Echoes of the Killing Fields
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Echoes of the Killing Fields

How far can Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal go? asks Asia Sentinel’s Simon Rougheen

It has been over three decades since the nightly convoys of trucks that carried the emaciated, the half-dead and the terrified from S-21 jail in Phnom Penh to Choeung Ek, 17 kilometers away, came to a halt.

Whether or not the blindfolded and shackled men, women and children knew in advance of their fate is unclear. Some surely did, but all were murdered in this flood-prone former orchard, mostly by a blow to the back of the neck with an iron bar, followed by a knife across the throat.

The dead and dying were piled in the freshly dug pits, as a generator ran in the background to drown out any screams.


Skulls are seen in Phnom Penh in this April 17, 1981 photo. Pic: AP.

Now, a Buddhist stupa dominates the Killing Fields, stacked with thousands of human skulls dug up from the ground around it, where some 17000 people were murdered. Most of the skulls are behind glass, but some, lower-down, can be touched. Visitors light incense and candles and wait their turn to photograph this gruesome memento of Cambodia’s greatest tragedy.

While this grim memorial keeps the horrible memory of the Khmer Rouge alive and gathers a steady stream of several hundred visitors a day, the effort to find justice for the victims of Pol Pot and his ultra-left movement remains slow. So far, only one man, the commander of S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, has been convicted in the UN-backed tribunal that is underway.

While Japan largely pays for the proceedings, both the government in Phnom Penh and its allies in Beijing are wary of going too far. The wounds in the society remain deep and the potential for political embarrassment is great.