and how they've rebuilt themselves,” providing a “softer, more personal side” to their tragedy.
“People make a country,” he said. They “make a culture.” And the pictures are “A unique glimpse,” a hint at why so many Cambodians are reticent about stirring up that past.
“There is nothing structured about it,” Fr Ghezzi said. It is one man’s attempt to piece together the past, a country’s history, generating “more interest abroad than in Cambodia.”
The same goes for the UN court because "no one talks about it . . . Only those directly involved are following the trial, but they are few.”
Today, Cambodia still shows the scars left by Pol Pot’s bloody Khmer Rouge regime, whose rule spread death and destruction.
During its short-lived reign, the regime killed and starved to death almost two million people, one quarter of the country’s population, with the victims – including the country’s intellectuals, doctors, teachers and cultural elite – perishing in the many killing fields that dot Cambodia’s landscape.
Although the court’s mandate is to provide justice to the victims and their families, so far it has tried only a few of the regime’s top leaders, amid charges of corruption and incompetence. Ill, Pol Pot died in 1998 and was never tried for the crimes attributed to him.
What is more, many old, lower-ranking Khmer Rouge officials are still free. In some cases, they are still working in government, in important roles. (DS)