Commemoration marked on Khmer Rouge killings

Briton Mark Slater, a 28 year-old backpacker, was seized along with Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, 27, and Australian David Wilson, 29, after their train to the coast was attacked by Khmer Rouge fighters.
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Published on Feb 02, 2007 08:30 AM IST
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None | ByAgence France-Presse, Phnom Voar

Nothing in this bare corn field at the foot of a mountain in southwest Cambodia betrayed the violence that occurred here 13 years ago when Khmer Rouge rebels killed and buried three young Westerners.

Standing over three symbolic mounds of dirt where the bodies were later exhumed, some 100 villagers and diplomats remembered the murdered trio at a special ceremony, placing burning incense sticks into the earth.

Briton Mark Slater, a 28 year-old backpacker, was seized along with Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, 27, and Australian David Wilson, 29, after their train to the coast was attacked by Khmer Rouge fighters.

Their kidnapping sparked an international rescue effort that ended two months later with the westerners' deaths, after negotiations with the guerrillas failed.

"It is important to remember the past and the crimes that were committed," said British embassy Vice Consul Julia Shand, who traveled to this remote former Khmer Rouge stronghold; a long, flat hill called Phnom Voar, or Vine Mountain, which dominates the fruit plantations dotting the surrounding plains.

"It is equally important to look to the future," she added at Thursday's event.

The ceremony, to mark the arrival of a Buddha statue at a nearby temple that is hoped to end the spiritual upheaval plaguing the area, came as Cambodia's chances of reconciling with its own bloody history appear increasingly slim.

International judges on a joint United Nations-Cambodian Khmer Rouge tribunal are reportedly threatening to walk out amid accusations of government interference and growing doubts that trying a few aging regime cadre will heal a nation so troubled by its past.

Up to two million people died of starvation, overwork and from execution during the 1975-79 rule of the communist Khmer Rouge, which abolished religion, property rights, currency and schools.

Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998, and so far only one potential defendant is in jail for crimes committed under the regime.

There are fears that other elderly regime cadres who are living freely in Cambodia could die before being brought to justice.

Last week, the tribunal suffered another setback when foreign and Cambodian judges failed to agree on internal regulations that will give shape to almost every aspect of the trials.

The impasse will delay the formal adoption of the rules, which must be done for the tribunal to now move forward and trials to start.

Shand said that while Cambodians wanted reconciliation and justice, a flawed court would find neither.

"We hope that the government quickly agrees to the rules to get the (tribunal) really started, but the court's members must adopt rules that clearly meet international standards and allow for justice to be carried out for the defence as well as the victims," she said.

"The process must be independent, credible and fair."

As reports emerged of Cambodian judges stonewalling their foreign counterparts, the spectre of political influence has again been raised by observers who allege the government is trying to block the tribunal.

"Concerns about political interference in the process continue to stoke fears that Cambodian judges may not be free to exercise independent judgment," said the legal watchdog Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) in a statement.

"Further delays risk jeopardizing the court's effectiveness, compounding concerns about political interference and fatally damaging the credibility of an accountability process which has been 30 years in the making," added OSJI's executive director James A. Goldston.

But in this distant corner of Cambodia, where only a few short years ago former Khmer Rouge cadre still ruled over their people with a warlord's grip, accountability seems a far-off thing.

Only one woman admitted to living in Phnom Voar during the kidnapping.

Koe Ngov cooked for the doomed westerners, remembering all three as smiling young men who divided their food equally among themselves and shared precious cigarettes.

"I don't know why they were killed. They were good people," she said.

But when asked about prosecuting former leaders for all of the crimes committed under the regime, she replied: "I don't know anything about that. It is up to the government."

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