Out of court

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cambodia: Justice Delayed May Mean Justice Denied

I spent the month of November touring Vietnam and Cambodia. Despite our tragic and arrogant war in SE Asia, the people in both countries are welcoming. Of course many are too young to have their own memories and now rely on the history they've learned in school or from the government, and some simply don't know much at all. But even if they only knew the propaganda, it didn't seem to matter, because they seemed to like us Americans. The cynic says: 'it's just the money, they like.' But I thought their welcomes were genuine.

In Vietnam there was a definite pride in believing they had defeated the so-called 'paper tiger,' the USA, in what they refer to as the "American War." I personally crawled in one of the Cu-Chi tunnels. In 10 minutes I was dripping in sweat and glad to get out. They lived down there! No question about how determined an opponent the Viet Cong had to be. We also toured the infamous 'Hanoi Hilton,' where Senator McCain and others were imprisoned during the war. The structure was originally built by the French to imprison Vietnamese rebels 100 years ago. How the wheel of history turns. For it was strange to watch the government approved video there, which showed the American POW's performing calisthenics and eating a lavish Christmas dinner, even with bottles of beer on the table. That version makes Fox News look accurate. And yet, a former American POW later became our first ambassador to Vietnam in the 1990's. Another curious turn of that wheel of history.

At the Presidential Palace in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), the guide kept referring to America as "the enemy." Later, I asked our guide about that and he said that is the official lecture he must give. He also confided that his father worked for the Americans during the war and that his father first taught him English. Certainly he bore no animosity toward us.

Cambodia is another story. They have a tragic history. In part due to our bombing during the war in the 1970's, we managed to alienate the Cambodians and drive them into the Khmer Rouge's arms. Cambodia's communists were Chinese allies, who drove out the West-sympathizing regime in 1975. Unbelievably, as soon as they marched on Phnom Penh, they cleared the city of all its residents and began a horrific prison camp system. Out of 8-9 million Cambodians, about 1.7 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge, until Vietnam invaded in 1979 and took over. The Khmer Rouge fought a guerilla war for years, which was known as Vietnam's 'Vietnam!' In 1998 the infamous Pol Pot died, and a few years later, the Khmer Rouge finally ceased their jungle warfare along the border with Thailand. Not until about 2003 did Cambodia safely open to Western tourists.

Now to their immense credit, the Cambodians share this tragic history with the world. One of the former killing fields is a major tourist destination. Their openness and honesty about the murderous past is amazing. We also saw the terrible prison at Tuol Sleng, housed in a former school, where barbed wire still covers the open hallways of the upper floors, added to prevent prisoner suicides. Out of about 20,000 inmates, less than 10 survived. One of the survivors was an artist whose gut wrenching paintings of prison life and death are displayed at Tuol Sleng. Ironically, the only person to be convicted of war crimes in Cambodia so far is the prison's warden, known as Comrade Duch. He confessed to his many sins and is serving a prison sentence.

Sadly, and only as recently as November 2011, have three additional perpetrators of this genocide been put on trial. Cambodia originally asked the United Nations and the international community to help set up a tribunal into the genocide in the mid-1990s. A joint tribunal was finally established in 2006 following long drawn-out negotiations between the Phnom Penh government and the UN. Now the three defendants (one of whom was Pol Pot's right hand man, Nuon Chea, known then as 'Brother Number Two') are in their 80's and may not outlive their trial, much less get punished. We learned that the core problem is that the Cambodian government is badly corrupt and too intertwined with former Khmer Rouge power brokers. Due to this, it remains to be seen where this slow march to justice will end up.

Nonetheless, Cambodia is a beautiful country. I think of Angkhor Wat and its beautiful corn cob towers, the dramatic carved stone faces of Angkhor Thom and the immense Kapok trees whose roots intertwine with the ruins at Te Prohm. Tonle Sap Lake (largest lake in SE Asia) is another extraordinary place with a floating village and fantastic bird life. It is worth touring this country and meeting its people who are beginning to pull themselves up from their past. Tourism is their lifeblood, so go there and spend money--it can only help at this point.

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