Friday, November 16, 2007

Paying my respects

The plaque honouring Christopher Howes, across the street from Raffles' Hotel Le Royal
With yesterday’s startling news that three of the alleged killers of Christopher Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth have been charged and detained awaiting trial, some eleven years after their murders took place, I paid a visit this morning to Street 96, re-named Christopher Howes Street in memory of the British de-miner. I never met Christopher, who was killed in March 1996 after his abduction by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, but I was affected by his disappearance both because he was a fellow Brit in Cambodia – I first visited Cambodia at the end of 1994 and was deeply in love with the country - and also because he came from Bristol, just twenty minutes drive from my own home. I was so stunned by yesterday’s news that I felt compelled to pay my respects at the place in Phnom Penh which bears his name. Located in front of the National Institute of Management, a few blocks from the US Embassy compound, a plaque recalls Christopher’s name.

I felt the frustration of his father Roy, when I talked to him on the telephone last year, that although the names of his son’s murderers were known to the Cambodian authorities, no action had been taken, though prophetically, deputy prime minister Sar Kheng had said any prosecution must wait until the time was right. Obviously that time has now arrived and warrants for the arrest of the three suspects were issued earlier this week. The appetite for taking senior Khmer Rouge leaders into custody has been never been so great, now that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is gathering steam and after Ieng Sary’s recent arrest, despite a royal pardon in the past, the impunity that was granted to former Khmer Rouge cadre like Khem Nguon, one of the three now standing accused of Christopher’s murder, is no longer worth the paper its written on.

Besides the street bearing his name in Phnom Penh, Christopher is also remembered at a small primary school in the village where he and thirty of his de-mining team were first abducted and held captive. The Christopher Howes Memorial Primary School at Kork Srok village in the Varin district of Siem Reap province was named in his honour in 2000. The school was built with funds from the British Embassy after United Nations representatives working in the area felt it would be a fitting tribute to a man who gave his life whilst trying to save others. The school is about sixty kilometres from the provincial capital, Siem Reap. Although it will still be some time before the accused are brought to trial, this is a breakthrough I honestly thought I would never see, so I applaud the Cambodian authorities for taking this action and hope that justice for Christopher and Houn’s families can be found in time.

Street 96 is Christopher Howes Street

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