The Tribunal

Alexander Hinton

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Ao An at Kamrieng district, Battambang province on 1 August 2011. Photograph: Vanthan Peuodara/Documentation Centre of Cambodia

When I first arrived in Cambodia, no one spoke of justice. Few imagined it.

The year was 1994, and I had travelled to Kampong Cham province to start my anthropological fieldwork. Much of the time I worked in “Banyan”, a beautiful village surrounded by lush green paddy fields, roughly a dozen kilometres from the provincial capital.

Banyan was also near a famous Buddhist pagoda turned Khmer Rouge execution centre, Wat Phnom Bros. More than 10,000 people were killed there. As in many parts of Cambodia, traces of the killings were still evident on the temple grounds, a terrace of undulating ditches now overgrown with foliage. Babies were said to have been bashed against a tree on the site.

The Phnom Bros killing fields extended all the way to Banyan. The village was off-limits in Democratic Kampuchea (DK); after taking power on 17 April 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge had launched one of the most radical revolutions in history. By the time the DK regime was toppled on 7 January 1979, almost a quarter of Cambodia’s eight million inhabitants had perished. Many died of starvation, overwork or illness. Others were executed at places like Phnom Bros, which was part of an extensive Khmer Rouge security apparatus.

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