The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- It is difficult to cleanse the past without upsetting a fragile equilibrium

While the high representatives of the great powers were deliberating global issues like security and terrorism in Phnom Penh, 13 million Cambodians were trying to come to grips with their own insecurities after their government succumbed to United Nations pressure and agreed to bring the perpetrators of the infamous Killing Fields to trial.

Just 315 kilometres from the capital where Cambodia’s senior minister, Sok An, and the UN chief negotiator, Hans Corell, clinked champagne glasses on June 6 to seal the pact, the stunning majesty of the Angkor Wat temple to Vishnu is a reminder that good and evil are not easily separated. Angkor’s north wall depicts in elaborate detail the legend of the Churning of the Ocean for nectar when Siva saved creation by swallowing the poison that emerged. The tale has special meaning for Khmers whose 9th century King Jayavarman II and his descendants claimed to be Siva’s incarnations.

Angkor derives from nagar and Wat from mutt. Hindu legacies like monumental architecture and the devaraja tradition reminded me of Nani Palkhivala surveying a bleak Indian scene to muse in despair that a nation that had peaked once had little chance of doing so again. If so, India’s glory lies buried among these abandoned edifices. Just as a main road after Jawaharlal Nehru is only to be expected in Phnom Penh, it was entirely appropriate for Cambodia to ask the Archaeological Survey of India to undertake a $ 4 million seven-year (1986-93) restoration job at Angkor Wat. Predictably, too, the French, who had previously enjoyed a monopoly in everything concerning the temple complex whose loot is proudly displayed at the Guimet museum in Paris, cried blue murder about Indian cleansing.

“India gave us our gods! Would India destroy them'” exploded a Cambodian official in Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor, when I asked him about the charges. “Five per cent of the work may have gone wrong because the cleaning liquid was too strong or the brushes too hard, but I can show you similar faults in restoration by French and Swiss experts.” He spoke of Western propaganda, and reminded me that Cambodia recently asked India to restore the 12th century Buddhist Ta Prohm temple dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s mother that the jungle now dramatically engulfs.

“With so much money and advice pouring in from UN agencies and Western donors, would we have asked India again if they had damaged Angkor'” Repairing Ta Prohm can take ten years or more. Hinduism made a brief return after Jayavarman VII, replacing effaced figures of the Buddha on lintels with the lingam.

Today’s hope is that a genocide trial will erase evil like Siva so that good can triumph. But the negotiations with the UN would not have dragged on for six years if Hun Sen, the prime minister, had not been aware that much more is needed to heal the wounds of decades — centuries even — of turmoil.

Crudely to summarize history, Cambodia’s relations with neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, dual suzerains who nibbled away at Khmer territory, were historically strained. Cold War polarization exacerbated tensions, with the Americans carpet-bombing eastern Cambodia and invading with South Vietnamese forces. Eventually, the Central Intelligence Agency abetted General Lon Nol’s 1970 coup against the neutral King Norodom Sihanouk. Five years later, China helped Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge to overthrow Lon Nol. Vietnam invaded in 1978 and installed Heng Samrin. India was the only non-communist country to recognize him.

That was further incentive for the Western powers and their Asian protégés to instigate and encourage resistance by Khmer Rouge and royalist forces. UN-supervised elections in 1993 brought the civil war to a nominal end. The scars remain, and savage political in-fighting continues.

People (and foreign governments) frequently changed sides during these 23 years of conflict. Fortunes were made in wars, people sold weapons to the enemy, and the regiments of phantom soldiers and bureaucrats that materialized are still a heavy drain on Cambodia’s exchequer. Everyone compromised with evil. No coup leader would have succeeded in seizing and sustaining power without external aid.

Even a genocide trial is not new under the Khmer sun. As Sok An reminded assembled diplomats, Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk (Four faces, as we would say) Theatre, where the agreement with the UN was signed, had witnessed another trial 24 years earlier. Heng Samrin spoke eloquently then about “the tribunal of history, the tribunal of mankind’s conscience” joining “the Kampuchean people in pronouncing its verdict”. That trial sentenced Pol Pot and his associates to death.

Cambodia’s national assembly must ratify the latest agreement and enact enabling legislation. Neither can be attempted until the July 27 election (for which India has given 260,000 bottles of finger-marking ink) reaffirms the government’s mandate. Cambodia and the UN must then conclude a series of supplementary agreements on utilities, facilities and services. Though two officials of the law ministry in New Delhi, B.A. Agrawal and S.D. Singh, helped Cambodia draft a new law to bring Khmer Rouge criminals to justice, the kingdom must still overhaul its judicial process to create a two-tier tribunal that is free of political or monetary influence and inspires public confidence. Three of the five judges at the first level and four of the seven at the second will be Cambodian. All this will take time, organization and cooperation between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, its supposed ally, Prince Ranariddh’s royalist Funcinpec, which often seems more like a sparring partner, and Sam Rainsy’s opposition group. The UN must not only find $19 million — the preliminary estimated cost of a three-year trial — but ensure that the money is properly used.

These organizational problems are daunting enough but the emotional, social and political implications are infinitely more complex. Adapting Zhou Enlai’s comment on the French Revolution, it’s too early to pinpoint exclusive guilt for grim institutions like Phnom Penh’s S-21 detention centre and the 343 killing fields which resulted in so many deaths — whether 1.7 million or three million is disputed — from starvation, exhaustion and torture. Some accuse Khmer Rouge activists of cannibalism.

The thousands of youths who guarded detention centres are now staid farmers, traders and bureaucrats. Reckless probing would shatter the respectability they have built up. It could discredit powerful personalities like Hun Sen, who was a youthful Khmer Rouge cadre, damage revered institutions like the monarchy since the king remained titular head of the Khmer Rouge regime and even spoke for it at the UN, and implicate major Asian and global powers who were anxious to sup with any devil to oust Heng Samrin. If the 1979 genocide trial was invalid because they regarded Heng Samrin, under whose auspices it was held, as an outlaw, why did one of the condemned politicians think it necessary to seek — and obtain — a royal pardon'

Trying to solve a tragic conundrum could easily upset a fragile national equilibrium. Hence the need for care in setting this second judicial stage. Pol Pot is dead. Incarcerating a few of his ageing colleagues, like the Nazi Rudolf Hess being locked up for more than 40 years in Spandau prison, expensively guarded by British, American, French and Soviet troops, will not cleanse the past or secure the future. If the Khmer Rouge was a social disaster, the antidote must be social education that also extends beyond Cambodia to the external forces that played a leading part in perverting an ancient culture and inflicting pain and suffering on a gentle people.

The message of Angkor’s bas relief is relevant for Cambodians as well as Indians. Cambodians must avoid a fixation on the past to exorcise evil before good can flourish. Indians must consider how to recover the wonder that was India from the ruins of their southeast Asian suvarnabhumi. Both need a Siva to swallow the poison so that the nectar can be enjoyed.

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