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Khmer Rouge War Criminals Brought to Trial 30 Years Later


Jill Garvey • Feb 11, 2009

As we battle our domestic demons in Arizona this week, another battle is finally coming to a close halfway around the world. Five members of the Khmer Rouge, the political party that caused an estimated 1.7 million deaths in the late 1970s, will be brought to trial. In the 30 years since the party was overthrown, no leader of the Khmer Rouge has ever faced justice.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Cambodia, mostly to Thailand, and approximately 150,000 came to the United States. For the last 25 years the Cambodian communities here have been struggling to both heal and forge new identities as Cambodian-Americans. It has been hard; they are one of the most impoverished refugee groups in this country.

I had the pleasure of spending time with the Cambodian community in Chicago some years ago. At the time the community organization, Cambodian Association of Illinois, was raising money for a Killing Fields Memorial. What struck me was the determination the community had to build the memorial despite the overwhelming hardships they faced in daily life. Yesterday Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview visited the memorial in Chicago and spoke to the founder of CAI, Kompha Seth, and others. Here are some excerpts:

Out of their 25 member extended family, only Kompha and his sister-in-law are left.  Kompha has dedicated his life to making sure that what happened during the genocide is not forgotten.

SETH: Among the unluckiest, I’m the luckiest. That’s why we work hard to create this memorial, you know, to honor those who cannot make it. It’s the place where people come to heal the past, and also the place to honor those who cannot survive.

Museum director Charles Daas: What is most disheartening for me is that genocide actually has a pattern. That this isn’t just something that happens. That one genocide occurs and people actually mimic or learn from that. And so I think one of the difficulties for me is that even though we have this wonderful facility and this beautiful memorial, which again while it’s a memorial to the Cambodian people, it’s a memorial to anyone who’s been victim to war to torture and to genocide. I think the hardest thing for me is that there are so many people who don’t know that this happened and how important it is for them to understand this.

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