AUGUST 16, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 6This edition's table of contents
Into The Shadows
Will a trial of Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia set new furies into motion?
By PICO IYER Phnom Penh
For 20 years now, Tuol Sleng has been a notorious memorial to the Khmer Rouge killers who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Bump down a broken back street in the capital of Phnom Penh, and you come upon a former girls' school, bare except for the rusted beds on which Pol Pot's men interrogated victims, and the U.S. munitions cans they used as toilets. Display cases are littered with the hoes and shovels and iron staves they used to brain people to death; along the walls, hundreds upon hundreds of black-and-white faces stare back at you, dazed or terrified, recalling the people, often children and often themselves Khmer Rouge executioners, who were executed here. One large wall is dominated by a map of Cambodia made up entirely of skulls. Outside, in rough letters, the regulations of the place are written out by hand, in English and Cambodian: "While getting lashes and electrification, you must not cry at all."
The Museum of Genocidal Crime, as the road signs call it, has long been one of the principal tourist sites in Phnom Penh, long enough for locals to have stubbed out scores of cigarettes in the eyes of Pol Pot in one photograph. But this spring the monument to the past came into the news again when the man who had overseen the torture for four years, Kang Khek Ieu, generally known as Duch, was suddenly discovered, by foreign journalists, in a western Cambodian village. He was running a crushed-ice stall in the countryside and had certificates of baptism to prove his status as a born-again Christian. The man who oversaw the execution of at least 16,000 of his countrymen had papers from American churches testifying to his "personal leadership" and "team-building" skills.
Like many of his Khmer Rouge comrades, Duch, now 56 and in detention, had been a teacher (educated, it seems, in schools funded by U.S. foreign aid); unlike them, though, he admitted that he had "done very bad things in my life." More recently, he claimed, he had been working for international relief organizations, helping out in local camps. "He was our best worker," said a refugee official when told that the man who had tried to protect children from typhoid was the notorious torturer who had once written "Kill them all" over lists of nine-year-olds.
Thus life hobbles on in a still bleeding, often broken country in which every moral certainty was exiled long ago, and a visitor finds himself lost in a lightless labyrinth of sorts, in which every path leads to a cul-de-sac. On paper at least, this is a time of hope for ill-starred Cambodia. Last year Pol Pot finally died in his jungle hideout, and just before the new year, two of the last three Khmer Rouge leaders, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, turned themselves in for a while to the government of Hun Sen. The last Khmer Rouge bigwig still at large, Ta Mok, a one-legged general known as the Butcher, was captured in March and now awaits trial. For the first time in more than a generation, there are no Cambodians in refugee camps across the border in Thailand, and the Khmer Rouge, held responsible for the death of 1.7 million Cambodians during their four years in power alone, are silent.
Yet every prospect of new sunlight in Cambodia brings shadows, and justice itself seems a rusty chain that will only bloody anyone who tries to touch it. To try the Khmer Rouge chieftains would be, in a sense, to prosecute the whole country: almost everyone around--from the exiled King Sihanouk to the one-eyed Prime Minister to the man next door--has some connection to the Khmer Rouge killers. And even those who don't have come to strange accommodations: the local lawyer who agreed to represent Ta Mok lost his wife and 12-year-old daughter to his client's comrades. "So many people killed many people," says a young Cambodian in the western town of Siem Reap. "Even my uncle, he killed many people. That is how my father was safe. So we say, 'If you kill Khmer Rouge, you must kill everyone.'"
Even the sudden death of Pol Pot last year left a hollowness in many Cambodian hearts: the man who obliterated the country, its society and its fields died, without explanation, just as there was hope of trying him. "I don't want to think more about Khmer Rouge," says Keo Lundi, a gaunt, sad-eyed 39-year-old who shows visitors around the bloodstained floors of Tuol Sleng. "I don't want to know that Duch dies." He bangs his hand against a rusted post. "They killed my brother. They pulled down my life. They took my education--everything--to zero. I want peace."
The prospects for that are better now than they have been for many years: the main war visible in Phnom Penh is among five rival "hand-phone" companies fighting for the loyalties of ubiquitous cell-phone addicts, and earlier this year the country was finally admitted to the Southeast Asian economic community, ASEAN. Though brothels still line the streets, women who would otherwise be pushed toward prostitution are now employed in huge numbers--135,000 of them in all--in 165 government factories; and tourists, for the first time in 30 years, can fly directly to the great temples of Angkor, bringing money to the country's empty coffers. Yet the suspicion remains that peace can be acquired only at the expense of justice. To embrace the future, it seems, is to evade the past.
It is a curious thing these days to wander around Phnom Penh, a city of potholes and puddles where most of the elegant French colonial buildings behind gates look like haunted houses taken over by squatters too concerned with their survival tomorrow to be worried about upkeep today. Side streets are piled high with rotting garbage, and the small handwritten signs above the open sewers say things like saving aids and madman victim association. Policemen crouch on the sidewalks, playing tic-tac-toe in the cracks of the pavement, and security guards, wearing yellow smiley buttons, frisk you beside the Mekong. The fanciest hotel in town shuts its gates every night, as if to keep the jungle and the darkness at bay.
The potholes extend psychically too, of course: almost every Cambodian you talk to has huge gaps in his life story, long silences. Since Pol Pot eliminated all those with education or knowledge of the outside world, Phnom Penh became a city of country people, as well as a city of orphans, and you still cannot find doctors or teachers or lawyers of a certain age. No one knows what his neighbors suffered, or how exactly they survived. To survive today, school-age girls still sell themselves for $2 a visit--ignoring what may be the fastest-rising aids-infection rate in the world--and children scramble in the dust for foreigners' coins long after midnight. Their faces, you can't help noticing, are the same as the ones in the torture center.
Amid all the dilapidation, there are gaudy, anomalous explosions of affluence--huge, multistory palaces offering karaoke massage in neon letters, and ads in the local paper for Harry Winston jewels. Much of the money comes, of course, from overseas investors who are eager to make a killing out of need and are gambling that the economy can only improve. "This is the first time since I came here in 1992 when I can feel truly confident of making a profit," says a Singaporean businessman sipping pumpkin soup with gold leaf in it (in a hotel where even the telephone receivers are scented with jasmine). The appetizer alone costs as much as a local judge (generally uneducated) earns in maybe six months.
For a certain kind of foreigner, there is a half-illicit thrill in living in a place where the officials are dealing in drugs and girls and antique Buddhas when the guerrillas are not. At night, in the Heart of Darkness bar, the talk is all of $200 hitmen and whole villages in the business of peddling 13-year-old girls. Pizza restaurants are called Happy and Ecstatic in honor of their ganja toppings, and two of the main sites of entertainment have long been shooting ranges (public and private) where you can lob hand grenades or fire away with M-16 assault rifles. To rent a 24-room guesthouse on a lake, with a view of distant temples, costs $425 a month.
"I lived for two years without electricity," says a South American restaurant owner, sitting at a café while a woman crouches at her feet, giving her toenails their weekly polish. "Only by candle. It cost me $2 a week." Wander off the main streets, and you are in a maze of little lanes--completely unlighted and unpaved--where a former Zen monk runs a guesthouse and Africans fleeing either civil war or justice live by teaching English.
In such places Cambodia has the air of a society with no laws, where some protective coating, some layer of civilization, keeping Darwin's jungle remote, has been torn away. The local paper reads as if it had been written by a Jacobean playwright with a taste for black irony. A motorist crashes into the Independence Monument, it says, the seventh such fatality this year. More than 12,000 "ghost soldiers"--nonexistent employees--have been found on the Ministry of Defense payrolls. A Frenchman here to help Cambodia is charged with running a brothel full of underage boys.
It seems almost apt that half the cars you see have steering wheels on the left, and half have them on the right, ensuring bloody accidents every day.
In the midst of all this, the ones who live among ghosts conduct their own private investigations. "My friends think I'm crazy," says a well-to-do Cambodian who returned here from Canada. "People tell me, 'Why do you want to look at these things? It's easier to forget.' But I want to understand why it happened"--he means the self-extermination of his country--"so it will never happen again." When Pol Pot died, Keo Lundi, from the Tuol Sleng center, says, "I spent my own money to go to his province, to talk to his brother and sister. I wanted to know what he was like as a child." What he found was that Pol Pot--born Saloth Sar--was a notably mild-mannered boy, pious and delicate, who "never played with a gun" and often accompanied his mother to the pagoda. His own siblings claim not to have known that it was their courteous brother who was "Brother No. 1," the man who loosed a national madness.
The hope now is that Duch--perhaps the last Khmer Rouge leader to leave the city when the country's longtime enemies, the Vietnamese, took over in January 1979--may shed some light on what happened. But though the government has, for the time being, acceded to the demands of the world, and the U.N., to hold a partly international tribunal of the Khmer Rouge leaders, almost everyone agrees that terms like justice and democracy are virtual luxuries in a country as desperate as Cambodia, where politics can often look like a Swiss bank account under a false name.
"I don't want to watch the trials," an emotional diplomat in a Western embassy says, "because everything that has happened in the past year has been staged. So we know already what will happen. They will blame everything on Pol Pot, on others who are gone. Or on the Americans. Or the King. It will be lies."
One sunny holiday, as a visitor inspects carvings of demons and gods and mythological battles at the haunted temple of Angkor Wat, suddenly a Cambodian standing nearby clutches a pillar till his knuckles turn white. "Look," he says, swallowing. "There's Khieu Samphan!" He points to a trim elderly man in white shirt and slacks, walking with relatively little protection toward his helicopter. "He killed so many," says the visitor. "He killed my mother, my father," says the man, who was himself forced out of his home as a boy to work in the fields. Samphan and Nuon Chea, allowed to take themselves around the country before returning to the jungle, are walking through a city they have orphaned, among people whose lives they have destroyed, VIP sightseers (courtesy of the government) this bright festival day.
"Let us finish the war," says a 25-year-old local nearby, flush with the promise of a new future. "We are Buddhists: if you do badly, bad will come to you. Let us shake hands."
Burying the past, though, will not come easily in a country where roughly 50% of children are stunted and urchins in wheelchairs swivel around in front of cybercafés crying, "No have mother!" On the map given to visitors who go to the local tourist center, the text boasts of Cambodia's "wonderful history" and its status as a "land of tolerance and of plenty." Visit the "Choeung Ek Genocidal Center," it urges brightly of the rural equivalent to Tuol Sleng, where executioners once beat babies' heads against trees, adding that Cambodia will be "an inexhaustible source of memories to each one of you." The main sight at the center is a 10-story-high shrine made up of skulls.