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Festival of the Dead

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

An hour's drive from downtown Phnom Penh sits a campus of modern office buildings. The architecture is standard office-park fare, but with fantastic crowns of golden lintels and red tiles--traditional Khmer designs--grafted atop. (The effect is rather like seeing a businessman wearing a papal crown.) The offices were originally constructed for the military, and a sign that reads ROYAL CAMBODIAN ARMED FORCES still hangs on one gate. Elsewhere on the campus, a large bronze statue of a warrior on a pedestal stares down at onlookers, one arm pointing an accusing finger, the other brandishing a club. My guide, an American who works for the United Nations, tells me that it is a traditional Cambodian representation of justice. But, he adds, wrinkling his nose, he doesn't much like it. "It's not what justice should look like," he says. "You know, the lady with the blindfold and the scales."

The question of what, exactly, justice looks like is in the air here because the campus is home to the tribunal that is slated to begin trying five top Khmer Rouge officials within the next few months. Backed by the United Nations, the tribunal represents the first attempt to prosecute leaders of the Khmer Rouge in almost 30 years. After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and put a halt to the killing, they held a cursory trial, widely regarded as a sham. In the years that followed, no comprehensive attempt was made to hold surviving Khmer Rouge officials accountable for the estimated 1.5 million people who perished under their rule between 1975 and 1979. History loomed, ominous and inscrutable, and the questions surrounding the Cambodian killings fields, questions that might have been answered through trials, went largely unaddressed. Why had the Khmer Rouge kept such meticulous records--rooms upon rooms of file cabinets containing labeled photos of victims, taken both before and after death? Why were some people killed for offenses as superficial as wearing glasses, while others were not? Why were so many of the guards at the notorious S-21 detention center--responsible for interrogating and torturing tens of thousands--middle-school-aged children?

Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998 without ever having to answer these questions. But some of his deputies survive, including the five whose trials are expected to begin soon: Kaing Guek Eav, head of the S-21 prison; Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist; Khieu Samphan, former chief of state; Ieng Sary, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister; and his wife, Ieng Thirith, former minister of social affairs.

It seems obvious that trying these Khmer Rouge officials is a good idea. After all, part of the lingering horror for Cambodians has been the inability to tell a history about precisely what happened to their country during one of the twentieth century's worst spasms of mass violence. At this late date, no trial could possibly address all their questions, but presumably average Cambodians would at least find catharsis in having some answers--and in seeing a token few of the perpetrators held accountable.

But what seems obvious in Cambodia often isn't. The more you know about the trials, the more reason there is to suspect that these proceedings will serve a purpose other than reckoning with the past. And, far from delivering justice to the Cambodian people, the trials may be paving the way for exactly the opposite.

What is at stake as the tribunal prepares to open isn't just the right to define Cambodia's past, but the right to control its future. And that future appears murky. On the one hand, decades after Pol Pot emptied Phnom Penh, the capital city is once again bustling. The old French colonial buildings, today used as government offices and luxury hotels, have fresh coats of yellow paint, and modern condo developments are rising on the city outskirts. Along the Mekong River's new pedestrian-friendly walkway, upscale restaurants and Internet cafes cater to an influx of university students, aid workers, and foreign tourists. Motorcycles are parked en masse on public squares. At night, a few of the fancier downtown homes even have cars parked on the ground level. For the past three years, the country has seen double-digit GDP growth, driven by urban construction, garment exports, and an onslaught of tourists, whose numbers are doubling every three years. (Angelina Jolie's turn in Tomb Raider, filmed among the country's ruins, has helped lure armies of sightseers.)

But, only a few miles outside the capital, the paved roads turn to dirt, the new gas stations are replaced by roadside stalls selling bootleg petrol in used Pepsi bottles, and the electric lines, if they exist, aren't very reliable. It's clear the wealth hasn't spread very far. Compared with other developing countries, Cambodia scores abominably low on a scale (used by the World Bank and others) that measures how much overall economic gains are helping the poor. The problem is inept governance, exacerbated by endemic corruption. Cambodia ranks near the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, and a proposed anti-corruption law has been held up in the legislature for over a decade. "The country is like a motorcycle. If you want to drive fast, you need gas and a good engine," says Sok Hach, president of the Economic Institute of Cambodia, an independent research center in Phnom Penh. "We have the gas," by which he means money and natural resources. "But the engine is not so good."

The engine is currently in the hands of Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister. Hun Sen took power during the country's first multi-party elections in 1993 and has not relinquished it since. In 1997, he consolidated his grip by deposing his co-prime minister and rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Today, he is one of Asia's longest-serving leaders. On his watch, the country has been relatively peaceful, not something to take for granted given Cambodia's recent history. But, although foreign aid dollars and new investments are now flowing in, unemployment remains high, infrastructure lags behind neighboring countries, and the education system is derelict. "The political culture of corruption and impunity means that Cambodians are still among the world's poorest people," explains Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness, a Britain-based watchdog group that last year described Cambodia's ruling tier as a "kleptocratic elite."

Yet Hun Sen continues to win votes with two primary appeals: handouts to peasants come election season, and leveraging the horrors of the past. "The government likes to tell us that the status quo is better than what came before, " says Hach. And that, more than anything else, explains why the government has lately been eager to hold these trials. "It's brilliant politics," says Theary Seng, executive director of Cambodia's Center for Social Development, an independent group that monitors the courts and human rights. "Not only is the government able to whitewash officials' personal histories"--Hun Sen was himself a Khmer Rouge soldier--"but they get to be known across the country, and throughout world history, as the triers of the Khmer Rouge." We were sitting in a conference room of the Raffles Hotel, an old colonial structure refurbished with embarrassing splendor in Phnom Penh. "In the history books, that's all that will be said: 'This Cambodian People's Party, led by Hun Sen, tried the Khmer Rouge.'"

It is probably no coincidence that the trials are moving forward now--just in time for the July elections, when voters will decide whether to keep Hun Sen in office. At least one of the five officials will probably have been tried by then, predicts Ngoun Serath of the Club of Cambodian Journalists. "That," he tells me, "will be something to brag about."

The tribunal is particularly important to Hun Sen's political strategy because, these days, demography is working against him. Seventy percent of Cambodians are under the age of 30, meaning they do not personally remember the Khmer Rouge. Hence the need for visceral reminders of the past, if the ruling party is to cling to power. Clearly, Hun Sen is hoping the tribunal will do the trick.

Every year, for a two-week period known as Pchum Ben (or Festival of the Dead), Cambodians honor their ancestors, including those who died under Pol Pot. On the final day of the festival last October, at a temple near the center of Phnom Penh, I met Ly Setha, a 31-year-old government aide. He was kneeling on the steps outside the pagoda, retying his shoes, incense wafting through the doors. Like most Cambodians, he had lost a close relative during the reign of the Khmer Rouge--his father. And, like many, he was too young to remember. In his mother's stories, which are all he knows, his father fought "valiantly," three-to-one against the soldiers who came to take him away; they hung his severed head in a tree, an ornament of intimidation. An infant at the time, Setha says he will never know what truly happened. His only recollections are ill-defined, the shards of an illogical dream. "I am sad," he told me, "but not because I remember being hurt."

That evening, Setha gave me a tour of the city by motorbike. We zipped past the congressional buildings and the king's palace lit up at night, then down the new commercial drag along the Mekong. Eventually, we stopped at one of the recently opened coffee shops. Inside, twentysomethings sipped dark roasts and stared at the big-screen television. Setha soon became engrossed in the wrestling show "Smackdown," as I ordered a cup of tea. I asked why the menu was printed in Khmer and English. He explained that American phrases had a certain cachet, as young Cambodians now study English in school. They are also increasingly Internet-savvy and attuned to such international phenomena as World Wrestling Entertainment and the U.S. presidential election. After his brief stint as a Buddhist monk--"I thought my head would explode," he said, "to stand still while the world moved by"--Setha went to business school, then got a job as an aide to the chairman of a government anti-corruption commission. He carries English-language newspapers under the seat of his motorbike and methodically quizzed me on American politics. He is a fervent supporter of the main opposition party.

Although Hun Sen's backing remains strong in the countryside, and his Cambodian People's Party (CCP) is expected to win the next elections handily, support is fading among Setha's cohort. "What we remember and what we want is different than our parents," he said. He supports the opposition more out of desire for change than because of specific policies. "Elections in Cambodia are very elemental," says Chiv You Meng, president of the Khmer Youth Association, an organization that conducts get-out-the-vote efforts and lobbies against corruption. "It's a choice between systems, voting for democracy or for the old ways. Many young people believe that CCP is comprised of individuals who represent the old ways."

Cambodia today is at a crossroads. With improved governance it could develop the way of Malaysia, a relatively stable country with a growing economy. Or it could go the way of Indonesia, where a corrupt elite hoarded wealth, allowing resentment to fester until the country erupted in violence and the government was finally toppled. With the recent discovery of Cambodia's offshore oil, expected to come online as early as 2009, the stakes are even higher, as greater resources will soon be available--either to benefit the population at large or to grease the wheels of corruption, sharpening the divide between rich and poor. Of course, the longer Hun Sen retains his solid grip on power, the worse the prognosis. And so the Khmer Rouge trials, to the extent that they're good news for him, may end up being bad news for the rest of Cambodia.

Christina Larson is a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly. Her research in Cambodia was supported by a journalism fellowship from the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

By Christina Larson