For more than a decade, the critics have exerted undue influence over attempts to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge and deliver some kind of justice for the atrocities committed under their rule. Cambodia, they say, is too corrupt, too inept, or just too disinterested to establish culpability for one of the great outrages of the 20th century.
The critics remain out in force, but despite their often hysterical cries about the flaws of a troubled country the main event is about to get underway at the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC).
Former Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, one-time head of state Khieu Samphan, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith have indicated they will plead not guilty and fight tooth and nail charges of genocide and crimes against humanity once Case 002 begins on Monday.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
These four are most important because they are the surviving members of Khmer Rouge committees that wrote and deployed government policies that stripped Cambodia of its cultural heritage and a third of its population.
Money was abandoned and cities emptied as millions were marched into the countryside to work as slave labour. Hundreds of thousands were condemned to death because they didn’t fit Pol Pot’s vision of a pure Angkorian society.
Muslim Chams, ethnic Vietnamese and intellectuals like high school teachers were among the high profile victims, while people with dark skin – supposedly reflecting time under the sun and a communist approved peasant background – were applauded.
Few could be more pleased to see Case 002 finally get underway than Mek Naing, who struggles to raise his children on a tiny farm on a dusty, remote road about 80 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh.
The 37 year-old divides his spare time between making charcoal and making sure intrepid travellers who find their way to Omlaing understand what happened here more than three decades ago, and why the local villagers once gave up eating fish.
Mek Naing is the unofficial keeper of M-13, the death camp established by Pol Pot and Kang Guek Eav, also known as Duch, in 1971.
His dilapidated shacks are the nearest dwellings to the site, a three-kilometre hike into the scrub, through thickets, secondary forest and two crossings of the Trapaing Chrab River.
The mass graves left behind are impossible to find without the help of a local.
At first glance, the pits and ponds are visually much less dramatic than the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek on the outskirts of the capital – or the evidence of violence and torture on display at Tuol Sleng, the infamous Phnom Penh high school which was transformed into the S-21 death camp.