Bronx Community Silent — And Indifferent — to U.N. Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Cambodians in NYC Pt. II)
NEW YORK — Kandaal Pheach, sitting cross-legged, is quietly basking in the gentle glow of flickering candles on the main floor of a New York City Buddhist temple.
A Cambodian-American monk, Pheach closes his eyes, murmurs some Khmer, and lights a stick of incense. Smoke slithers through the air. An alter of golden Buddha sculptures tower over him as he cups his hands to pray. This is Wat Jotanarm, a Bronx monastery home to New York’s largest Cambodian population.
Pheach’s zen demeanor, however, is a cloak that conceals a childhood past scarred by genocide. And he’s not alone. Pheach and the majority of his temple’s few hundred followers are survivors who fled to America after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime who swept through Cambodia in the 1970s.
Nearly half a century later, thousands of miles from New York, a United Nations tribunal in Phnom Penh will soon sentence high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan for crimes against humanity and their part in Cambodia’s genocide. Chea, 87, and Samphan, 82, read their closing statements on Oct. 31, and are expected be sentenced, likely to life, in early 2014.
However, despite its direct connection to the tragedy, the diaspora community in New York goes about its daily life without paying the trial much attention, Pheach, included.
“Cambodian people suffer a lot and a long time,” said Pheach, who explained that his community doesn’t often speak openly about the genocide.
The Khmer Rouge, headed by leader Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia from 1975-1979. In four years, millions were exterminated. Police, teachers, doctors; the intellectual population was eradicated, and cities evacuated, paving the way for the regime’s deranged vision of an agrarian utopia.
Pheach’s family was relocated into the countryside for a life of peasantry and field work under the scorching sun. For years, he was separated from his parents as he cared for his younger brother in an abandoned home outside the capital of Phnom Penh. Pheach often held his brother in his arms while his younger sibling cried himself to sleep at night.
Pheach said traumatizing memories like these resurface when the Khmer Rouge is discussed, a possible reason for his community’s silence.
“They stop listening to, they stop thinking about it, and they hate someone who are talking about it because they suffer so, so much.”
Chea and Samphan’s trial, dubbed Case 002, is the second wave of hearings following the prosecution of Kang Kek Iew, nicknamed in ‘Duch,’ in 2012. Iew, who oversaw the infamous Tuol Sleng prison for the Khmer Rouge, was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the deaths of 15,000 Cambodians.
Officially referred to as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the tribunal was established in 1997 as a joint effort between the United Nations and the Cambodian government. This hybrid tribunal adheres to aspects of both international and domestic law. At the time, it was the first of its kind. To ensure a high level of transparency, most international tribunals are overseen only by the United Nations, and proceed in a separate country from the one in question.
Jennifer Trahan, a New York University professor, and former Human Rights Watch advocate who worked closely with the Cambodian tribunal from 2002 to 2005, said its hybrid structure was an early issue.
“There was that concern when the international community is working with a domestic system that’s not meant for it’s independence, how would that influence the tribunal?” said Trahan. “I don’t know if that concern has really ever evaporated.”
Tribunals overseen by solely by United Nations Security Council have indicted 161 war criminals in Yugoslavia and 95 in Rawanda since the early nineties. In Cambodia, however, there have been only five indictees over the course of 14 years.
Some believe the tribunal process has been politicized and corrupted by the Cambodian government, an institution ripe with exonerated Khmer Rouge officials, including Cambodia’s current prime minister, Hun Sen. In 2011, German judge Siegfried Blunk resigned from his position on the tribunal, citing political interference by the Cambodian government.
There are other problems, too.
The lengthy tribunal has cost hundreds of millions of dollars for limited results and a single sentencing. Court workers even went on strike last March for unpaid wages.
“The Cambodian judicial system is totally inept,” said Pete Pin a Cambodian photographer who often works in the Bronx.
Pin is so frustrated with the Cambodian courts interference in the trial that he stopped following, talking, and thinking about the tribunal.
“It’s structural issues,” Pin added. “A non-hybrid tribunal would have had more leverage, power, more justice — absolutely. But that tribunal would’ve never happened because the Cambodian government would’ve never allowed that.”
Another reason for the Bronx community’s indifference or limited response to the tribunal stems from the advanced age of the accused. Case 002 originally included four indictees aside from Chea and Samphan. Khmer Rouge co-founder and minister of foreign affairs Ieng Sary died before he could be tried, and his wife Ieng Thirith was ruled unfit to stand trial due to Alzheimer disease.
“We’re talking about these men being in their thirties or forties it’s a different story,” said Thoul Tong, an outreach worker with non-profit Cambodian organization Mekong NYC in the Bronx.
Tong questioned the practicality of the tribunal, explaining that the elderly age of the accused obscures the sense of justice within his community.
“They’re so old. They will be found guilty,” he explained. “That’s the end result. But what is the punishment? How do you put punishment on men that are in their 80s? Maybe send them to prison, and hopefully they live another five or 10 years.”
Trahan, the NYU professor, still thinks that some level of justice is incredibly important.
“Prior to this tribunal’s work, there was a large level of non-acceptance that these crimes had ever occurred,” she added. “I think the tribunal is raising awareness in Cambodia and therefore are very important.”
Chea and Samphan are expected to be sentenced to life in prison in the coming months. A sentencing date has yet to be announced.
Part III of “Cambodians in New York” will return to Sleepless in Singapore soon with a story about the history and importance behind the Khmer Buddhist Society or Wat Jotanaram, a Buddhist temple, place of worship, and primary space of community for Cambodians living in the Bronx.
Connect with Dorian Geiger, editor of Sleepless in Singapore.