Saturday, June 12, 2010


It was refreshing to hear that USF law students taking the genocide class had, as part of their required assignments, the viewing of the Matt Dillon film – City of Ghosts. I’m told it’s an offbeat comedy about Cambodia filmed in Phnom Penh. I gather there is not a serious scene in the film despite the grim history of its location and a title that could surely make you think you were about to go there.

The truth is you need a break from genocide in this town. With the tribunal on-going, albeit in fits and starts (the verdict on Duch now being prepared with apparently more trials to follow), with controversy over how the trials are being conducted, and with speculation about who future defendants might be (the complex procedures of the tribunal do not make such information immediately available), Phnom Penh is rife with the topic everywhere one turns.

I found that out yesterday over breakfast and dinner. I met with a British consultant at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Rupert Abbott, for breakfast at my hotel, ostensibly to discuss where USF students would be placed in internships. Indeed, we did discuss the interns, but it was a sideshow to Rupert’s main area of interest – what did I think about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT), where did I think it headed, and would USF be interested in a joint project to discern the KRT’s legacy for Cambodia.

I detailed my own mixed feelings: glad it was under way, wondering whether the Cambodian population truly supports the effort (recent polls suggest they do), concern about the 30 year gap between the events and the trial, confusion about how defendants are selected and whether it is possible to now hold people accountable in light of the integration of many KR into today’s Cambodia and the death of so many since Pol Pot’s reign ended, musings about how the trials play out in a Buddhist society (does religious belief in the afterlife impact the way a society might judge its own who are living?), and still questioning whether a truth commission might have better served Cambodia’s needs.

Rupert describes his views too and raises the fascinating idea of a project focused on the trial’s legacy for Cambodia. He ponders whether the trials will serve as a reminder for Cambodia’s future? Will it strengthen the rule of law generally? Will it strengthen Cambodia’s domestic courts (where it is said that future trials may take place rather than in the international setting in which the KRT is now being conducted)? All good questions, all worthy of more discussion for future work.

Seated outside for dinner at the newish Le Petit France with a mild, humid but still refreshing breeze blowing, the topic is the same – this time with long-time KRT warrior Helen Jarvis and her husband Alan. Helen is finishing a stint with the tribunal heading its victims’ unit, a job she has held for the past year. For the past 11 years she has immersed herself in genocide work with DC Cam and for the past several years the tribunal itself. The dinner is consumed with talk of the trials. When will the verdict against Duch come down? Why is it taking so long? Is that good or bad? What will the next trials be like? Will the ruling in this first trial expedite future proceedings? Has the victim’s unit made progress over the past year (apparently lots of it)?

Soon dinner is consumed and the questions keep coming. They only stop when we all decide that it is time to call it an evening. I ride back to my hotel in my waiting tuk-tuk. Howard, Helen and Alan head in the opposite direction.

So here’s to City of Ghosts! Medium popcorn, no butter, and a small diet Coke please!

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