Thirty Years of PainMarch 4, 2007
The thought occurred to me as I read a short biography by one of my students entitled, ‘My Childhood’. The Khmer Rouge ran possibly the most evil regime in global history, right? You don’t need a show-trial to know that in three nightmare years they enslaved an entire nation and slaughtered a quarter of the population.
Yet my student, writing from his own experience had a different perspective. He explained how when the Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979, his parents became Khmer Rouge soldiers – i.e. they joined the guerrilla movement fighting the Vietnamese-installed government (backed and supplied by the UN, US, Europe and China although he didn’t mention that, being ignorant of the politics).
As a young boy he lived a life on the run, holed up in jungle hide-outs. He once got lost with Vietnamese soldiers in the vicinity and was grateful to be rescued by the bodyguards of Ta Mok, better known as ‘The Butcher’. For three years, once democracy was established (-ish) under UN supervision, he was able to go to school; his teacher was a monk who brutally beat him whenever he made an error. He admits that initially he cursed the monk but later praised his teacher for terrifying him into being a good student.
As well as lauding the teacher in his essay, he praises his parents for teaching him such good values. He is a particularly bright, pleasant and humble young man, named ‘Cham’ – i.e. of the Muslim community that I mentioned last time. His story deserves to be added to the stock of academic writings and other testimonies I have read.
On the subject of the Khmer Rouge legacy, the degeneration of the trial is descending into farce. One seemingly comical aspect was well analysed by the online BBC news, showing how lunchtime turns out to encapsulate the dichotomy between two cultures. The tribunal’s administration building in which the trial is not being held is out of town beyond the airport, thus the staff canteen is used by all the professionals who work hard at not talking to each other.
Initially the concession went to a poncy restaurant in the city popular with over-paid western NGO types, but the Khmer lawyers refused to tuck into goats’ cheese salad and the like. Then the tender went out and the canteen was taken over by local caterers; as a result the soft westerners all alleged they contracted food poisoning from the Cambodian dishes.
Now the international and Cambodian legal beagles can’t – or won’t – eat together. As the reporter states, ‘Walking down the corridors of the building, a visitor cannot help but notice the separate offices to the left and right for local and international staff.’ Note that these are no muppets from ‘Big Brother’; the international experts are paid obscenely huge salaries for being the world’s foremost arbitrators and conciliators.
Still, all is not lost; the Cambodia Daily is advertising for yet another catering tender. There are a few factors causing the crisis, but many media outlets tend to miss the point. For instance, I read a lot about the scandal of kickbacks – yes, undoubtedly clerks and even Cambodian judges are handing over large chunks of their salaries to those who gave them their jobs, but that’s par for the course over here; it’s not evidence of anything particularly sinister, unlike the admission by some of the Cambodian judges that they take bribes to deliver verdicts and that they sentence opposition politicians on insufficient or trumped-up evidence.
At heart there are two issues – one is a deep cultural divide between Western experts and Cambodians, and I do appreciate that the westerners have their reputations (and tender tummies) to protect. The other and more serious issue is that of interference by the ruling party, which is what will probably kill off the whole show and cause the government to lose face – but save China’s. They must have a lot to conceal if they are willing to pay that price.