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A new TV show is rapidly extending the reach of the Khmer Rouge war crimes court to Cambodian households.
For a man whose sister was tortured and executed at S-21, where Duch presided, DC-Cam recently tracked down the order of execution signed by Duch. The man’s reason for filing with the court: “So that she is remembered,” he wrote.
“The Khmer Rouge left the entire country shattered,” said DC-Cam director Youk Chhang. “We’re trying to help people connect the broken pieces, and without people’s involvement the court is meaningless.”
The court’s own outreach has also been reinvigorated. Since June, hearings that were previously attended by scant crowds of a couple dozen people began to see audiences numbering in the hundreds.
Reach Sambath, whose takeover of public affairs at the court coincided with this boom, attributed some part of the rising numbers to the nature of dialogue in the courtroom. The stories of real witnesses caught the attention of lay people, who found the early procedural hearings hard to follow.
“The testimony was very emotional,” said Reach. “Duch cried. Then the witnesses cried. Then the audience cried. And then I cried. Seeing this is part of the healing process.”
Reach also initiated announcements about the court on local radio stations — a move that had his office inundated with phone calls asking how to attend.
“Before it was difficult for people to have trust in the court,” he says. “But if seeing is believing, then coming to the court in person has people feeling that justice is being provided.”
While such emotionally charged moments provided the catharsis the tribunal wanted to stage, in a country where some 90 percent of the population regularly views television — despite enormous poverty — the tube has proven the most efficient channel for engaging people in the war crimes court.
“It’s easy and interesting to learn about the tribunal this way,” said 51-year-old No Min, who lives in a remote village in the province of Kampong Cham where road access is limited and newspapers are scarce. “I’ve learned more about the [court’s] process and it seems fair.”
“I tell the younger kids in the village to come watch the show with me so they can learn about an important part of history that is easy to want to forget.”