Under the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia suffered a period of terror and genocide. Forty years later, the wounds still run deep. For many survivors, it is an event that is never forgotten yet remains little-discussed.
As a result of the upheaval, many of the survivors and refugees immigrated to countries such as the United States and Canada. UCSB’s MultiCultural Center provided a screening of Daze of Justice on Jan. 31 in the MCC Theater to provide recognition of the Cambodian genocide and show how former victims of the regime’s abuses reclaimed their agency.
Daze of Justice, a documentary by director Mike Siv, tells about three Cambodian-American women and former refugees — Sophany Bay, Sarem Neou, and Marie Chea — and their journey back to Cambodia. The goal was to testify before a United Nations Special Tribunal focused on prosecuting war criminals and former members of the Khmer Rouge.
An awkward encounter for the women was when, before the trial started, they met one Hong Sui Pheng. Pheng is the son of a lieutenant of dictator Pol Pot, Kaing Guek Eav.
Eav, also known as “Duch,” was infamous for his excessive cruelty.
Pheng did not understand why the survivors came to testify and thought that their efforts would change nothing. Leakhena Nou, a medical sociologist and associate professor of sociology at California State University Long Beach, accompanied the women’s trip to Cambodia. She tried to explain to Mr. Pheng that maybe if the accused accepted that what they did was wrong and apologized, this could help the survivors heal.
Even though Mr. Peng and the three survivors did not see eye to eye, the survivors amazingly allowed him to attend the trial with them. The first day of the trial was exhaustive; the list of accusations against people being tried was extensive, and the courtroom was crackling with the tension of forty years’ past.
Common amongst the accused was a denial of the charges levied against them; they claimed to just be following orders. Additionally, given how long ago the Cambodian atrocities happened, many prosecuted people were old and in ill health, causing further delays in the proceedings. After the first day of trial, there were a couple days of recess.
In spite of the fact that they came to testify, none of the women had the chance to speak up.
After the first day of the hearings, there was a recess period. During this time, the three women went along with Hong Sui Pheng and Leakhena Nou — one of the accused— to visit a school. Duch had used that site to torture prisoners. The next day, they went North to find more perpetrators. For the whole time, Nou repeatedly asserted that he and the other accused “did not kill anyone.”
During the trial’s resumption, the survivors were denied the chance to speak once again. The women then decided it was time to return home. Before departing, they met with Hong Sui Pheng one last time at a Buddhist temple. Mr. Pheng surprised the survivors by making an apology on behalf of his father.
The film strikes an especially resonant chord with today’s political climate. Scandals such as classified intelligence leaks, systematized police brutality, and the #MeToo movement have confronted us with the cost of staying silent on issues of injustice.
Speaking up about these issues confounds and confronts those who would deny them. Even though the women were denied the change to testify, returning to Cambodia and trying took courage. The women took a step towards preventing future injustices. Judging by Pheng’s apology at the end, it’s a step in the right direction.