All Hail the Iron God

I’ve spent several days over the last couple of weeks observing the proceedings at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal). It’s been an interesting experience, which I will get around to blogging next week, but so far, nothing has happened to rival Pol Pot’s nephew Saloth Ban’s testimony in April that “the Iron God told [him] that this Court is unjust.”

Said Iron God, speaking to him in a dream, also suggested that while testifying, he should not answer any questions that made him unhappy. Unsurprisingly, the President of the Trial Chamber, Cambodian judge Nil Nonn, was not impressed with the god’s advice, and instructed the witness to get on with his testimony.

Apparently, Saloth Ban was referring to Lok Ta Dambong Dek, a.k.a. “the Lord of the Iron Staff,” whose statue (pictured at right) stands in a spirit house outside of the courtroom. Before testifying, Buddhist witnesses swear their oath to answer truthfully in front of it.

You could see how the oath might give a person nightmares. It’s terrifying. In the U.S., witnesses swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” By contrast, Cambodian witnesses appearing before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal must swear the following:

I will answer only the truth, in accordance with what I have personally seen, heard, know, and remember. If I answer falsely on any issue, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians and powerful sacred spirits destroy me, may my material possessions be destroyed, and may I die a miserable and violent death. But, if I answer truthfully, may the sacred spirits assist me in having abundant material possession and living in peace and happiness along with my family and relatives forever, in all my reincarnations.

I’m told this is actually a watered down version of the oath witnesses take in the domestic courts here. Yikes.

Kate Cronin-Furman


  1. I wonder if something like this implemented in the U.S. might improve truth-telling of our own witnesses. Psychologically speaking, I wonder if a witness who says these words would take the truth more seriously than one who simply “swears to tell the truth.” Though I have a feeling that “tiger bites and snake strikes” will need to be replaced with something more U.S.-applicable.

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