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Catholics Reflect On Khmer Rouge Horrors, Justice As Trials Near

Updated: July 07, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
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Catholics in Cambodia say they look forward to the planned trials of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders as a way of bringing a measure of justice and solace to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Only a handful of former Khmer Rouge leaders in their 70s remain to be tried more than 25 years after Vietnamese forces drove them from power.

Expected to run three years and to cost more than US$56 million, the trials, co-organized by Cambodia and the United Nations, almost fell by the wayside. Eventually the United Nations arranged for most of the money and Cambodia last year pledged to pay US$13 million of the costs. The prospects faltered again, however, when Cambodia said it could not afford more than US$1.5 million. Japan recently stepped in to cover the shortfall, and the trials now appear imminent, with the United Nations set to oversee them.

You Prakort, 37, lost her brother, Bishop Joseph Chhmar Salas, to the Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 until 1979. Estimates of the number of people who did not survive the brutal four-year reign of the radical communist group range from half-a-million to as high as 2 million.

Prakort was 7 years old when Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. She told UCA News they deported her family and other laypeople, priests and nuns to a forced-labor camp in the rice fields of Taing Kauk village. It was there that many Christians suffered and were killed or died of hunger, sickness and abuse by the Khmer Rouge, she said.

"As a Catholic, I always pray to God that the victims live with him in heaven," she added. "I am looking forward to the day when the court will prosecute senior Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for their crimes."

Bishop Yves Ramousse, retired apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, ordained Prakort´s brother his coadjutor bishop as Pol Pot´s forces made their way into the capital. Bishop Ramousse and other foreign missioners were later deported, and Bishop Salas, who succeeded as apostolic vicar in 1976, reportedly died in Taing Kauk in September 1977. He was then 39. Three other priests reportedly died in the same place.

None of the seven Cambodian priests or of the Cambodian nuns living in the country when Pol Pot came to power survived his reign. The Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out all traces of the Church and to suppress other religions including Buddhism, presently Cambodia´s state religion. This, however, was only part of a radical agenda to create an entirely new socio-political and cultural system and uproot the past one, as evidenced by the reference to the Khmer Rouge takeover as "Year Zero."

Doung Savong, 50, a Catholic, who was deported from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, 150 kilometers to the northeast, recalls his ordeal. With entire urban populations being transported to rural areas, people such as him were called "new people" as opposed to the "old people," or local rural inhabitants. New people were discriminated against and constantly lived in fear of falling sick, which they often did, given that city people were not used to the rigors of farm work. Besides the lack of medical treatment, the Khmer Rouge often killed sick and old people who could not work.

"I want to see senior Khmer Rouge leaders be judged under an international tribunal without impunity. I hope this will satisfy the victims´ spirits," he told UCA News.

Witnesses such as Savong have described how Khmer Rouge cadres exercised the power of life and death, especially over "new people," for whom threats of being struck with a pickax or being "put in a plastic bag" were a part of everyday life. In order to save ammunition, guns were rarely used in executions. Survivors said people were murdered for not working hard, for complaining about living conditions, for collecting or stealing food for their own use, for wearing jewelry, for having sexual relations, for grieving over the loss of relatives or friends and for expressing religious sentiments.

It is not only those who suffered under the Khmer Rouge who feel strongly in favor of the trials. Catholics born after the period of the "killing fields" also voice support to UCA News. Pol Pot died seven years ago, but six of his associates are still alive to face charges of crimes against humanity.

Noun Tongleang, a 26-year-old Catholic, said he supports the tribunals because he believes the process will provide justice and delve into why a head of state decided to kill his own people. "It will be used as a lesson for other leaders in the world not to repeat the same mistake," he said.

Law student Ren Bonreth, 24, thinks that "if the court decision can be accepted, Cambodian people will be satisfied and the problem of people wanting to seek revenge will be over in society."

According to Mao Veasna, 24, a psychology student, every survivor of the murderous revolution faces problems. "Many Cambodian people still suffer from mental troubles and psychological disturbances," Veasna said, adding that many Cambodians alive today lost their entire family.

Veasna also sees the roots of moral decline in society today in the Khmer Rouge´s selective elimination of intellectuals, physicians, teachers and other professionals. Peasants were seen as the ideal in the classless society that the Khmer Rouge aimed to create.

Father Francois Ponchaud, a member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, was expelled from Cambodia in 1975. In 1977 he compiled accounts from refugees on the Thai border of widespread murder and starvation in his book. He published these in his book "Cambodia Year Zero." At the time there was a virtual blackout of news and the world was unaware of the brutality taking place in the country.

The missioner told UCA News, "I believed that the Khmer Rouge truly killed their own people. The story that refugees told me in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border were terrifying."

According to Father Ponchaud, 90 percent of the Catholics who were deported from Phnom Penh to the countryside died there. Only 1,000 Cambodian Catholics remained alive when the Pol Pot government collapsed, he said.

Even before the Khmer Rouge took over, the Church in Cambodia suffered from the civil strife in the 1960s and from years of U.S. aerial bombardment, during the Vietnam War, which destroyed practically all Church structures.

Since 1989, the Church in Cambodia has been experiencing a revival, as have other religions. Today, according to Church statistics, it counts 19,000 Catholics among 12 million people. Five of the 50 priests active in the country are native Cambodians.


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