Cambodia’s decade-long tourism boom may have been driven by the peace and political stability that have made the ancient Angkor Wat site near Siem Reap more accessible, but visitors to Phnom Penh now flock to much younger relics from the country’s troubled past. Any tourist who has visited the capital is likely to have toured Tuol Sleng prison — a former school in the suburbs that the Khmer Rouge transformed into a torture facility during its four long years of genocidal rule between 1975 and 1979.

Thousands of people were imprisoned and tortured there, and those who survived were taken to Choueng Ek — the Killing Fields — and murdered. Tuol Sleng has since been turned into a museum and monument to its victims, and each day hundreds of tourists shuffle through its seemingly untouched prison cells and torture rooms. It’s an eerily placid place, and it is impossible not to be humbled by its significance. There are signs plastered around the buildings warning visitors not to smile or laugh, but they feel completely unnecessary.

Brief visitors to this increasingly prosperous city might assume the Khmer Rouge era — which led to the deaths of up to two million people through execution, starvation and exhaustion — is now a closed chapter. Cambodia is slowly overcoming the years of civil war that followed the Khmer Rouge’s rule and its embroilment in America’s Indochinese offensive that preceded it. Few would dare to suggest what Cambodia might look like today if Pol Pot had never come to power, but it is clear the country has never quite recovered. The heavily concentrated presence of NGOs and UN agencies is testament to this fact, and Phnom Penh must have one of the most concentrated expat communities of any city in the developing world.

What many visitors to Tuol Sleng might not know is that the former head of this prison will be put on trial next month. Kaing Guek Eav — known by his revolutionary name “Duch” — has been detained since 1999 and is one of five former Khmer Rouge leaders currently facing trial for crimes against humanity before a somewhat experimental UN-backed tribunal. He will appear for an initial hearing on February 17 and a verdict is expected within the next few months.

The court was established in 2006 after a decade of negotiations between the Cambodian Government and the UN, but due to a number of delays had so far only entered the pre-trial stage. The tribunal, which is comprised of Cambodian and international judges, prosecutors and defence teams, has also been subject to allegations of corruption on the Cambodian side of the court. These allegations led the UN to freeze donor funding to the Cambodian side until a satisfactory investigation has been completed — the issue remains unresolved.

In December last year disagreement emerged between international and Cambodian prosecutors over the scope of the court’s investigation — the international side argued that more former leaders should be detained, while the Cambodians maintained the current five was enough.

While the courthouse itself — built on the outskirts of the Phnom Penh sprawl — sits empty aside for a few cleaners spray-and-wiping the bulletproof glass, anxieties are brewing about whether the troubled court will be able to rise to the task before the eyes of the world. The court is bracing for a strong media presence during the trials and there is no doubt the court facility will be teeming with hacks. CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera are among the scores of media organisations and journalists already listed on the court’s weighty media register, which spills over several clipboarded pages kept at the court’s entrance.

It takes specially assigned staff member and about 10 minutes just to get through the front door.

Whether these temporary media visitors will see the court in all its complexities is perhaps irrelevant — maybe the real achievement is that a trial is finally happening. But those who have been here for the long haul might see this as a cop out, particularly international observers who have spent many long hot months worrying that this court, even if it does put on a show for the international viewing public, will not return the amount of time, money and political willpower that has been invested already.

While it is unlikely the court’s problems will be fully exposed, they may well put the legacy and historical significance of the court at risk. Cambodians and victims of the Khmer Rouge have been waiting decades for the trials to begin and know that their wait will not end with this trial. Pol Pot’s former coterie, including his “Brother Number 2” and his foreign minister, remain in the court’s detention facility and may not live long enough to see a trial if delays continue as they have for Duch’s case. Given the ailing health and ages of these former leaders, Cambodians are understandably anxious about the speed of the trials.

But despite the tribunal’s many troubles, the confirmation of a date for Duch’s trial has been received as a highly symbolic step towards justice, reconciliation and truth. How Cambodians feel about the delays in bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to trial is difficult to quantify, but a report released last Wednesday paints a surprising picture of people’s knowledge about the tribunal. Berkeley’s Human Rights Centre found that 39 per cent of people had no knowledge about the court, while 46 per cent had “a little” knowledge — a total of 85% with little or no knowledge about the tribunal.

And while the survey found that 78% of people thought of themselves as victims of the Khmer Rouge (including those who did not live under the regime), 76% said agreed that it was “more important to focus on problems Cambodians face today” than to “address crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period”. Yet 90% agreed that the Khmer Rouge should be held to account.

These figures could in part be explained by varying levels of education, access to media and trust in Cambodia’s legal system to deliver a fair and just outcome. But they also show the Khmer Rouge period is still very much a part of peoples’ lives and is far from a closed chapter in the country’s history. 

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Peter Fray

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