Q&A: 'Khmer Rouge Trials Important for All Humanity'

  • Antoaneta Bezlova interviews THEARY SENG, chief, Cambodia Centre for Social Development (phnom penh)
  • Tuesday, March 31, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

When Theary started writing the story of the tragedy that befell her family, it was a quest for personal closure. But it has grown to be a powerful tool to communicate with other Cambodians because, as she says, 'every person in Cambodia is scarred'.

When friends in the United States - where Theary arrived after a long journey through gulag prisons and refugee camps - remarked that her story was 'extraordinary,' she had to counter that by saying it was just one of hundreds of thousands that unfolded during the collective insanity that gripped Cambodia under the 1975-1979 rule of ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge.

A fifth of the country’s population, some 1.7 million people, had been executed or tortured or starved to death.

Theary was just a toddler when the Khmer Rouge executed her father. A few years later, she woke up in her prison cell one morning to find that her mother had disappeared too, taking away the last threads of childhood’s 'dreamy quality'.

Thirty years later, the moment of justice finally seems to have arrived.

As the Khmer Rouge tribunal hauls up this week the regime’s chief torturer, Kaing Guek Eav or Duch, to answer charges of crimes against humanity and murder, Theary is among the killing fields’ orphans seeking justice for the deaths of their parents.

Pol Pot, the murderous regime’s chief leader, is dead but four other key members of the gruesome movement, all now in their late 70s and early 80s, have been indicted.

Among them is Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge’s president and Pol Pot’s most faithful lieutenant – the 'public face of the regime,' whom Theary holds accountable for the deaths of her parents.

IPS Correspondent Antoaneta Bezlova caught up with Theary, author of the memoir ‘Daughter of the Killing Fields’ Fusion Press 2005).

IPS: Why was it important to write your family history?

Theary Seng: The book is a consolidation of my personal memories as a child. The memories were fragmented but pieced together through talking with my relatives. Cambodia has no culture of dialogue and few people like to share these experiences. Ours is a culture of directives from the parents to the child and from the government to its citizens.

Writing the book pushed me to explore the larger geopolitical context to my personal story. It is also my way of reaching out to other Cambodians because we all exist in this fellowship of suffering. Through this book I’m trying to say to them that we should not let suffering overpower us. Suffering is our past but we should work to overcome it and shape into something more beautiful.

IPS: Can you share what you felt when you came face to face with the man you hold responsible for the deaths of your parents? The episode when you meet him during your trip to Pailin- the mountainous stronghold of the former regime - is among the most powerful in your book.

TS: Seeing Khieu Samphan in person, for the first time, was surreal; I have seen him many times before in photos and film clips, so when I saw him in person at his house in Pailin, before his arrest, it was as if I have always known him. I couldn’t nicely fit the image before me, which was very grandfatherly, with the image I had held in my mind which was that of a monster. I was initially startled when I first saw him, with mixed emotions of overwhelming sadness, grief and a giddy sensation of not being.

IPS: Some have criticised the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders as flawed. What do you think? Is the ongoing court of justice significant?

TS: The trial is important on several levels. It helps shed light on a very dark period of the Cambodian history. As a court of law, it also helps chip away at impunity which is prevalent in current Cambodian society. It is important and relevant for every one because it is a very powerful, visible symbol of justice. It allows for justice to be seen and done.

We know that trauma, like violence, is passed on. As violence begets violence, so trauma is inherited by the second generation. This is why the Khmer Rouge trial can help elucidate the emotional and psychological aspects of our national trauma for every Cambodian, including those who were born after and who were overseas.

IPS: You are a civil party to the trial. Are you seeking justice for personal reasons?

TS: On a personal level, my involvement as a civil party in the trial means that I have an opportunity to honour the memories of my dead parents. On a public level, it means that I can help shape this process. I’m a victim but I’m also a lawyer. I know Cambodian people and I can help expand their pursuit for justice.

Our current government often says what is important now is that we have peace. But what we have is the absence of war. We have no presence of justice. All Cambodians seek peace and this trial would allow us to seek justice. With my team at the Cambodia Centre for Social Development we are trying to start a civil party of orphans, to engage a group of individuals who lost their parents to the Khmer Rouge regime.

IPS: Is the Khmer Rouge trial a trial of individuals or a trial of an ideology, a trial of a system?

TS: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the formal name of the Khmer Rouge trial, is both a court of law and a court of public opinion. As a ‘court of law,’ it is limited to trying individuals, not an ideology or a political system. However, as a ‘court of public opinion,’ it is trying all these three - the individuals, the ideology and the political system.

The ECCC is only mandated to try the upper echelon of the Khmer Rouge regime. That is, the individuals are limited to the ‘senior Khmer Rouge leaders’ and those Khmer Rouge in rank and file who were ‘most responsible’.

The ideology in the dock in the court of public opinion is class warfare – the elevating of the peasant class to a status of reverence - the cold war and imperialism. The system in the dock is communism generally, and as practiced by the Khmer Rouge.

IPS: How is the trial relevant to people who were born after the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power (here I mean people from outside Cambodia)?

TS: It is relevant for everyone as we are trying crimes against humanity, not only against Cambodians. The crimes reached such scope and level of atrocious that they are an assault against mankind as a whole, and not only an individual or a people. They undermine human dignity.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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