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Asia

Cambodian "legacy projects" educate young generation about Khmer Rouge

Several projects have been launched in Cambodia to educate people about the Khmer Rouge regime and to ensure that the war crimes tribunal has a lasting impact.

Last month, Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, was found guilty of war crimes

Last month, Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, was found guilty of war crimes

"The school's over there, the pagoda's here. It's a community gathering space where there will be the opportunity to learn about the past, as well as plan for the future."

Daravuth Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer, is walking me through a unique project at a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the city of Battambang in western Cambodia.

In front of us over a deep pond, which is about twice the length and depth of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a wooden building on stilts is taking shape. When it is finished this will be a learning centre for the community that he is talking about.

This temple is called Wat Samroung Knong and during the Khmer Rouge's rule of Cambodia more than 10,000 people were executed here.

Numerous bodies were dumped into the pond. A small building nearby has skulls and bones on display.

The international war crimes community in Phnom Penh is due to close in a few years

The international war crimes community in Phnom Penh is due to close in a few years

Legacy projects

Seng says this project is unusual because the community itself has donated time, money and effort to build it up, in conjunction with the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, an NGO he was involved in running until recently.

He says the center will be a place where people can learn about the past and explains that it is an example of what some refer to as "legacy projects", which are to ensure that something tangible is left behind when the international war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh finally closes in a few years.

Last month, the tribunal handed down a 30-year sentence to Comrade Duch, the first member of the Khmer Rouge regime to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He ran the notorious S-21 detention center, where inmates were tortured and killed. Of 15,000 inmates, only a dozen or so are known to have survived.

Next year, a second case, in which four senior Khmer Rouge leaders are expected to face charges including genocide, will start.

Over a million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge from executions or starvation

Over a million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge from executions or starvation

The tribunal itself has established a legacy committee to look into specific projects, but it appears not to have done much yet.

Ensuring history is not repeated

There are other organizations involved in different projects, whose goals range from ensuring that good judicial practices from the tribunal are passed on to Cambodia's inefficient domestic courts to the building of a museum to house archives and documents from the period.

However, these are early days, and there is much more work to be done and one problem is that there is a lack of funding.

The head of the Wat Samroung Knong today is a man called Acha Thun Sovath. He was a monk at the temple when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. However, because the movement was viscerally anti-religion, he was forced to leave the monkhood and work in the fields. Many other monks were murdered.

The Tuol Sleng school, codenamed S-21, was turned into a torture center

The Tuol Sleng school, codenamed S-21, was turned into a torture center

He is now one of the most ardent supporters of the community learning centre project. He says many young people don't believe what happened but that doesn't surprise him: "Even me, I am an old person now, but when I heard people talking in 1974 about how the Khmer Rouge were killing monks and the people, I didn’t believe it."

Acha Thun Sovath adds that it is vital that the next generation learns about what happened since this is the only way to prevent anything similar ever taking place again.

"We will never forget. We must always remember what happened in these buildings so we can tell the next generation and let them know about the people that died under the Khmer Rouge."

Author: Robert Carmichael (Battambang)
Editor: Anne Thomas

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