Un Chhouen left his farm long before dawn, eager to ensure he was on time for Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal, where the former regime's top leaders are on trial.

His task was clear: to absorb proceedings from the public gallery in the case of the regime's two surviving leaders and relay the highlights to friends and neighbours back in his remote village -- plugging the information vacuum left by the mainstream Khmer press as interest in the long-running trial wanes.

The 64-year-old farmer is one of thousands of citizen reporters who have been asked to spread the news from the UN-backed tribunal -- an uphill battle given widespread indifference to the complex legal proceedings, among citizens and officials eager to put the country's bloody past behind them.

From novice monks to battle-scarred former soldiers, thousands of Cambodians have been invited to the trial, which is being held on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

While they have no formal reporting role, the observers take pride in spreading the word on the trial proceedings.

In the dock are "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 87, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 82 -- the sole surviving leaders of the regime who are on trial for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-1979 rule.

Taking up the invite on Wednesday, Un Chhouen donned a simple blue shirt and flip-flops before boarding a bus chartered specially for the hearing.

"The commune chief asked me to come to represent the village," he said proudly.

"I did not believe in the ideas of the Khmer Rouge. But we knew nothing, we were ignorant," the former soldier said, adding he had fought unwillingly in the Khmer Rouge's ranks until 1971.

Some two million people, or about a quarter of the Cambodian population, died of starvation, disease, overwork or torture and execution under the regime.

Like many others, Un Chhouen said he was trying to figure out if the defendants are telling the truth "when they say they knew nothing" of the horrors of those years.

Equally problematic is explaining the complex court process to his village.

"I don't know what I can tell my friends, they are very poorly educated people. At the court they sometimes use language I cannot understand," he said, showing AFP his few scrawled notes in Khmer.

Just like many Cambodians, he also has deep personal motives for following the trial.

"Some of my relatives were killed after being accused of being 'CIA agents'. But they were simple farmers," he said.

Officials at the court are keen for the country to embrace the trial and its potential to offer a form of catharsis for a nation still traumatised by the regime.

"It is important for the Cambodian people to have a chance to witness this trial," Lars Olsen, court spokesman, told AFP, hailing the "remarkable" attendance of nearly 100,000 members of the public over the two-year trial.

The aim of the citizen reporter programme is to spread word of the legal process -- and hopefully the spirit of reconciliation -- from the courtroom to Cambodia's rural areas.

The court is only the second international tribunal to be established in a country where atrocities have taken place, after one in Sierra Leone.

Reliant on funding from donor nations, the court was established in 2006 after nearly a decade of negotiations between Cambodia and the UN, which provides technical assistance.

But for citizen reporters the task is hardly easy.

Outside the tribunal gates, few aside from the occasional foreign reporter or legal expert express interest in the complex proceedings, despite the fact the court streams hearings online (http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/live-stream).

While Cambodian media have covered the process, interest has waned as the closing statements were heard this week.

By Thursday leading local newspaper Koh Santepheap featured only a small piece on the trial, tucked away on page 11 after the horoscopes, although the English-language Cambodia Daily did carry the trial on its front page.

Moreover, the courtroom -- which was packed on Wednesday -- was only partially full a day later, with the closing statements set to run until the end of the month.

During brief adjournments, observers discussed the trial in a modest open-air cafe outside the tribunal, just yards from the small prison where Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan spend most of their days.

Sok Kheang from the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a non-governmental organisation whose mission is to research and record Cambodia's "killing fields" era, busily typed up notes from a community leader attending her first hearing.

"We want to help connect the tribunal and the villages," Sok Kheang said, as the community leader expressed her surprise at prosecution comments on the enormous number of deaths during the forced evacuation of the capital's two million inhabitants in April 1975.

In addition to the citizen reporter scheme, DC-Cam has been training history teachers how to tackle the Khmer Rouge period in classrooms.

Some 3,000 teachers have been trained, DC-Cam said, in teaching methods which at times use role plays to get students to put themselves in the position of a Khmer Rouge cadre.

 

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