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Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Day of Anger" in Cambodia

Phnom Penh - More than 1,000 Cambodians gathered at one of the Khmer Rouge's notorious killing fields Wednesday to observe an annual "Day of Anger" and remember the almost 2 million people killed during the regime's 1975-79 rule. A crowd of government officials, Buddhist monks, survivors of the regime and victims' families watched high school students re-enact scenes of torture and execution at the Choeng Ek killing fields, where up to 15,000 men, women and children were murdered and buried in mass graves.

The May 20 ceremony marks the day in 1976 when it is believed Khmer Rouge leaders decided to transform Cambodia into a completely agrarian society - a policy that led to mass deaths through execution, starvation and overwork.

During Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia from 1979 to 1989, the event was a well-organized public holiday with ceremonies held throughout the country.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, an archival organization dedicated to documenting the history of the Khmer Rouge, said the day was a hugely significant part of the country's path towards reconciliation.

"The anger has faded somewhat because young people today were not around during that period and did not witness what happened," he said. "But it is important to have this day so we can remember what happened and how the millions of deaths made us so angry."

This year's ceremony was held as the trial of the Khmer Rouge's former chief torturer continued before Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes tribunal.

Kaing Guek Eav, known by his revolutionary alias Duch, faces charges of crimes against humanity, torture, premeditated murder and breeches of the Geneva Conventions, allegedly committed while he was warden of the Tuol Sleng torture prison in Phnom Penh.

He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Youk Chhang said the first trial before the court was an important part of reconciling Cambodia's troubled past.

"We have taken military action against the Khmer Rouge as well as social action, such as today's event, and now the time has come to take legal action," he said. "This must occur for us to become a truly democratic society."

Prisoners at Tuol Sleng were sent to their deaths at Choeng Ek, but the site has since been transformed into a genocide museum and memorial that receives thousands of visitors each year.

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