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Khmer Rouge 40 years on

April 17, 2015

A ceremony organized by the Cambodian opposition remembered the nearly 2 million people who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh, however, still struggles to come to terms with the past.

Kambodscha Gedenken an die Opfer des Roten Khmer Regimes
Image: picture-alliance/epa/Mak Remissa

Survivors and relatives of those who escaped the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge gathered at Choeung Ek - the most notorious of the regime's "Killing Fields" on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on Friday.

At a ceremony organized by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), they lit incense and prayed at a Buddhist stupa housing the skulls of thousands of victims.

CNRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua told the news agency DPA that the purpose of the ceremony was to "never forget," but also to continue learning how to forgive. "The hardest to forgive is that it was well planned, it's genocide, it was man-made."

Her parents disappeared under the regime, but she said, "We have to learn not to die with it but to live above it, which is teaching what you don't want others to suffer; teaching non-violence, speaking the truth - freedom of all forms is what human beings must live with."

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and was initially welcomed as it marked the end of years of civil war. But the relief soon turned into horror, when its leader, Pol Pot - or "Brother Number One" - ordered the evacuation of the city, one of the largest forced migrations in recent history.

The regime, which sought to turn Cambodia into a peasant state with no education and no money, was ousted four years later, by which time almost 2 million people had been murdered by execution or perished through starvation or being overworked. Many were forced from the city into rural labor camps.

Kambodscha Völkermordmuseum Gedenktafel
Almost 2 million people perished under the Khmer RougeImage: picture alliance/epa/M. Remissa

When the Vietnamese armed forces liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, they found bodies littering the roadside. The bones of thousands of people, men women and children, were found in mass graves across the country.

"Forty years ago Pol Pot turned Cambodia into a hell - a ghost land," Huot Huorn, 67, told the AFP news agency with tears in her eyes after lighting incense for the 36 relatives she lost to the regime.

"I still hate that regime... their sins are vivid in my eyes now. They starved us, jailed people with no food and water until they died... I saw them smash children's heads against a tree trunk," she said.

Coming to terms

In 2010, a UN-backed war crimes court sentenced former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, to 30 years in prison - later increased on appeal to life - for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people.

Last August, the two most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders - Nuon Chea, 88, known as "Brother Number Two," and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 83 - were given life sentences for crimes against humanity. Both have appealed.

The court has charged three more former Khmer Rouge members with crimes against humanity. But Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that further prosecutions risked reigniting conflict, even civil war.

Hun Sen and many other government officials are former Khmer Rouge members, who later defected. Hun has been accused of leading a totalitarian regime, and he is blocking all efforts for the country to come to terms with the past.

But opposition leader Sam Rainsy, speaking at Friday's memorial, repeated the opposition's call for further trials, insisting that only the guilty "fear the truth."

ng/sms (dpa, AFP)