Talking to Cambodians in the Bronx About the Khmer Rouge Genocide Tribunal

Despite many Cambodian New Yorkers' connection to the tragedy, the diaspora here isn't too focused on the proceedings in their home country.

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Apr 2 2015, 4:30pm

Kandaal Pheach, head monk at the Wat Jotanaram temple in the Bronx, grew up amid Cambodia's chaotic genocide of the 1970s. Photos by the author

Kandaal Pheach, sitting cross-legged, is quietly basking in the gentle glow of flickering candles on the main floor of a New York City Buddhist temple.

The Cambodian-American monk closes his eyes, murmurs some Khmer, and lights a stick of incense. Golden sculptures of Buddha tower over him as he cups his hands to pray. This is Wat Jotanarm, a monastery in the Bronx, a borough that's home to a sizable population of Cambodian immigrants.

Pheach's zen demeanor, however, conceals a childhood past scarred by genocide. And he's not alone. Pheach and the majority of his temple's few hundred followers are survivors who fled to America after the murderous Khmer Rouge regime swept through Cambodia in the 1970s.

Decades later, a United Nations–affiliated tribunal in Phnom Penh is charging former high-ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge. On March 27, Ao An, also known as Ta An, was charged with crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, political persecution, and other inhumane acts that took place at prison camps in Cambodia during the genocide. Meas Muth and Im Chaem, also key figures in the brutal regime, were issued similar charges on March 3.

Despite many Cambodian New Yorkers' connection to the tragedy, the diaspora here doesn't seem to be too invested in the charges—or other recent Khmer Rouge tribunal cases.

"Cambodian people suffer a lot and a long time," said Pheach, who explained that his community doesn't often speak openly about the genocide.

The Khmer Rouge, headed by leader Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. In four years, nearly 2 million people were exterminated. Police, teachers, doctors—the intellectual population was targeted aggressively, and cities were evacuated, paving the way for the regime's deranged vision of an agrarian utopia.

Pheach's family was relocated into the countryside for a life of peasantry and field work under the scorching sun. For years, he was separated from his parents as he cared for his younger brother in an abandoned home outside the capital of Phnom Penh. Pheach often held his brother in his arms while his younger sibling cried himself to sleep at night.

Pheach said traumatizing memories like these resurface when the Khmer Rouge is discussed—one reason for his community's silence.

"They stop listening to, they stop thinking about it, and they hate someone who are talking about it because they suffer so, so much."

The peaceful atmosphere of Wat Jotanaram makes for a stark contrast to the grim memories of most of the temple's congregation.

Muth's trial, dubbed Case 003 and Chaem and An's, known as Case 004, come following a wave of other prosecutions over the years.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, suspects in Case 002, were sentenced to life in prison in 2014. Kang Kek Iew—known as "Comrade Duch"—was also sentenced to life in prison for his role in the deaths of 15,000 Cambodians.

Officially referred to as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the tribunal was established in 1997 as a joint effort between the United Nations and the Cambodian government. This hybrid tribunal adheres to aspects of both international and domestic law. At the time, it was the first of its kind. To ensure a high level of transparency, most international tribunals are overseen only by the United Nations, and proceed in a separate country from the one in question.

Jennifer Trahan, a New York University professor and former Human Rights Watch advocate who worked closely with the Cambodian tribunal from 2002 to 2005, said its hybrid structure was an early issue.

"There was that concern when the international community is working with a domestic system that's not meant for it's independence, how would that influence the tribunal?" said Trahan. "I don't know if that concern has really ever evaporated."

Tribunals overseen by solely by United Nations Security Council have indicted 161 war criminals in Yugoslavia and 95 in Rwanda since the early 90s. In Cambodia, however, there were only five indictees over the first four years of the tribunal's operation.

Some believe the process has been politicized and corrupted by the Cambodian government, an institution rife with exonerated Khmer Rouge officials, including Cambodia's current prime minister, Hun Sen.

A recent report by the Open Justice Initiative suggests that "the integrity and reputation of the entire court" has been diminished. The authors suggest the tribunal has caved to political intrusion, that the United Nations' judicial methods are incompetent, and that there is a "deepening cynicism" amongst Cambodians watching the trials.

In 2011, German judge Siegfried Blunk resigned from his position on the tribunal, citing political interference by the Cambodian government.

There are other problems, too.

The lengthy tribunal has cost hundreds of millions of dollars for limited results—just three sentencings. Court workers even went on strike last March for unpaid wages.

"The Cambodian judicial system is totally inept," said Pete Pin, a Cambodian photographer who often works in the Bronx.

Pin is so frustrated with the Cambodian courts' interference in the tribunal that he's stopped following, talking, and thinking about it.

"It's structural issues," he added. "A non-hybrid tribunal would have had more leverage, power, more justice—absolutely. But that tribunal would've never happened because the Cambodian government would've never allowed that."

Another reason for the Bronx community's indifference or limited response to the tribunal stems from the advanced age of the accused.

Case 002 originally included two indictees besides Chea and Samphan. Khmer Rouge co-founder and minister of foreign affairs Ieng Sary died before he could be tried, and his wife Ieng Thirith was ruled unfit to stand trial due to Alzheimers disease.

Cases 003 and 004 are not much different; Chaem and An are in their 70s, and Muth is believed to be in his 80s. And since the ECCC charges were issued, Meas Muth, who suffers from heart disease and diabetes, has reportedly experienced a severe decline in health.

Thoul Tong is a Cambodian nonprofit worker in New York City who is indifferent to the ongoing Khmer Rouge court proceedings in his home country.

"We're talking about these men being in their 30s or 40s, it's a different story," said Thoul Tong, an outreach worker with non-profit Cambodian organization Mekong NYC in the Bronx.

Tong questioned the practicality of the tribunal, explaining that the age of the accused obscures the sense of justice within his community.

"They're so old. They will be found guilty," he explained. "That's the end result. But what is the punishment? How do you put punishment on men that are in their 80s? Maybe send them to prison, and hopefully they live another five or ten years."

Trahan, the NYU professor, still thinks that some level of justice is incredibly important.

"Prior to this tribunal's work, there was a large level of non-acceptance that these crimes had ever occurred," she added. "I think the tribunal is raising awareness in Cambodia and therefore are very important."

Muth, Chaem, and Ao will likely be sentenced to life in prison in the coming months and years—if they can outlive the court's tedious and flawed proceedings.

A trial date has yet to be announced.

Follow Dorian Geiger on Twitter.

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