Bearing witness to Cambodia’s horror, 20 years after Pol Pot’s death

Twenty years ago, on April 15, 1998, Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia’s genocidal government during the late 1970s, died in his sleep at the age of 73. Born Saloth Sar, Pol Pot was never held accountable for the crimes committed during the three years, eight months and 20 days his Khmer Rouge government subjected the Cambodian population to a reign of terror. Almost 2 million people, one-fourth of the country’s population, perished during this time from starvation, disease and execution.

In the search for truth and justice, many Cambodian survivors have looked to the U.N.-assisted tribunal currently in progress in the capital city Phnom Penh. Convened in 2006, the tribunal has sentenced the head of the main Khmer Rouge torture center to life in prison.

The tribunal’s second trial is nearing completion and is expected to result in life sentences for two additional high ranking Khmer Rouge leaders as well. At that point, the tribunal will mostly likely close its doors, and the U.N.-appointed judges and lawyers will go home. The tribunal is a classic example of “justice delayed is justice denied.”

For the past 30 years, I have studied the legal, political and literary responses to the Cambodian genocide. It is the literary responses – accounts written by survivors themselves – that show how in breaking their silence and in speaking on behalf of those who died, they were able to seek justice and healing.

The Killing Fields

Two important texts, Haing Ngor’s “A Cambodian Odyssey,” published in 1987, and Vann Nath’s “A Cambodian Prison Portrait,” published 11 years later, reveal the extraordinary events that led to their writing and publication, as well as the authors’ reasons for recording their literary testimony.

Haing S. Ngor, in a photo from May 8, 1985. AP Photo/Wally Fong
Before the Khmer Rouge took power on April 17, 1975, Haing Ngor was a successful gynecologist at a medical clinic in Phnom Penh. During the genocide, Ngor was arrested and severely tortured by the Khmer Rouge on three separate occasions. Each time, Ngor’s wife Huoy nursed him back to health from the brink of death. Ironically, near the end of the genocide, Huoy died in childbirth, because Ngor lacked the simple medical equipment to save her and their first child.

Ngor was able to survive the genocide. He was given refugee status by the American government and resettled in Long Beach, California, which has the largest population of Cambodians in the United States. However, he continued to be racked by guilt over not being able to save Huoy’s life.

In the early 1980s, the first film about the Cambodian genocide, “The Killing Fields,” was made based on the book by New York Times war correspondent Sydney Schanberg, who reported on the Vietnam War from Phnom Penh. In casting the role of Dith Pran, Schanberg’s Cambodian translator, Ngor was selected out of a crowd at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles.

[embedded content] A trailer of the ‘The Killing Fields’ documentary.
Despite no previous acting experience, Ngor won the 1985 Academy Award for best supporting actor. Ngor’s instant fame from wining the Oscar transformed him from an anonymous survivor into the world’s most prominent witness of the Cambodian genocide.