Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park is often the site of raucous group protests by crowds of people who air their grievances through shouts, chants and songs. But for two days last week, the square was occupied by a single man standing still beneath an umbrella, silently protesting the dominant tragedy of his life—the deaths of his parents at the hands of the Khmer Rouge—in the only way he could think of to make himself heard.
Roeun Kosal lost his mother and father during the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. His father, a soldier in Lon Nol’s army, was killed that same day, when thousands of black-clad revolutionaries marched into town. His mother was dragged away by the cadres one day later. At the time, Kosal was just 5.
Since then, he has grown up, gotten married and become an air conditioner repairman. A few months ago, he earned a bachelor’s degree in management. But he has not been able to forget the deaths of his parents, or forgive the people he believes were responsible for killing them and plunging Cambodia into years of chaos and war.
In an effort to assuage his grief at the loss of his family, Mr. Kosal applied to become a civil party at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, one of nearly 4,000 victims of the regime who are participating in the ongoing trial against Khmer Rouge chief ideologue Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan. He threw himself into the court process, attending hearings regularly, following tribunal proceedings on the radio and participating in NGO workshops for civil parties.
But somewhere along the way, a seed of doubt started to take root in Mr. Kosal’s mind. He became convinced that the leaders on trial were “plastic killers”—scapegoats being blamed for the misdeeds of others. The true malefactors, he has come to believe, were the Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.
Mr. Kosal’s vision of history dovetails neatly with Nuon Chea’s view of his own life, which he sees as essentially blameless and driven by the impulse to cleanse Cambodia of Vietnamese influence. In his testimony before the court, which was televised and widely reported in local media, Nuon Chea explained that his goal was to educate the younger generation about the existential threat that Cambodia faces from its eastern neighbor, which he has repeatedly compared to “a python strangling a young deer.”
Mr. Kosal says he has compiled a sheaf of documents that prove that the depredations of the Khmer Rouge regime—and his parents’ deaths—were actually caused by covert Vietnamese agents and Viet Cong fighters trying to destabilize Cambodia. After Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted of crimes against humanity in August, Mr. Kosal decided the time had come to tell the world about his findings. He spent two months planning his protest, keeping the scheme secret even from his wife in case she did not approve.
“I am not happy with the court’s verdict convicting Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, because they did not do it,” he said. “My main goal is to explain to the national and international communities that Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are not the real perpetrators.”
And so at exactly 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday last week, Mr. Kosal headed to Freedom Park, armed with a red-and-white checked krama, a water bottle and a portable radio that blared Khmer Rouge propaganda songs. A small crowd of local police officers strolled by to assess the lone protester, but quickly determined that he was not a threat to security.
“This guy is crazy for doing a protest alone,” said one of the officers before the contingent walked away.
Mr. Kosal had borrowed an umbrella from a friend and festooned it with homemade posters that explained his stance in both Khmer and breathlessly punctuated English.
“COURT! WHO KILLED MY PARENTS NOT NUON CHEA AND KIEUSAMPHAM, THE… VIETCONG OR VIETNAMESE!,” one poster said.
This ideological umbrella shielded him from the sun all day Tuesday and the rain on Wednesday, when he spent the morning continuing his protest at Freedom Park before embarking on a 12-km march along Russian Boulevard and National Road 4 to the Khmer Rouge tribunal. There, he hoped to deliver a petition asking judges to prosecute the Viet Cong and free Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. He also wanted to give them the historical documents he had compiled. Despite a heavy downpour that turned the roadside to mud, he trudged on, petition in hand, his posters flapping in the wind.
Mr. Kosal’s protest was solitary by design, but it came at a time when a wave of discontent seems to be arising from victims who are frustrated with the tribunal. Last month, a group of about 300 civil parties began staging protests and writing petitions in an effort to change the court’s rules to allow them to receive monetary reparations for their suffering.
Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said he thought the increasing number of victims’ protests could be connected to an erosion in civil party rights at the court over the past few years.
The civil party system was designed to allow victims to participate in court proceedings and make the tribunal meaningful to as many Cambodians as possible. But civil parties have been consistently frustrated by rules that have limited their procedural rights. After a chaotic first trial in 2009 in which dozens of lawyers represented victims in court, a controversial new rule was instituted in 2010 allowing only two “co-lead lawyers” to speak in court on behalf of all 4,000 victims.
“They have the instinct to know what is going on, and they know that they have been provided a co-lead lawyer; they have been grouped, and I think they sort of are trapped by the civil law that is perhaps no longer applicable,” said Mr. Chhang.
Still, he said civil parties such as Mr. Kosal needed to understand that the tribunal simply does not have the capacity to consider every victim’s individual grievances and historical theories.
“The court is not a history department; it’s a court where they prosecute individuals on specific crimes. Not all crimes. It’s impossible.”
When he arrived at the tribunal on Wednesday afternoon after walking for more than four hours, Mr. Kosal was told by a guard at the court’s entrance that he could not go inside. Undeterred, he handed his envelope of documents—dampened by the rain and creased with wear—to his personal lawyer, Ven Pov, whom he had asked to meet him at the court. Mr. Pov said he would take the documents inside and hand them off to the co-lead lawyers, who could then decide what to do with them.
Mr. Kosal said that although he hoped his research would make it into the hands of the judges, he felt that his work was done.
“Whether the court comes to get the petition or not, I still submitted the petition to inform them,” he said. “If the court then makes a mistake, it will not be because of me. The remaining issues…are in the court’s hands. I have done my duty as a civil party.”
(Additional reporting by Julia Wallace)
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