Atrocity killed Cambodia's future

Sun Journal

Genocide: The Khmer Rouge mass killings in the 1970s eliminated the doctors, teachers, lawyers and other professionals who are needed to rebuild Cambodia.

January 19, 1999|By Seth Mydans | Seth Mydans,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Put the Khmer Rouge on trial for mass murder? "Who's going to try them?" asks a foreign human-rights worker. "They killed all the lawyers."

Not only lawyers but doctors, teachers, engineers, accountants, clerks, businessmen, monks, artists -- anybody who stood in their way as they dragged Cambodia backward from the modern age toward their goal: a bizarre, primitive agrarian utopia.

The principal tactic was to eliminate -- not by re-educating but by killing -- the entire class of people who could be called modern. In that, if in nothing else, the Khmer Rouge seem to have succeeded.

Now, 20 years later, as Cambodia still struggles to get back onto its feet, the country faces a harsh fact that sets its suffering apart, even from the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin and the like: The Khmer Rouge not only destroyed Cambodia's culture, commerce and civil society in the 1970s; it eliminated the people who might have been available to rebuild them.

In December, two top Khmer Rouge leaders -- Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea -- surrendered to the government, apparently in return for a free pass to settle into a comfortable retirement. But foreign countries and many Cambodians are pressing hard for a tribunal to try them for crimes against humanity.

More than 1 million people died of malnutrition, overwork, misdiagnosed disease and execution when the Khmer Rouge were in power from 1975 to 1979. Many of those targeted for killing came from the educated class. Of 545 judges in the country in 1975, said Belgian historian Raoul Jennar, all but four died. Of approximately 800 doctors, only about 40 survived.

"After the Khmer Rouge time there were entire professions which disappeared," Jennar says.

Until the mid-1980s, there was nobody in Cambodia who knew how to use a computer, he says. No one knew how to run an electric power plant. The country's power stations, built by the French in the 1930s, had to be repaired by Soviet engineers.

These numbers have hardly risen in the two decades since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion.

Throughout the 1980s Cambodia was under the control of a Vietnamese-backed Communist government that was shunned by most of the outside world, and it was preoccupied by a civil war. Most of the intellectuals who survived joined an exodus of as many as 400,000 refugees, and the country's ruined education system could not begin to replace them.

"When I came back to Cambodia in 1992, we visited the prison and we found out that very few prisoners had had trials, and those trials were conducted without lawyers," says Kek Galabru, who founded the country's leading human-rights group, Licadho, when she returned from abroad.

"Right now we have about 200 lawyers in the nation, but the quality is not good," she says. "The problem is quality. Even in human-rights work we have to train our staff -- train, train, train."

The task of training is monumental in a country that never had a high literacy rate and now has one of the world's lowest, about 35 percent. Even today, as many as half the country's high school teachers have only an elementary school diploma, and one in 20 does not even have that, according to official figures.

Even before the warfare and killings of the 1960s and 1970s, Cambodia was an unsophisticated, poorly educated farming nation, fought over through the centuries by its neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand, and treated as an afterthought by its colonial masters, the French.

Then came the devastation of the Khmer Rouge years, assuring that Cambodia would take no part in the economic boom that would transform much of Southeast Asia.

"I do think people are still underestimating the legacy of the '70s and the '80s," Jennar says. "In the '70s, 95 percent of the human resources disappeared. And the legacy of the '80s is the impossibility to stop to train new human resources. So when we speak of the rule of law, we must keep in mind that Cambodia was able to reopen its faculty of law only in 1992. It is very difficult to make the rule of law work when you do not have jurists."

Beyond the absence of skilled practitioners of law or medicine or administration, says American historian David P. Chandler, Cambodian society suffers from a more generalized malaise.

"They are just sort of traumatized," Chandler says. "Even if they had a bourgeois background, these people are still stunned."

And with the country's continuing political feuds and violence, which also have their roots in the struggles of the Khmer Rouge years, these stunned Cambodians have not had the peace and stability to rest and recover.

Even if the country were simply to open a dialogue about the past, Chandler has doubts about what could be accomplished. "I don't see the people in Cambodia who are capable of picking up the ball in a debate like this," he says. "I don't see the people who have the education, who know how to do a trial, who know what evidence means, who know what corroboration means."

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