Nearly every morning for six months, the guards unshackled Iem Chan from his bed and took him for a torture session.
Some days, he was hooked up to a car battery and shocked until he fainted. Other times, guards forced a hose into his mouth and pumped him full of water. Each day, his tormentors urged him to confess to plots against the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea government.
Twenty years later, he turned on his television and saw two of Democratic Kampuchea’s top leaders, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, received as honored guests of the government. The two said they are “very sorry” and asked Cambodians to “let bygones be bygones.”
For Iem Chan, it was not enough.
“Just to say sorry is not enough
….They must be put on trial for what they have done,” said Iem Chan, 55, one of only seven known survivors of Tuol Sleng, the infamous Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh where an estimated 20,000 were executed or tortured to death from 1975-78.
But as an indicator of how torn Cambodians are over the issue, another Tuol Sleng survivor said Wednesday he does not want to see a trial for remaining Khmer Rouge leaders.
Vann Nath, 53, also was tortured. Like Iem Chan, he lost several family members during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime. But now that the guerrilla movement’s long-time leader Pol Pot is dead, Vann Nath said he no longer wants an international tribunal. “If I have to choose between peace and bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to trial, then I choose peace,” he said.
“I don’t think about an international tribunal for the Khmer Rouge leaders.”
Last week’s defections of two of the three remaining hard-line Khmer Rouge leaders has reignited the issue of who, if anyone, will be held accountable for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people from execution, starvation, disease and forced labor during the regime.
With the latest defections, the long war against the Khmer Rouge seems finally over, and many want simply to forget—as Prime Minister Hun Sen has urged them to do.
Others say that without a trial, there can be no justice, no real reconciliation—and the cycle of injustice will continue into Cambodia’s future.
For now, Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to have decided to drop the issue of an international tribunal. On Monday, Hun Sen said Cambodians should “dig a hole and bury the past.”
After decades of devastating civil war, many Cambodians appear happy to do just that, especially because remembering the past is often so painful.
“I do not want to see those people stand trial,” said Heng Path, 64, a cigarette vendor in Phnom Penh who lost three of her five children.
“According to the Buddhist teachings, there is karma. Whoever does wrong will receive wrong. Whoever did good, they will have good,” Heng Path said. “So let it be.”
Iem Chan, a sculptor denounced as an intellectual in 1976, said he is in favor of amnesty for Khmer Rouge leaders, but added that there can be no reconciliation without justice first.
“The right thing to do is to have an international tribunal,” he said. “I’m very happy with the national reconciliation…but those who persecuted me so badly must be tried first.”
“If we bury the past, we bury the souls of nearly 2 million and they will not rest in peace,” he said.
He lives a few blocks from what is now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, but he has never visited there since he escaped during the Vietnamese army’s invasion of Phnom Penh. He takes a longer route to work to avoid passing his former prison. “To go there would make me sick,” he said. “Just to think about it makes me feel sick.”
He holds Khieu Samphan, former Democratic Kampuchea head of state, and Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s long-time deputy, responsible for his suffering. “Leaders must know what happened during their rule.”
Iem Chan said he seeks a trial not for his own vengeance but for his children’s future.
“The past is like a mirror for the future,” he said. “If those Khmer Rouge leaders do not face trial for their crimes against humanity, it will be a bad example for the next generation.”
Even Vann Nath, the Tuol Sleng survivor who does not want a trial, is torn between reconciliation and justice. He said he found Khieu Samphan’s words rankling.
The former Democratic Kampuchea head of state, pressed by reporters if he had any remorse, responded with a brief, “Yes. Sorry, very sorry.”
“So many people died. It’s not enough just to be sorry,” said Vann Nath. “Just a few words do not erase all the mistakes.”
Now a painter, Vann Nath said he still has nightmares about the screams of fellow prisoners and the torture he witnessed. And he still remembers the three sons he lost under the Khmer Rouge rule.
He said he isn’t sure whether Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea orchestrated the mass killings and the torture centers, and he does not think a tribunal to discover the truth will work. Yet, though he began painting to record the horrific images burned into his brain at Tuol Sleng, all he wants to do now is forget.
“I try to dig a deep hole and forget the past,” he said. “But it is impossible. I cannot forget or I will forget my family who died.
“I cannot forget, but I try not to remind myself anymore.”
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