Cambodia builds a better future by piecing together its bloody past

Dozens of Cambodian researchers tap away at keyboards in a nondescript house-turned-office in downtown Phnom Penh, their humming efficiency giving no hint of the grim task at hand.

While the rocky road to establishing a UN-backed trial of surviving leaders from the genocidal Khmer Rouge has grabbed the headlines, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia has been quietly working towards justice for victims.

Since 1997, the institute’s researchers have been painstakingly compiling a history of one of the 20th century’s darkest chapters, the 1975-79 regime of Pol Pot which is held responsible for up to two million deaths.

They provide answers to surviving Cambodians concerning the deaths of loved ones, and give the victims a voice by listening to their stories and recording their histories.

"Usually they’re looking for their husband, their father, their mother," says centre director Youk Chhang. "They find photographs, pieces of paper, the date of executions, sometimes a confession — and sometimes we don’t find anything."

As they pursued their objective of creating an agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records — "to prove that the enemy had been eliminated" — but much outside Phnom Penh was inadvertently destroyed when Vietnamese forces chased them from power.

"What was left behind was used to smoke tobacco or wrap fried bananas. People didn’t realise the significance of the information or documents so it became almost too late to capture those things," Youk Chhang says.

As a result, researchers have fanned out across the kingdom to record oral histories in a project expected to last well after the much-delayed tribunal, which is now not expected to begin until 2005.

"Ninety-five percent of people want to say something because they’ve been holding this in their hearts for so many years," says Youk Chhang.

The centre, funded by Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States along with various universities and non-government organisations, collects histories relating to both victims and perpetrators and opens its doors to all.

"We don’t check who’s coming in, what their background is. Even in our database, it’s purely raw data, we don’t say who’s the victim, who’s the perpetrator," says the director, whose sister was killed by the regime.

"This is for humanity. Even Khieu Samphan asked for photographs for his book. I gave him 10, he used two," he says, referring to the recently published memoirs of the Khmer Rouge’s former head of state, one of those cited for trial.

The home of Ieng Sary, another ex-leader, is just a few blocks away from the centre, and given the number of former Khmer Rouge soldiers and defectors now involved in government — including Prime Minister Hun Sen — security is an issue. All documents are microfilmed and backups stored abroad.

The centre’s resources, built up in conjunction with work carried out by the Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University, will be available to all during the trial and are viewed as being crucial to the process.

"The assiduous work that has been done over almost 10 years certainly is an essential underpinning for any trial," says Helen Jarvis, an advisor to the Cambodian government task force coordinating the tribunal.

"Some of the documentation was known about, but new depth has been revealed along with new caches of information and more extensive documentation than was previously understood to have survived."

The proposed trial is essential to allow Cambodians to move on, Youk Chhang says, as well as for Cambodia to develop a just society.

"If you don’t have legal prosecution against those who committed crimes against two million, why should we have it now for those who steal a motorbike or are corrupt?" he asks.

For Meng Try Ea, a 30-year-old researcher who has authored a book on the children of Khmer Rouge cadres, the prospect of helping create a better future for his country spurs him on.

"I work for my mother, for my country, especially the younger generation. To me education is the most important thing," he says.

Some 80 percent of the researchers were children during the regime or born after it, making them more objective than direct victims, says 42-year-old Youk Chhang.

"Their interest is not revenge, but why did this happen, what was true? For them it’s part of learning, moving forward. They’re helping to shape their vision, their future, their dream."

Cambodia lurches towards political resolution but uncertainties remain

After months of inertia following inconclusive elections last year, Cambodia’s political parties jumped into action last week and finally seem poised to form a working government, analysts said.

The exact shape it will take however remains uncertain, they warn, with the three parties winning seats in last July’s elections in this young Southeast Asian democracy yet to agree on precisely how power will be shared.

On Monday, increasingly impatient Prime Minister Hun Sen, Southeast Asia’s longest serving premier and royalist chief Prince Norodom Ranariddh, tentatively agreed to reform their decade-old coalition.

The deal was seen as a major breakthrough towards re-opening Cambodia’s parliament, where key pieces of legislation are languishing, causing frustration among ordinary Cambodians as well as the international community.

It was complicated however by the leaders leaving the door open for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) to take seats in government via Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC, with whom it formed an "Alliance of Democrats" after the elections.

The alliance had sought to remove Hun Sen from power in return for supporting his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which won the most seats in the polls but failed to secure the majority needed to govern alone.

That demand was dropped as part of a November deal brokered by Ranariddh’s father King Norodom Sihanouk, which saw the three parties agree to jointly govern. The agreement foundered however on crucial details, leading Hun Sen to coax his old coalition partner back into the fold.

Monday’s move proved a surprise for the normally loquacious Sam Rainsy, who was stunned into silence for several days before the alliance issued a statement — to some unconvincing — insisting the alliance remained firm.

"They wanted to inform the public that they’re still together, they’re not divorced yet. But there are so many things that they must work out together… I’m not sure if they will be able to be satisfied," an Asian diplomat told AFP.

He said he believed that Rainsy wanted to join the government — in what has been dubbed a "two-and-a-half-party" arrangement — in order for his relatively young party to gain vital experience in power.

Most see the Rainsy condition as merely a face-saving measure for all: the CPP is satisfied as it insisted it would not be part of a tripartite agreement, while Ranariddh did not exactly agree to a two-party deal and betray the SRP.

"I believe both CPP and Ranariddh want two parties (in government). They are hoping that Rainsy will say no," one ambassador told AFP last week.

Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen are extremely bitter rivals and a government with both would be too fiery to last, many believe.

As with November’s in-principle agreement, snags are expected to emerge while thrashing out any power-sharing deal between the SRP and FUNCINPEC, with Ranariddh himself warning it may take a month before all is agreed.

That timeframe would mean Sihanouk, a fierce critic of the recent manoeuvering especially by the Alliance leaders, would not be greeted by a new government on return from Beijing, where he has been undergoing medical treatment and is expected back just before Khmer New Year in mid-April.

"The picture that has emerged so far is still ambiguous. While the CPP and FUNCINPEC are moving ahead… what remains to be seen is how it will work out in the detail," political analyst Kao Kim Hourn told AFP.

"Sam Rainsy is right now weighing his options. It’s also up to FUNCINPEC to decide what they want."

Despite their weariness, Cambodians appear to be prepared to wait out the latest negotiations, which will involve working parties from the coalition hammering out fine points, along with the royalist-Rainsy deal.

"We want to see all of them join together and help the country," said legal expert Sok Sam Oeun. "On the one hand people are tiring, but the option of moving quickly is dangerous. We don’t want that either."

For outsiders, the lengthy deadlock, the proposed concept of an opposition party that also sits in parliament and the fluidity of alliances might seem bizarre, but given Cambodia’s war-scarred past, many here are unperturbed.

"This is Cambodia — anything can happen. You cannot compare Cambodia with other, normal democratic countries," the Asian diplomat said.

"Taking into account they’ve been fighting for 20 years and are just emerging from war, it’s good enough that they’re not pulling out guns and fighting with each other."