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Cambodian reconciliation efforts force Khmer Rouge veterans to confront the past

Cambodian students read a newly-delivered copy of "A History of Democratic Kampuchea" in Anlong Veng, in Uddor Mean Chey province, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, June 21, 2010. Cambodian students in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold were issued the textbook Monday that for the first time teaches the atrocities of the past, a little more than a decade after government forces captured the movement's last bastion.
Cambodian students read a newly-delivered copy of "A History of Democratic Kampuchea" in Anlong Veng, in Uddor Mean Chey province, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, June 21, 2010. Cambodian students in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold were issued the textbook Monday that for the first time teaches the atrocities of the past, a little more than a decade after government forces captured the movement's last bastion. (Heng Sinith - AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Map of Anlong Veng, Cambodia

Recent media speculation has centered on Im Chaem, 64, who was a district chief in Banteay Meanchey province during Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s. In 2007, she told researchers from the Documentation Center of Cambodia that she had supervised construction of the Trapeang Thma dam, a project in which thousands of forced laborers are thought to have died.

On a sweltering recent evening, Im Chaem returned from working in the fields to her wooden stilt house on a dirt road outside Anlong Veng. As the sun cast long shadows across the parched grass, Im Chaem declined to discuss her past in the Khmer Rouge. If the court summoned her, she said, she would refuse to go.

"Cambodia is at peace and stable," she said. "If there are more prosecutions, there will be war."

Looking for way forward

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1978, has also repeatedly warned that instability will occur if the court pursues more suspects, although experts and historians dispute that.

"Cambodia must dig a hole and bury the past," he has said.

But confronting the past is just what Cambodia must do to move forward, said Chhang Youk, of the documentation center. "Reconciliation in Khmer terms is reconnecting the broken pieces," he said. "It's our obligation to put these broken pieces together so that we can understand."

The center produced the first government-approved textbook about the Khmer Rouge, the 75-page "A History of Democratic Kampuchea." It distributed it in Anlong Veng in June as a supplement to the Education Ministry's high school history textbook, which contains fewer than four pages about the Khmer Rouge.

As in much of Cambodia, Anlong Veng's young people know few details about the Khmer Rouge, despite the town's connection to the regime. Touch Valeak, 19, a student at Anlong Veng High School, said the new textbook was helping students understand an important part of their history. But his parents reacted with skepticism when he took the book home to study.

"My family rejects many parts of the textbook and the tribunal," he said. "They are suspicious because they are not sure how many people the court will prosecute."

Such resistance has made the reconciliation process complex and difficult, Sok Leang said. But the public forums, the textbook and the tribunal are beginning to have an impact, he said.

Still, the Khmer Rouge retains a powerful allure here. Up in the Dangrek Mountains, a path overgrown with weeds and strewn with discarded plastic bags leads to a rectangle of black soot covered by a rusted tin roof. Pol Pot's body was burned here on a pile of tires after his death in 1998.

Nuom Sothea, 31, a roadside cellphone vendor, said she didn't know much about the man who was cremated there.

"But he has a strong spirit, and many local people go there to pray to him," she said.

It was Nuom Sothea's birthday, and later that day she planned to walk to Pol Pot's final resting place, where she would leave a bunch of ripe bananas in hopes of bringing good luck.

Roasa is a special correspondent.


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