A paralysed nation, afraid to unlock its tortured past

By Rosemary Righter (THE TIMES, 03/08/07):

Angka. Duch. Monosyllables that, 30 years on, Cambodians can barely be induced to utter, even within the family, so unbearable is the pain, the abiding fear, and also the eerily generalised guilt those words invoke.

Angka, “the collective”: the murderous Khmer Rouge forbade people to attach names or faces to the regime that was bent on crushing all traces of identity out of them.

Duch, the Year Zero sobriquet of Kaing Khek Ieu: now a born-again Christian, but between 1975 and 1979 the Angka’s methodical torture master. This week, a full decade after it was agreed that Khmer Rouge leaders should face trial, he became the first of Pol Pot’s henchmen to be indicted for crimes against humanity.

Duch commanded S-21, better known today as the “killing fields” prison at Tuol Sleng. As detailed and gruesome Khmer Rouge records attest, 14,000 “enemies”, children among them, were starved and hideously tortured there before being bludgeoned to death at the slaughter grounds. Beside the photograph of each new arrival was a blank space marked “date of death”.

Only eight inmates are known to have survived. The only woman among them, Chim Math, denied that she had ever been there, even to her husband. Until now. “To help my country” she has broken that long terrified silence and agreed to testify.

Her decision to speak out is as important as the trials themselves. The law cannot heal, cannot give a full reckoning of the extermination of a fifth of the nation, and the horrors endured by millions more.

For a start Hun Sen, who has run the country since 1985, wants no such thing. Once prominent in the Khmer Rouge himself, he told Cambodians in 1998 to “dig a hole and bury the past”. Not by coincidence, it has been hell’s own business setting up the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, an uneasy hybrid of international and Cambodian law. It has a meagre allotted lifespan of three years, and half that period has been lost in politically inspired procedural wrangles. Only five names have so far been submitted by prosecutors, but with 14,000 pages of documents to examine, time may run out before any verdicts are reached.

The mass of evidence presented may, however, make a psychological difference. The most terrible thing for Cambodians is this: the Khmer Rouge were “us” and there were thousands of them. There is a sense of shared shame even at being alive.

If you survived, you probably lied. A friend tells how his mother taught her tiny children to swear that their executed father, a general in the Lon Nol regime, had been a lowly bicycle rickshaw man. Truth was tortured in the killing fields. Fear of the truth dominates the Cambodian psyche still. It will be the courage of individuals such as Chim Math that begins to pick the padlock fixed to this traumatised nation’s lips.