PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the specter of the murderous regime still haunted Cambodia on Wednesday as victims remembered the countless dead and the country prepared to finally try the movement’s leaders.
More than 40,000 people jammed Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium for speeches and a parade to mark the day Vietnamese troops entered the capital to oust the ultra-communists.
“On Jan. 7, my second life began,” said a 59-year-old farmer whose father and sister died of starvation under the Khmer Rouge. “I want to see Khmer Rouge leaders prosecuted as soon as possible because they are getting old now.”
She was one of millions who endured what many survivors said was “hell on earth.”
Phnom Penh, the capital, was emptied at gunpoint, its citizens forced to work in vast slave labor camps on starvation rations and under the constant threat of execution. Religion, marriages not approved by the state, money and almost all entertainment were banned.
When it was over, 1.7 million or more Cambodians had perished during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 rule.
But none of the surviving leaders have yet faced justice.
One of the accused – Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, who headed the Khmer Rouge’s largest torture center – will probably take the stand in March at a U.N.-backed tribunal, said co-prosecutor Robert Petit.
But the other four, all of them aging and ailing, probably won’t be tried until 2010 or later.
“Although in the past three decades Cambodia has made great progress, difficulties that are left by war and genocide have been far reaching and are yet to be completely removed,” Senate President Chea Sim said in the keynote speech at the stadium.
The Cambodian government, whose top leaders served in Khmer Rouge ranks before defecting, has been accused of foot-dragging on the trial.
The country’s all-powerful trio who stood on a platform high up in the stadium – Chea Sim, Prime Minister Hun Sen and lower house of Parliament President Heng Samrin – were all with the Khmer Rouge before joining the government formed by the Vietnamese who invaded the country.