PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — University students armed with mock guns and knives re-created the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge on Monday for the official annual ceremony honoring victims of the 1970s communist regime, blamed for the deaths of about 1.7 million of their countrymen.
At the Choeung Ek killing field, now a memorial filled with victims' skulls and mass graves, arts students clad in black pretended to gun down innocents and beat women with rifle butts as more than 1,000 people watched, many of them in tears.
"My innocent relatives were killed by the Khmer Rouge, so I could never forget the time they were in power," said Nguon Vanny, who said she lost eight relatives to the regime. Some of them are among thousands buried at Choeung Ek, a former Khmer Rouge execution ground about nine miles (15 kilometers) south of the capital, Phnom Penh.
The crowds attending the so-called "Day of Anger" ceremony have dwindled since the ceremony was initiated in the 1980s. However, Cambodians now have more hope of justice as a U.N.-backed tribunal is trying former Khmer Rouge leaders on charges including crimes against humanity and genocide.
The commemoration began after the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge regime was toppled in 1979, and was initially used to rally support for the ongoing guerrilla war against the Khmer Rouge, who still posed a threat from the jungle.
As that threat faded in the 1990s, the occasion declined in importance. The highest-ranking official in attendance this year was the governor of Phnom Penh.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen used to rail against the Khmer Rouge, he has been lukewarm at best in supporting the tribunal to try its former leaders. He himself had had once been a middle-ranking guerrilla with the Khmer Rouge but defected before the group took power in 1975 and instituted a reign of terror. Many of his major political allies are also former members of the group.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal is trying the group's former No. 2 and chief ideologist, Nuon Chea, 87, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 81.
Another defendant, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, died in March. No verdict in the current case against the surviving defendants is expected until next year.
Tea Ronin, 75, said seven of his relatives were died under the Khmer Rouge, and he could not understand why the tribunal could spend millions of dollars yet take so long to complete its work.
"I urge the Khmer Rouge tribunal to speed up their task. Why do they take so long when Cambodians want to see justice and are keen to know who are the real killers?" he said.