While we’re focused on Asia: Part I, Cambodia
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.
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.
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