Funny old day in Phnom Penh today. Not the usual dry season blue skies, but overcast with intermittent showers. Fitting, I thought, for the opening day of the Khmer Rouge trials, really just a hearing for the first defendant.

Comrade Duch, as he was known in the seventies, is now an old man and he has been in custody since 1999 awaiting the tortuous process of setting up the KR trials.

Duch is an easy target having been the commander of S21, the torture centre set up in a multi-storey suburban school near the centre of Phnom Penh. At first, in 1975, the inmates were the ex-officers in the Lon Nol army, top bureaucrats, assorted intellectuals and foreigners like Indians and Pakistanis. Even Canadian, New Zealand and Australian yachtsmen who had strayed off course — probably on drug running trips — were tortured and all confessed to being CIA agents attempting to subvert the revolution.

Later, as the revolution soured and scapegoats were needed, victims were Khmer Rouge cadres and bureaucrats — who also always confessed. Everyone confessed. Of course, their families were also guilty. In all about 16,000 people were processed at S21 and, unless they died under torture, were removed in trucks in the dead of night and taken to the killing fields at Choeung Ek on the outskirts of the city. Despatched usually with the blow to the back of the head.

All inmates were photographed and their crimes and confessions documented, so when the Vietnamese liberators arrived early in 1979 all the evidence was intact. There were just eleven bodies chained to steel bed frames and a few children found alive hiding under piles of the victims clothing in a stairwell. The clothing is still there and one of the child survivors turned up in Phnom Penh only a few days ago.

The other defendants who may or may not die of old age before they get their day in court were much more senior members of the KR government, but they all claim to have been unaware of the existence of S21.

These trials have not really been supported by the regime of Mr Hun Saen, but they have taken about $150 million so far and spent it all. Only a last minute injection of another 50 million by the Japanese government has saved the day.

There have been allegations of corruption, no doubt true —  this is Cambodia. Cambodian staff are being paid several thousand dollars a month to participate. Many are totally unskilled and are, of course, kicking back most of their salaries to the top dogs in the government.

In this country a school teacher or policeman still only earns sixty dollars a month and a building worker about the same.

There are numerous westerners, mostly lawyers, also involved and who have their snouts even more firmly embedded in the internationally-funded trough.

The average Cambodian, whether educated or not, has no interest whatsoever in this expensive process. Only a handful of spectators were outside the court this morning. Most Cambodians are under the age of 18 and many either don’t believe the KR stories their parents relate, or are too busy riding around on their new Fino or Airblade celebrating Valentine’s Day with gusto as they did on the weekend.

Older Cambodians know that they have neighbours who killed members of their family, they know that senior members of the government and armed forces were Khmer Rouge thugs, but they also know that life must go on. Many wonder why there is no Kissinger in the dock, the American bombing caused the deaths of probably hundreds of thousands of people in the provinces during the 70s.

Stability is all Cambodian people seek. The government has no interest in defendants naming current members of the government or military as Khmer Rouge murderers. The Chinese were allies of the KR and the mention of Chinese advisors as being complicit in the atrocities is also a no no — the Chinese are major aid donors now.

I was up in Kompong Channang a few months ago. I drove my car on the huge airstrips built up there by the Chinese using Khmer slave labour. Tens of thousands died during the construction and the survivors were murdered on completion. The airport has never been used even until this day.

Poor fella my country.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW