A woman sits in a courtroom dock. Eyes downcast. Fidgeting. Clearly tormented by recollections that are now flooding back as fresh as they were decades ago.

A woman breaks down after a war crimes trial in Cambodia

She describes the being frogmarched from her home by armed black-clothed soldiers. A month-long walk to a concentration camp. Giving birth on the side of a road. Being worked to the bone. Sleeping in pits covered in worms. Seeing fellow captives beheaded. Hearing the screams of innocents being tortured. Giving up her sick children so they could get proper medical help only to learn they were never treated and died alone. Knowing her husband was locked in a dark prison cell, interrogated, tortured and finally murdered.

But it isn’t Nazi Germany she is describing. It isn’t even that long ago. And it didn’t happen that far away from our shores.

The woman is in her fifties and she is describing the “living hell” of the systematic extermination of the Cambodian people from 1975 to 1979.

Lay Buny has tears in her eyes as her long suppressed memories spill from her lips so quickly a judge has to ask her to slow down so the interpreters can catch up.

She’s giving evidence in the joint United Nations-Cambodian war crimes trial of three Khmer Rouge leaders - the former Deputy Secretary of the Cambodian Communist Party Nuon Chea, former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Ieng Sary, and former Head of State Khieu Samphan.

All in their eighties, the old men peer through coke bottle spectacles and heavy wrinkles as the evidence unfolds around them.

The trio stand accused of leading the systematic execution and starvation of three million Cambodians. Three million souls in a country that today only totals 14 million.

They were mainly urban middle class families - men, women and children. But the Khmer Rouge even murdered their own – executing high ranking military leaders, accusing them of being traitors as the regime’s end drew near.

Until just a few years ago the accused trio, and several other still awaiting trial, lived ordinary lives in Cambodia’s townships side-by-side with the survivors of the families they’re accused of tearing apart.

The group’s ultimate leader, the infamous Pol Pot, died in 1998, but nevertheless a handful of his right hand men – and women – are still facing justice.

Lay is not the only one to give evidence. Day after day people like Lay – as well as former Khmer Rouge soldiers and soldiers in the crushed Lon Nol army – tell their tales of degradation, humiliation and heart breaking violence.

Lay is given the chance at the end of her evidence to say whatever she likes to the court’s seven Cambodian and international judges. She speaks for a few minutes of just some of the atrocities she endured – unable to utter the worst memories. She finishes by saying:

“I don’t understand. They were also human beings – why did they have to do this to us? I want the court to find the truth. I want it to find out why.”

Budget cuts mean from next month the court will only sit for three days a week – rather than the four it currently hears evidence. And the numbers of Cambodian and UN staff will be slashed despite the huge amount of work yet to be done.

In tough economic times donor countries and the United Nations itself is tightening the purse strings and ‘re-prioritising’.

But for the people of Cambodia – scores of whom visit the tribunal each day and listen in horror as the evidence unfolds – justice is priceless.

It is imperative that Australia continues its support for these important tribunals. And that we as humans don’t forget what happened in Cambodia at a time in history when the world simply wasn’t looking.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST.

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    • AFR says:

      07:44am | 30/10/12

      Of all the battlefields and war cemeteries etc that I have visited over the years, the most confronting was the killing fields, as well as visiting S21. My tour guide showed me her scars from the beatings and told of her family being tortured. But the thing I also admired about people I met during my short time in Phnom Penh was the local’s willingness to share their nation’s story, as if to confirm “never again”.

    • PJ says:

      08:20am | 30/10/12

      Yes terrible.

      The atrocities in the name of extreme Left Wing ideology, committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the regime of Stalin in Russia, serve as a reminder of how easy it is for political fanaticism to justify any injustice.

      How countries arrive at this point is a slow process. It starts with baby steps, interference with counter opinion, manipulation and control of the release of inconvenient facts, personal verbal vilification of those holding alternative opinions and youre on your way.

      In all cases the population always believed ‘it could never happen here’ and are complacent until it is too late.

    • Dan says:

      08:54am | 30/10/12

      ...and yet it was a left wing country that ended it - Communist Vietnam, who were roundly condemned by the Western World for invading Cambodia to remove Pol Pot.

      The world isn’t black and white, or left and right. The common element in nazi germany and cambodia was extremists who are dangerous on both ends of the political spectrum.

    • andye says:

      09:59am | 30/10/12

      @PJ - If you are going to imply that it is happening here, don’t pussyfoot around. Say it.

      Or are you afraid of being mocked for comparing Labor with the Killing Fields?

    • Gregg says:

      04:29pm | 30/10/12

      I reckon PJ is a long way from claiming that Labor = eventual killing fields and to some extent anything like the killing fields events may have been more of a sudden step change than a slow process.
      Like the US had just done a quick withdrawal from Vietnam and so communist Cambodians may have felt more emboldened and inclined to persecute those that they saw as aligned with western views.

      What we see in Australian politics these days is quite different to anything I can ever recall decades ago, even Keating at his best not having the personal venom I see in Julia Gillard and I watch Question Time in Parliament often enough to witness it.
      At the same time, she and her front bench rarely give any sort of an answer and you can just about bet on anything said being loaded with insults.

      That is not unbelievable as it already occurs and you can just shake your head at the disgracing of our parliament.
      There can always be alternate views but surely a government ought to be prepared to give substantial answers and even when a question might be asked of past events where a revealing of a politician’s involvement is sought, the public has every right for that if they feel it may be pertinent to judging the fitness of someone to be in parliament.

      Lack of transparency and accountability is also something that will just lead to the demise of democracy and good governance.

    • Pj says:

      09:26am | 30/10/12

      Never underestimate the power of poverty as a mechanism for control. A Benefit Dependent State can be manipulated to vote a particular way, through the threat of a withdrawal of those benefits.

    • Tim Kent says:

      10:53am | 30/10/12

      surely it is when incompetent governments are elected, get carried away with all that authority, they become arrogant and brutal.

      The fears most of us have is that an incompetent government led by Abbott might go a long way down this track.

      Thank God he is on his way out

    • andye says:

      11:38am | 30/10/12

      @Tim Kent - Well my original response was to PJ, who I assume was making the reference to Labor. Yours is no more sane than his. Neither Gillard nor Abbott are Pol Pot.

      Suggesting that either of the moderately different choices we have politically is some slippery slope to mass graves is ridiculous.

    • nihonin says:

      12:45pm | 30/10/12

      andye, I can pretty much guarantee Tim Kent, will be acotrel in one of his many guises.  Don’t waste your time or the effort with over the top acolytes, they’re all as pathetic as each other and only discredit ‘their’ teams (parties) even more.

    • marley says:

      01:13pm | 30/10/12

      @nihonin - Tim Kent isn’t acotrel - his punctuation looks reasonably normal. I’d say he’s Kathy and her circle of friends.

    • Gregg says:

      04:37pm | 30/10/12

      They were certainly horrendously bad times for many Cambodians Jane and fortunately some lucky ones were able to make it across to safety in Thailand.
      Ironically, it has been Thailand with which Cambodia has had some border disputes in recent years.

      ” But for the people of Cambodia – scores of whom visit the tribunal each day and listen in horror as the evidence unfolds – justice is priceless. “
      As for justice I doubt that there is much of that to be gained for them and the best that can be hoped for is to have their words heard by people who really care.

      It would be something of a bonus for people like Lay to hear something on the Why of it all the attrocities as much as it might not be expected or anything too meaningful to come, given the age of those on trial.

      Just such a sad saga of events have occurred throughout much of south east Asia and you could say Cambodia has had their share of the worst.


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