PHNOM PENH — Kheang Khun was 21 and training to be doctor when he was forced into a Khmer Rouge labor camp, where he was routinely beaten and forced to watch executions of people accused of theft, or simply of falling in love.
Now a businessman, he recounts memories from 39 years ago with anguish, but has moved on and made a success of his life. With a war crimes tribunal deciding the fate on Thursday of “those most responsible” for the horrors of the infamous killing fields, Cambodia, he says, finally has a chance of closure.
“I hope the court will provide justice to the victims regardless of the verdict,” he said.
“I don’t bear grudges, I just moved on. I’d like to forgive. I have a peaceful mind, I want to be happy so I have to have an open heart.”
Kheang Khun is now a wealthy entrepreneur who saw opportunities in the rebuilding of an impoverished country torn apart by the Khmer Rouge’s murderous 1975-1979 reign and battered by the more than a decade of war that followed.
He became an engineer and is deputy director of a state-run institute that grooms students to work in the power industry. He ran a firm that has built roads and installed electricity in city homes and he now owns a company that provides clean water to households.
Among the 200 staff he employs are the children of the camp guards who beat him to within an inch of his life for stealing a bamboo cane that he used to catch fish in order to survive.
“They said people who behaved immorally must be destroyed,” said Kheang Khun, who was bestowed the royal title “Oknha” for his contributions to society. “They beat me up for everyone to see. I know them and I even know their children.”
Kheang Khun, now 60, is emblematic of an increasingly dynamic Cambodia that is moving on and embracing with gusto the kind of capitalism the Khmer Rouge tried to eradicate during Pol Pot’s “year zero” quest for a peasant utopia, which claimed at least 1.8 million lives.
About 70 percent of Cambodians today were born after that era. Though the country remains one of Asia’s poorest, it has a swelling urban population that buys smartphones and imported motorcycles, studies at universities and uses a growing network of banks to save money, or seek loans for property ownership, both of which were abolished under the late Pol Pot’s rule.
Cambodia’s young population is very aware of its grim history, with almost every family suffering losses, including that of Kheang Khun, whose father, uncle, grandmother and cousins perished.
Most Cambodians still want justice and to see the UN-backed court find the recalcitrant Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s right-hand man, and ex-President Khieu Samphan, guilty of crimes against humanity.
The verdict will be only the second by the tribunal since it was set up nine years ago. The court split the complex case into two parts to ensure the elderly and frail Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the only surviving heavyweights of the largely French-educated regime, receive judgment before they die.
The court has been mired in disputes, resignations, funding shortages and accusations of political interference and has to date delivered just one verdict, a life sentence to Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a converted school where as many as 14,000 people were tortured and executed.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan reject all charges and will remain on trial for genocide long after this week’s verdict. There were initially four defendants, but former foreign minister Ieng Sary died in 2012 and his wife and ex-minister Ieng Thirith has Alzheimer’s and was ruled unfit for trial.
Anne Heindel, co-author of a new book on the troubled tribunal, said Thursday’s verdict would be largely symbolic, but enough to give some semblance of justice.
“There will be only two judgments against three people for the deaths of nearly two million people,” Heindel said.
“Based on the reaction to the verdict in the first case, most victims will be satisfied if they receive a life sentence.”
With widespread disillusionment over the efficacy of the tribunal making international funding harder to secure, there are doubts as to whether there will be more cases beyond that of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier himself, has made his disdain for the tribunal clear and with remnants of the regime still in politics—like Parliament president Heng Samrin and Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon—many Cambodians accept that the truth about what motivated the leadership to wipe out a quarter of the population might forever remain a mystery.
“We know the verdict won’t please everybody, but the verdict is important,” said Youk Chhang, who heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has investigated Khmer Rouge rule and has provided evidence for the tribunal.
“We can close the darkest chapter of Cambodia’s history. We can close it, and then we can move on.”