In Cambodia, tens of thousands of people marked the 30th anniversary of the demise of one of the world’s most infamous political experiments on Wednesday. The Khmer Rouge wanted to build an agrarian utopia and evacuated whole cities, making their residents work in rice fields. As many as two million Cambodians are thought to have died through starvation, disease and the summary execution of those considered enemies of the revolution. None of the people responsible have ever been brought to justice. Although a UN-backed tribunal was finally set up three years ago, it’s been moving far too slowly as far as the survivors are concerned.
Former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was ousted in 1979
In the biggest celebration for more than 20 years, about 60,000 people packed into the Olympic Stadium. Most were wearing white T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the logo of the governing Cambodian People’s Party.
The party leadership was instrumental in the front which ousted Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government in 1979.
But for many Cambodians this wasn’t a day of celebration -- it was a time for remembrance. “Our family has gathered in my house because I’m the oldest. We speak about our life under the Khmer Rouge,” said Pum Chantinie, the Secretary General of the Cambodian Red Cross.
Why, why, why?
Chantinie was one of the first people allowed back into Phnom Penh after the fall of Pol Pot’s government. She often relates the story of the Khmer Rouge regime to the younger generation.
“Sometimes they ask us: ‘How could you survive? It was so hard.’ ‘Why, why, why?’ they ask and I say I also have that question mark in my head all the time. I don’t know why people did this to our family, why they did this to Cambodian people.”
With those big questions still unanswered after three decades, simply remembering the past isn’t enough for many Cambodians. Those who lived through the Pol Pot era say they want to understand why Khmer killed Khmer -- so often, and so brutally.
Banking on UN-backed tribunal
Survivors had hoped that a United Nations-backed tribunal would provide them with justice at last.
Five senior Khmer Rouge figures are in custody facing charges of crimes against humanity.
But after three years there still hasn't been a single trial -- and neither defendants nor victims have time on their side.
Heng Samroeun has signed up as a civil party to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and he's frustrated by the constant delays.
"The five of them, they're all getting old. And how long can we delay it? One day they will die. So we might as well not try them -- just let them die by themselves. "
The Tribunal has at least held some preliminary hearings. But a succession of legal arguments between the Cambodian and UN-appointed officials at the special courts has delayed the start of the trials.
Good preliminary work
However, the UN's spokesman at the courts, Peter Foster, said that much work had been already been done behind the scenes.
"Once we're into the trial phase, the public phase, I think you'll see things move much more quickly. We'll have much more regular hearings and much more material will be in the public sphere. That will certainly give people more confidence that we're moving forward, and that we're moving forward quickly."
The government made great efforts to make the 30th anniversary celebrations memorable. But the start of the first trial at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal would be a much more welcome landmark for Cambodians who survived the Pol Pot era.
The head of Tuol Sleng prison, Comrade Duch, is one of five senior Khmer Rouge figures facing charges of crimes against humanity.
He has indicated he’s willing to reveal what he knows about the decisions made by Khmer Rouge leaders. And then the questions which have nagged away for so many years may finally be answered.