Friday, February 09, 2007
It's been 28 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the murderous Communist regime led by Pol Pot. Between April 1975 and January 1979, nearly two million people, about a quarter of the population, were killed or died from starvation, overwork and disease.
This year, a United Nations tribunal is set to try the leaders of the regime, at least those who are still alive. But, as Megan Williams reports, there are many in Cambodia who are too young to remember and find it hard to believe what their parents say about those years in hell.
On the raised wooden veranda of a small home perched on stilts, the women of Bueng Veng sit and talk about the past.
[WOMEN SPEAKING CAMBODIAN LANGUAGE]
Bueng Veng is in central Cambodia, a tiny village just off a red clay road where palm trees shoot high into the sky. Kov Yin holds her infant grandchild in her arm. This 58-year-old was in her late twenties when Pol Pot took power. By the time the regime fell, her sister, brother and husband were all dead, killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Her two oldest children survived. The third, the same age as the child she now holds, died in her arms of starvation. Kov Yin is painfully aware that her older grandchildren don't believe her story.
[KOVIEN SPEAKING CAMBODIAN LANGUAGE]
They say, how is it possible that you ate so little? They say they haven't seen it with their own eyes so they don't believe it when I tell them there was so little food, that we worked so hard, that people were killed. I'm angry they don't believe.
It's a grievance many survivors of the Pol Pot regime express. In Cambodia there's been little public discussion of the genocide. Even after the regime fell, leaders still held key positions in government. Others, including Pol Pot, have died without facing justice. There's a real risk, say people like Vichhra Moulyl, that the country's brutal past is in danger of being denied or forgotten by the next generation.
I heard that you work in a field, rice field, and you got a lot of rice, so why you didn't have enough rice to eat? Like it's very abstract when my parent told me.
Vichhra's 21 and works with the Phnom Penh group called the KRT, short for Khmer Rouge Tribunal Outreach Program. She and her colleague Nou Va spent six months traveling the country interviewing young people about the Pol Pot past. They came out with a documentary called Seeing Proof.
[CLIP] [WOMAN SPEAKING CAMBODIAN LANGUAGE]
The film includes archival footage and interviews with survivors and their children. Throughout, teenagers express their doubts about the genocide.
TEENAGE GIRL [THROUGH INTERPRETER]:
I think it's hard to believe because I don't understand how Cambodians can kill each other. We are all good people and we have feelings. Why would they kill each other?
[YOUNG MAN SPEAKING/CAMBODIAN LANGUAGE]
TEENAGE BOY [THROUGH INTERPRETER]:
If there was such a regime, why didn't the people stand up and fight back against the leaders? They let a handful of people kill millions just like that?
[END OF CLIP]
Nou Va says high school students get taught practically no history of that time period, and for kids in the countryside, information is even scarcer.
Some of them don't go to school, and now we don't have much about the Khmer Rouge in a lesson.
Nou Va and Vichhra are traveling around Cambodia again, this time to show the film. Vichhra says people sit in silence and then ask to see it again.
Especially the old generation, they come up to say your past is for real, and they cry. And the little girl come up and cry as well, and just cry, and says she very, very sorry to their old generation.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
Across the city, two young radio hosts broadcast their weekly shows from the Women's Media Center.
[RADIO SHOW/CAMBODIAN LANGUAGE]
Twenty-seven-year-old Dina Chap hosts The Road of Law program, a call-in show that focuses on issues related to the upcoming Khmer Rouge tribunal. It receives no government funding and struggles to keep on air with grants from foreign human rights groups. Dina says she uses different elements to trigger memories, like this old Khmer Rouge propaganda music.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
I start by play the music and – in the Pol Pot regime, and then ask to the young people and ask to the old people, also, do you remember this song, because I choose the popular song that in the Pol Pot regime always play in the morning.
[SONG UP AND UNDER]
Another radio program called The Truth aims to present nonpartisan information about the past in a way the government has failed to provide. It also offers an outlet to callers still suffering from the past.
The persons who are calling our program, most of them is the survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. But, however, we try to attract young people to listen to our program. Personal stories – this is what young people want to hear.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER][CAMBODIAN RADIO SHOW CLIP]
[END OF CLIP]
It's with us with every day, and not a single day that we forget to condemn the regime, that we forget to tell the children. It's been with us. It's a living history.
Youk Chhang is often a guest host on The Truth. He's the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and the nation's most vocal advocate for the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. He's just finished the first textbook entry on the Khmer Rouge, and, once approved by the government, it will at last become part of official history. He says that what always comes up when he hosts a show is how everyone, survivors and killers, feel victimized by the past.
So one time it was in between one killer and one victim from the same prison, and I was in the middle. When everybody - it doesn't matter they were perpetrator or victim, when they talk about food they all cry.
Food, it's so emotional. I had people begin to cry, and it just, and both sides, between even the killer in the fields said, I was so hungry, too. I, you know, I would kill people because I wanted to eat food.
[CAMBODIAN BALLAD UP AND UNDER]
This mournful ballad is about Tuol Sleng, the infamous prison in Phnom Penh where 14,000 children, men and women were tortured under the regime. Their pictures line the walls, staring out into the former classrooms where they were held. The rooms have been left almost untouched, torture instruments sitting on bed frames, chains still bolted into the floors, bloodstains on the walls.
As a final chapter of the Seeing Proof documentary, a group of high school students is shepherded through the former prison, their first glimpse at evidence of the Khmer Rouge terror.
[MAN SPEAKING IN CAMBODIAN LANGUAGE]
A survivor explains that children were killed along with their parents, a favorite Khmer Rouge motto being, "To clear the grass, you must dig up the roots." The teens' faces show shock and distress. Youk Chhang says that while it's tough for kids to face what happened, it's also what his country needs to finally heal.
It's just like a medicine. You know, to me it's the most effective reconciliation process of all, having children know this about what happened to their parents. I think it's the best healing. It's the best healing among all other processes that I have seen in Cambodia. It's the best healing. You know, the kin were just so happy that the kids went in museum and tell them the story. It's just like [PAUSE] they are so happy. They were so happy.
[CAMBODIAN MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
For On the Media, I'm Megan Williams in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.