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Cambodia: Blogging on Genocide

Elena Lesley blogs on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Elena Lesley, a Phnom Penh Post reporter and Fulbright scholar, jots her ideas on The Tribunal Report.


After graduating from Brown University in 2004, the articulate, cunning Elena Lesley was awarded a Henry Luce Scholarship to Cambodia to write for The Phnom Penh Post. With a long-time interest in Asia, it seemed like a good match. But knee-deep in a society scourged by years of civil war and gut-wrenching poverty, the experience quickly proved eye-opening.

She vowed to return.

Elena then spent three years in the U.S. reporting for St. Petersburg Times in Florida, but found herself frustrated at the lack of news coverage of Cambodia outside the country. Hearing that Cambodia's genocide tribunal was underway, she returned to Phnom Penh on the ultra-prestigious Fulbright grant to blog for the Post.

Now, she speaks with Global Voices author Geoffrey Cain about her blog, the tribunal, and the challenges it faces.

From your personal observations as a journalist-blogger, what challenges does the Khmer Rouge Tribunal face in bringing the perpetrators to justice?

Of course, there’s the issue everyone keeps raising: age. Since most of the defendants are in their 70s and 80s and not in particularly good health, there is a great deal of concern that some could die before trials begin. This is probably what worries most of the Cambodians I have discussed the tribunal with. While a trial for torture chief “Comrade Duch” could begin as early as September, any predictions for the other defendants are somewhat uncertain at this point.

Part of the ambiguity stems from the relatively complicated nature of the cases against the four other defendants. I’m certainly no expert on the minutiae of each case, but Duch’s is apparently more straightforward – after all, he has cooperated with the court to a certain extent.

There is another issue at play in “bringing perpetrators to justice,” and it involves the scope of the prosecutions. When the United Nations and Cambodian government were negotiating the tribunal’s creation, Prime Minister Hun Sen (himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge) insisted that only a handful of the most senior leaders be tried. Critics of the Prime Minister have claimed that he intentionally narrowed the scope of prosecutions so as not to implicate any former Khmers Rouge who now hold high positions in his government.

When you think about all the people who were involved in planning and implementing Khmer Rouge policies, five defendants seems like a very small number.

Is the tribunal addressing these challenges effectively, or is complete justice a lost cause 28 years after the atrocities concluded?

Well, what do you mean by “complete justice?” Or even “justice” for that matter? I don’t think the tribunal is a lost cause, but I do believe it is somewhat symbolic and abstract.

If you look at it for what it is, literally, the tribunal is a punitive process for a very small group of people. However, there are many organizations that are using these legal proceedings as a jumping off point for discussion and education, both of which are sorely needed in Cambodia.

Supporters of the tribunal often argue that it can set a new standard for the Cambodian judiciary and help end the country’s “culture of impunity.” Both are very ambitious goals, and while I hope the tribunal helps move Cambodia toward a more just and accountable society, it’s impossible to predict how much impact it will have in these areas.

Which is why I believe educational and outreach efforts related to the tribunal are of primary importance. Many Cambodians have never truly come to terms with their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. At the same time, around 60 percent of Cambodians were born after the Pol Pot era and have little knowledge about the period. While younger generations may not realize it, the legacy of that disastrous social experiment is still very much alive in their country.

The court, along with various other organizations, has been coordinating outreach efforts, but it’s a tall order. Accessibility, both practically and theoretically, is problematic. The location of the court itself is hugely inconvenient. At least a 40-minute drive from central Phnom Penh, the judicial complex’s remote location is no doubt a deterrent for many who would otherwise attend proceedings. In terms of the substance of the court’s work, concepts and arguments are highly abstract and during this phase, the “investigative” portion, little information is made available to the public. Trying to engage a largely agrarian population – many of whom are just struggling to survive – under these conditions is, to say the least, difficult. Which is why, in my opinion, more resources should be devoted to such efforts.

In addition to what the tribunal can do for Cambodia, there’s also the issue of setting a precedent for the international community. As one Khmer Rouge survivor told me: “It is very, very important to put these people on trial as an example to other dictators. You cannot abuse people this way and get away with it – even 30 years later.”

How do you tread the line so tactfully between blogging and journalism? Do you blog about the tribunal differently than, say, writing for a traditional newspaper?

Writing for the blog is definitely different from writing for a newspaper. The tone can be a lot more casual and each entry doesn’t require a traditional “news hook,” as an article might. So there’s much more flexibility and posts can range from pretty standard news updates to anything international-justice related that I find interesting.

Of course, in the blog I’m also able to inject some of my own thoughts and opinions. To be honest though, I try to keep this to a minimum. My main goal is to convey tribunal developments and issues surrounding the court to an international audience – not necessarily to weigh in on all of them.

Some say professional journalists and bloggers operate in separate worlds. Do you think journalists should embrace blogs more enthusiastically for reporting? Can blogging enhance traditional journalism?

Definitely. It’s silly to say professional journalists and bloggers operate in separate worlds because, really, a blog can be whatever you want it to be. It’s just a question of format. Many people seem to be under the impression that blogging is somehow inherently different from mainstream journalism and that blogs are synonymous with personal musings and ranting.

They can be used for these purposes, and that’s totally legitimate. However, they can also be used simply to report news or to supplement what appears in a publication’s print version.

Do you think blogging has potential as a “new face” of interactive journalism, in our age of Web 2.0, interactivity, and social networking websites?

I certainly think blogs are a convenient format for conveying news and ideas. Whether they will serve as spaces for valuable online interactivity and analysis, I’m not sure. We’ll have to wait and see how much substantive discussion they can foster.

Elena's musings can be read at The Tribunal Report.

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