Facing the murderers

Medical sociologist helps Cambodian-genocide survivors develop testimonies to use in court against ex-Khmer Rouge leaders

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A documentary screening on Feb. 2 at California State University, Long Beach featured panelists Sarem Neou (second from left), Marie Chea (center) and Sophany Bay (second from right) and their combined struggles during the Khmer Rouge communist regime in Cambodia 42 years ago. The documentary Daze of Justice filmed by Michael Siv (far right), was about the work Dr. Leakhena Nou (far left) did to help Cambodian-genocide survivors testify against Khmer Rouge leaders.

Photos by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune

By: Sebastian Echeverry
Staff Writer

It has been nearly 42 years since the Communist Party of Kampuchea, otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, took control of Cambodia in 1975. Under the Khmer Rouge’s rule, nearly 2 million Cambodians were killed as a result of torture, forced labor and the political group’s inhumane policies, according to cambodiatribunal.org.

Michael Siv, filmmaker and journalist, crafted Daze of Justice, a documentary that captures the stories of the survivors who lived through the genocide. The film was presented at a screening event at California State University, Long Beach’s (CSULB) University Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 2.

Daze of Justice has received numerous accolades, including the IndieFest Film Award, the World Cinema Initiative’s Social Justice Award, the Hollywood Independent Documentary Award of Recognition 2016, the Centerpiece Documentary Gala Screening honor, the Asian-American International Film Festival Award for emerging director documentary feature and the San Diego Asian Film Festival Audience Award.

The documentary follows Dr. Leakhena Nou, CSULB professor of sociology, deep into the jungles of modern-day Cambodia.

Her work with the genocide survivors connected her and her team of researchers to the United Nations’ special tribunal in charge of prosecuting Khmer Rouge leaders.

The story embarks the viewer on a justice-seeking journey with three survivors of the genocide, who not only confront their own past, but find themselves face-to-face with Pheng– the son of one of Khmer Rouge’s most feared torturers, Kaing Guek Eav (alias “Duch”).

The three survivors that were featured in the film–Sophany Bay, Marie Chea and Sarem Neou– were present during the screening event as part of a panel following the film’s showing. With trembling voices and tears in their eyes, the survivors shared stories with the audience of how Khmer Rouge followers killed their family members.

Many Cambodians– including Siv and his mother– fled the massacre as millions began to lose loved ones in the war.

Siv left from Cambodia to America when he was 4 years old. He was separated from his father and brother, who Siv believed had both been killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Twenty years later, Siv was featured in a documentary called Refugee, a film that told the story of how he returned to Cambodia and was reunited with his father and brother.

Siv told the Signal Tribune that growing up, his mother barely conversed about the killings that took place under the Khmer Rouge’s regime.

“We don’t even talk about the war period,” he said. “When something reminds her about it, she’ll just say, ‘Yeah, that’s something that we went through, but we went through it worse.’”

Siv said that he does not consider himself as a human-rights expert, but he believes that his film could potentially spark conversation and be used as a platform for Cambodians to finally break the silence about the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities.

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Courtney Phom, Khmer Arts Academy dancer, performed a traditional Cambodian dance called Neang Neak (Queen of the Nagas) moments before a film screening on Feb. 2 at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). The documentary Daze of Justice– filmed by Michael Siv, was about the work CSULB professor Dr. Leakhena Nou did to help Cambodian-genocide survivors testify against Khmer Rouge leaders.

How do future generations of Cambodians go about comprehending the death of almost 2 million of their own countrymen? Siv believes that this question must be discussed, however, few families in the Cambodian community are willing to talk about what the Khmer Rouge did.

In an attempt to also create dialogue about the killings, Nou is using her skills as a practicing medical sociologist to help the families of survivors give testimonies about the genocide. To do this, she created a program called Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia (ASRIC).

In 1999, the Cambodian government approached the UN with an idea to have judicial trials for the war criminals, according to Nou.

It wasn’t until 2003 that the court, named the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), officially began to persecute ex-Khmer Rouge leaders.

Through her research, Nou found the ECCC application forms survivors used to file testimonies against Khmer Rouge leaders were too difficult to understand.

“I contacted my lawyer friends,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I thought it was a human-rights violation.”

This inspired Nou to develop a program called the Cambodian Diaspora Victims’ Participation Project (CDVPP). The organization aims to provide Cambodian-American survivors the opportunity to participate in the ECCC through outreach and community forums.

Siv met Nou in 2011 during one of her testimony workshops. Siv was covering the event as a reporter for the New America Media outlet, a nationwide association of over 3,000 ethnic media organizations representing the development of a more inclusive journalism.

Nou said that Siv asked her if he could follow her to Cambodia and document the court ruling, which was called Case 002.

“The film is only a glimpse of what really has been going on,” she said.

Nou said her work in Cambodia is sensitive and still active to this day. For her safety, she could not share the details of her Khmer Rouge contacts with the Signal Tribune.
Part of Nou’s work in the field included the collection of 170 testimonies that were accepted as part of the larger body of evidence for the proceedings of Case 002, in which four high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials were to be indicted.

Nou’s work to help Cambodians find justice for the genocide has rallied the support of several survivors.

Elderly women make up a majority of those still standing from the Khmer Rouge killings.

They support the CDVPP’s goals, according to Nou, because they want to see some form of legal action take place before they die.

“Sometimes, people spend their lives searching for their purpose,” she said. “My purpose came to me.”

Case 002 has not had a final ruling to this day.

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