And a perspective from this side of the pond:
Revisiting the genocide
For immigrants, Cambodian tribunal awakens painful memories
By Russell Contreras, Globe Staff | September 13, 2007
ACTON - Mention the Khmer Rouge and Thida Loeung stops speaking. The 42-year-old Cambodian-American looks away and takes deep breaths before she can talk about the dark abyss in her motherland's history when an estimated 1.7 million people were killed by mass execution and starvation under the extreme regime of tyrant Pol Pot.
Her father, Houry Loeung, was one of them. After he starved to death, Thida Loeung, then a teenager, and her family were forced to flee their decimated homeland, ending up eventually as refugees in Lowell. And although it's been a quarter of a century, Loeung, who now lives in Acton, still has trouble revisiting that experience.
"It's hard for me to talk about it, even today," she said.
But for Cambodians everywhere, including the thousands who have settled in this area, the past has come back. A genocide tribunal in Cambodia is now targeting former Khmer Rouge leaders accused of crimes against humanity during Pol Pot's reign from 1975 to 1979. So far, the judges have indicted one of five suspects, "Duch," or Kaing Guek Eav. He was the head of the communist Khmer Rouge's S-21 prison and torture center, investigators allege. The others have not been named publicly and remain free.
The prosecution of the five former leaders - Pol Pot died in 1998 - has grabbed international headlines and the attention of human rights advocates as the United Nations-based tribunal attempts to bring to justice those who may have been involved in an investigation that already has seen many delays and turns.
For many Cambodians in this area, though, the subject of the trial is painful and rarely discussed, said Vong Ros, executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, a city with an estimated Cambodian population of 30,000.
"Cambodians don't get excited about it because they'll have to relive it," Ros said. "We're not celebrating to find out who is responsible for our displacement."
Loeung, for one, isn't following the case closely. But her husband is. George Chigas, a visiting political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and a scholar of Cambodian literature, reads news out of Phnom Penh, sends out updates via e-mail, and lectures about the day-to-day happenings of the court proceedings 10,000 miles away and decades in the making.
The 49-year-old professor and poet, who grew up in a Lowell Greek-American family, said that the prosecution of Pol Pot's lieutenants is being met with skepticism and distrust by Cambodians because they are occurring some 30 years after the start of the Khmer Rouge regime. That's very different from the South African and Rwandan reconciliation trials that occurred soon after the end of the brutal regimes in those nations"There's a huge gap in time," Chigas said. "That really complicates the response to these trials. People have become cynical about there being some sort of real legal response. People are a little wary about getting personally invested."
Still, Chigas said that there is hope among Cambodians that the trials might bring to light some acknowledgement by the world of what happened.
A study published two years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly all Cambodian immigrants had suffered trauma before reaching the United States. The study also found that 99 percent came close to death from starvation and 90 percent reported knowing a family member or friend who was killed.
During the Khmer Rouge's reign, around a quarter of the population died, with most buried in mass graves.
"There were no formal funerals," Chigas said. "There was no public display of acknowledgement that this person died for this reason and is buried in this place. Having that unfinished business of the funeral hanging on for 30 years makes it something that people feel needs to be done."
Chigas said the closest analogy would be like not having the many memorials and funerals held to remember and honor the victims of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the public memorials allowed families to put the event in context and place.
"That place doesn't exist for the family members of people who died in these mass graves," Chigas said. "The trials will almost function as a kind of state- and international-sponsored funeral. It will put a name and place to those who died."
Chhan D. Touch, a nurse practitioner at the Lowell Community Health Center-Metta Health Center, agreed.
"It's a history of Cambodia that needs to be closed," said Touch, who is on Chigas's e-mail list and follows the tribunal's proceedings daily. "This has to take place so we can stop hurting each other."
Touch said his center treats many Cambodians who still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or have a mental health issue. He said some have come in recently asking for general information about the tribunal while others just don't want to talk about it.
"It's something we have to come to terms with," Touch said. "Many of us are still angry, and don't even know why."
Russell Contreras can be reached at [email protected]