Ly Mai (right) and her daughter, Lo Mat Husna, at their home in Svay Khleang village
Almost 40 years after the Khmer Rouge came to this small Muslim village, residents still remember the incursion well.
“When they first arrived, they forced us to abandon our traditional dress, cut our hair and throw away our head scarves,” said Ly Mai, 58.
“But especially, they came during the night and killed people.”
One of a string of villages nestled along the Mekong River, Svay Khleang has twice been famous: first, as a historic 400-year-old center of Muslim scholarship, then, as the location of one of the biggest rebellions against Khmer Rouge rule.
Mai, whose cousin was among those who fought the Khmer Rouge about six months after their arrival in 1975, said the regime quickly bred desperation among villagers.
“I think people in this village were treated so badly that they decided to rebel and dared to sacrifice their lives to fight back,” she said.
The rebellion lasted a day and a night. Reinforcements were sent and the uprising, which consisted of villagers armed only with machetes, was quickly and violently quashed.
It is unknown how many people were killed, but mass arrests followed and the whole village was scattered among worksites and collectives elsewhere.
According to court documents, 1,242 families lived in the village in 1972. In 1979, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, only 170 remained.
An estimated 1.7 million people died of exhaustion, starvation and execution under the Khmer Rouge.
The vast majority of those killed were Khmer, but prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal believe they can make a case that the regime also intended the wholesale destruction of ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic Cham Muslims.
“We have a significant amount of documentation from the period that relates to the Khmer Rouge policy to kill particular enemies of the state at that time. Our view is that the amount of evidence of the targeting of both of these groups is enough to put the cases up for trial,” said William Smith, deputy international co-prosecutor.
At an initial hearing on Wednesday, judges said testimony in this genocide case against the last two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders could begin as early as September.
In addition to genocide charges, Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan are set to account for a slew of crimes and crime sites during the second part of their trial.
A verdict for the first part, which focused on forced evacuation and the killing of enemy soldiers at one execution site, is due next week.
In Svay Khleang, some are eagerly awaiting that verdict.
“I want to see them in prison forever…. I don’t want revenge, shooting them like they shot us, I just want them to be found guilty and to die in prison,” said Mai.
Mai’s 23-year-old daughter, Lo Mat Husna, said she was withholding judgment on whether the tribunal could provide justice until the sentence came down, but was concerned about the slow pace of the case.
“Let’s see the verdict. The court has taken so long and I really want to see my community get justice.”
Genocide charges have been a source of controversy, with historians, lawyers and researchers butting heads over whether the Khmer Rouge truly had a policy in place to exterminate particular ethnic groups.
David Chandler and other prominent historians have said there is insufficient evidence of genocide, particularly against Muslims.
“Too many Chams survived the Khmer Rouge era to prove that the regime had intended to eliminate them all for racist reasons,” he wrote in an email.
“What is hard to prove against the regime [except as far as the Vietnamese minority are concerned] is genocidal intent.”
Mai and others in Svay Khleang said they believed Chams were treated worse than their Khmer counterparts – rural farmers and fishermen – but better than or equal to the group of urban dwellers, educated, and elite known as the “new people”.
One of two rebellion leaders to survive and the only one still living, Sos Min, 61, said he felt the genocide charges were appropriate.
“One hundred percent, Chams were treated worse than Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
Farina So, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia who has studied Chams under the Khmer Rouge, admitted it was a complicated case but said she believed there was sufficient proof the minority was targeted.
It is believed anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 Chams were killed, with 200,000 remaining by the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
“If the Khmer Rouge hadn’t collapsed, things would have gotten worse,” she said.
“In 1978, it became clear the Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate this group…. In Kompong Cham, a group of Chams were asked to identify their race, their ethnicity and for those who told them the truth, they were sent to be killed and for those who lied, they survived.”