Gathering the Evidence

Youk Chhang
Youk Chhang

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—There is no sign indicating the location of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. It is a smallish house set back a little ways from the street, bracketed by an Indian restaurant and a private residence. A 10-foot black gate offers a single, sliding peephole where visitors can request entrance, and a large security camera affixed to the gate monitors comings and goings. Fewer than three blocks from the center sits the grand second home of Ieng Sary, one of the most notorious Khmer Rouge leaders from the 1975-79 genocide. When he is not in Pailin in the far northwest of the country, this is where he stays, within walking distance from a small army at the documentation center that is determined to bring him and his cohorts to justice.

The center’s task is to gather and collect as much data as possible from the Khmer Rouge period. Roving teams of three or four traverse rural provinces gathering stories, pictures, and memories. The center collects the testimonies of torture, executions, forced labor, starvation, and fear. It is important to record history, to ensure that genocide never happens again, to try and understand how it could have happened at all. These are the goals set forth by the Cambodian-American director, Youk Chhang. But the immediate goal of the center is to be there, documentation in hand—proof of atrocities, of dehumanization, of crimes against spirit and soul—when and if the former Khmer Rouge leaders, like Ieng Sary, ever come to trial.

I recently went to see Chhang and his staff in order to gauge their opinions on the future Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal, which is still at the embryonic planning stage involving the United Nations and the Cambodian government, and on the current political situation in Cambodia.

A quiet, smiling man with an easy laugh, Chhang, 40, watched his sister be eviscerated by the Khmer Rouge when he was a teenager. He lost his mother and a good number of his extended family in the Khmer Rouge rule. After 1979, he received refugee status and came to America, where he was educated. But when the call came to set up the center, he returned.

The task of collecting evidence for an international tribunal against a regime that still holds significant political power in the country is not simple. Prime Minister Hun Sen was himself a low-level Khmer Rouge commander who escaped to Vietnam and returned in 1978 to fight against his former comrades. But many Khmer Rouge soldiers were simply folded into positions with the new government throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.

Youk Chhang’s desk sits out in the open on the first floor of the center, surrounded by books and reports on Cambodia and on other genocides around the world. Its placement is a symbol of transparency in a country full of back-alley deals and mafia-run industry. Teams of researchers and data entry operators buzz around the place. Dozens of filing cabinets line the walls of the center filled with testimony from victims, interviews with guards and interrogators at the torture centers, maps of the killing fields and mass graves scattered around the country, and biographies of as many leaders as possible.

For security reasons, Chhang and his staff microfiche every paper that comes in to the center, and backups of the microfiche are stored in undisclosed locations in Paris and Washington, D.C. For Chhang, however, there is no security. In Cambodia where more than three dozen political assassinations have occurred in the past year in broad daylight, his appearance at work each day is almost an act of defiance. “I think the Khmer Rouge should be afraid of me!” he told me, leaning on his desk. Three feet away, in a glass cube on a wooden base, sat a cracked, yellowing skull. “I have forgiven them by not shooting them.”

Chhang’s office publishes a monthly magazine called Searching for Truth, which carries stories about victims and perpetrators, position papers by leading academics around the world, and updates on the tribunal. It is read, says the editor, Sour Bun Sou, by most of the former Khmer Rouge leaders. “They read it to see what will happen to them.” Occasionally, he told me, they write letters complaining about the content. Nuon Chea, a top Khmer Rouge commander, recently wrote to denounce the magazine’s use of the word “comrade.” During the Khmer Rouge regime, he felt it important to clarify to the public, they only used the word “cadre.”

“It shows you how strict the leadership was,” Sour Bun Sou observed.

Since July 2003, the Cambodian government has been in a stalemate. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party was nine seats short of the number it needed to form a government in the National Assembly. The two main opposition parties, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party, subsequently formed a united front to fight Hun Sen, who has remained in power for more than 20 years despite losing elections in the past. Under his leadership, corruption and a culture of impunity have flourished.

As a result of this stalemate, numerous programs and plans have simply ground to a halt, including the War Crimes Tribunal. More important, however, is the mood of the country, the increasing tension surrounding the political stalemate and the assassinations. Nearly every person I spoke with compared it to the country in 1997, when Hun Sen, who allegedly employs some 2,000 security personnel, staged a coup against Funcinpec, the elected party, and violent confrontations—including a grenade thrown into a crowd of Sam Rainsy Party demonstrators—resulted in dozens of deaths.

Recently, Chhang was asked to help establish documentation centers similar to Cambodia’s in Iraq, Belgrade, and East Timor. Truth commissions and other groups hope to use his Phnom Penh center as a worldwide model for gathering evidence against genocide perpetrators and for preserving history.

For Chhang, though, the Cambodia tribunal is important not so much to clarify the past, and not because there is any real hope of retribution—”Should we chop Ieng Sary into 1.7 million pieces?” he asked rhetorically—but for the future of Cambodia. Chhang believes the tribunal will end what he calls Hun Sen’s “survival policy,” which is essentially the prime minister’s constant reference to himself as the only logical alternative to the Khmer Rouge. “Impunity is a real issue here,” Chhang says. “How can you combat lesser crimes [without the tribunal]? It will be a strong foundation for the rule of law.”

In other words, how can you indict a petty thief if you don’t pursue a murderer? In all the documentation of horrors, Youk Chhang began long ago to see not what the Khmer Rouge had taken from his country, but what had been left behind. “The [Khmer Rouge] failed to understand human beings,” he said, looking toward the encased skull. “You cannot arrest memory. I see flesh and blood when I look at a bone; I see a person. And I treasure that kind of memory.”