Millions of Americans at home and abroad celebrated Thanksgiving recently in the company of good food, good family, and good friends. I spent mine in the company of a genocidal mass murderer standing trial for crimes against humanity. While it was not your average Thanksgiving to say the least, it was perhaps the one I have walked away from feeling the most thankful.
A full 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnamese, a 67 year-old Cambodian man known simply as “Duch” is the first defendant on trial in the highly anticipated, highly controversial Khmer Rouge Trials. Unable to logistically try every member of the former regime, and unable to try the regime’s megalomaniacal leader Pol Pot due to his natural death in 1998, only those remaining members who occupied senior positions and positions of leadership will be put before the international tribunal comprised of a hybrid court of Cambodian and UN officials. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Duch was the head of the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, personally overseeing and ordering the slaughter of over 12,000 people at S-21 and the nearby mass graves at Choeng Ek. After the fall of Phnom Penh, Duch continued to fight in the jungles of Cambodia in the name of Communism until as late as the early 1990’s. He then, oddly enough, peacefully reintegrated himself back into normal society under an assumed name as a high school math teacher. It wasn’t until he was discovered by a journalist in 1999 that he was finally arrested. 10 years later, his “fair trial” to ensure everlasting justice has finally commenced.
Attending the trial on what would be Thanksgiving morning, I was able to listen to the start of the closing arguments from the defense. While Duch has admitted to committing the crimes and has verified the atrocities that took place under his command, his defense team has chosen to argue that Duch was simply another member of a violent machine, following orders from his superiors simply to save his own life. The defense argued that since those sent to S-21 were already marked for death—many of them fellow Khmer Rouge members who had disobeyed their superiors—Duch did not in fact order their killings as he simply carried out their predetermined fate. As Cambodia does not have any form of capital punishment, the maximum possible sentence for Duch is life imprisonment, while the minimum would carry only 5 years.
While it seems as if this nation that has endured so much would support bringing justice to those responsible for such atrocities, the support for the Trials is wavering at best. In one regard, Cambodia is trying to move forward from the crimes of 30 years ago, and people rarely even speak of this dark stain on history. For many, the Trials are simply opening old wounds. In another regard, there is the financial aspect of the Trials that seems to have fallen prey to the rampant corruption that already grips this pocket-lined nation. The UN has already allocated $60 million towards implementing the Trials, and apparently is being asked for more due to lack of funds. This all from a trial that has yet to convict the first of 6 slated defendants set to stand separate trials. With the money being spent on a man who already admits to his wrongdoings, the entire trial is essentially arguing the degree of fault of one single man amongst nearly 3 million who ultimately lost their lives in the fighting. By one estimate, the cost of the Trials runs at $2,000 per victim, with more money being requested. This all in a nation where the majority of citizens make around $1000-$1500 a year. While the Trials continue to run, many are left questioning how much justice is actually being served.
So this Thanksgiving, while many back home gather with family, swill beer, eat gluttonous amounts of food, watch the Cowboys on TV, and prepare their wallets for the Christmas shopping season, I believe I am actually more thankful than had I spent the holiday as most normally do. I am thankful that I have never had to evacuate my town with only the clothes on my back. I am thankful that I have never had to work in a forced labor camp, each day followed by the fear of death. I am thankful that I have never had to kneel blindfolded at the edge of a mass grave, waiting on the inevitable. I am thankful I have never had to watch my family members burned alive in a locked wooden shed. I am thankful I have never had to feign ignorance, too afraid to reveal my education because of the death sentence that accompanies the diploma. One doctor purportedly had to watch his wife die in child-birth, unable to help her for fear of exposing proof of his medical training. I am thankful that I am able to eat eggs without fearing for my life. Gripped by the spirit of communism, the Khmer Rouge punished those caught eating eggs, seeing as they robbed their brethren of meat by not allowing the egg to grow into a meaty chicken. For those in the labor camps, eating eggs was punishable by death.
So while at first I was upset about having to miss Thanksgiving, I don’t think I ended up missing it at all.