by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2004 - The United Nations recently pulled out of negotiations with the Cambodian government over how to try one-time leaders of the Khmer Rouge in an international-style court of law -- after nearly five years of wrangling over how a trial would be conducted.

The government says the door is open for continued talks, but the UN contends that Cambodia could not offer fair and unbiased proceedings inside its borders. While the politicos hash out who would run a trial, ordinary Cambodians have opinions of their own.

Keo Ponyavut reads the newspaper every day and spends his spare time talking about politics with friends. As a driver, he ekes out a fair living in Cambodia's capitol, Phnom Penh.

But it's only recently that things have gone well. Keo Ponyavut was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge overtook Cambodia and forced its population into rural work collectives. With a handful of boys, he tended to the vegetable crops in the Northwestern province of Pursat.

One day a group of women came looking for their missing husbands. They were told by Khmer Rouge commandos to wait near a tree. They were then attacked from behind, beaten, and their throats were cut while Keo Ponyavut watched. He later fled to the jungle and survived on plants until the Khmer Rouge were toppled the following year.

In his mind, the only way for Cambodians to achieve justice is to try Khmer Rouge in a UN-approved court. "We must have a UN trial to warn other leaders -- so they can not commit these same crimes," he says. "It would be overheard throughout the world. It would be just and fair."

Mam Sonando does not agree. A radio personality in Phnom Penh, he says too many members of government are former Khmer Rouge cadres to guarantee a fair trial -- even if the UN is involved. "If we cannot try them fairly, my suggestion is not to try them at all. And then we can have Cambodian reconciliation.

Outside Phnom Penh, reconciliation is of particular concern. Several hours south of the capitol is Kep town, in Kampot province. Until only a few years ago, the area was off limits to anyone but the Khmer Rouge, who held the region through decades of civil war. Khat Man was one of those Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who now has laid down his arms and works as a carpenter.

He believes any sort of trial would disrupt the fragile peace reached between the current government and the Khmer Rouge. "I think maybe not good for Cambodia," he says. "Because Cambodia now has good integration with the people and the country. And now it's still developing in Cambodia. And now I think it's quiet for Cambodia."

Nuon Sambath, who lives in a nearby farming village, says the Khmer Rouge should not get off that easy. She was 25 years old when she watched her husband starve to death in their work collective. She says one bowl of rice mixed with a huge vat of water is how the Khmer Rouge fed up to 80 people.

"I want them to be punished. Because they were the leaders. They led the people to be tortured, to suffer, to work hard, and to die. So I think they should suffer the same way." Yet when asked if this sort of trial should be run by the UN or by the Cambodian government, Nuon Sambath says it doesn't really matter. "As long as we get our revenge," she says.

A handful of surveys have been conducted among Cambodian people about their opinions on the trial. Some have a forgive-and-forget attitude that is reaffirmed by their Buddhist beliefs. Others think no justice can be achieved without the stamp of international approval. Sadly, most are cynical that no matter what they say, the government likely isn't listening.

* * * * *