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The Day of Reckoning in Cambodia?

by Bertil Lintner

Posted March, 2009

No one will ever know exactly how many people died from executions, starvation and disease during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, which lasted for three years, eight months, and 20 days, from April 1975 to January 1979. Estimates vary between 1.4 million and more than two million. There is hardly a person in the country who did not lose at least one family member during that time. Now, as five of the Khmer Rouge’s former leaders are being tried in Cambodia, the day of reckoning is finally here for one of the most murderous regimes in modern history.

Or is it? Many survivors of Cambodia’s “killing fields” remain skeptical. A 46-year-old man, who was 12 when he and his family were marched out of Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over and emptied the capital on April 17, 1975, says that it is not a genuine tribunal because “the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia”—its official name—is a mixed court with Cambodian as well as international judges. “And everyone here knows how inept and corrupt the Cambodian judiciary is,” says the man, who wants to remain anonymous because of his painful memories—and the fact that speaking out against the country’s legal authorities is still risky.

Son Chhay, party whip of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, argues that the government is trying to control the proceedings to avoid any embarrassing disclosures about present cabinet members who were once also members of the Khmer Rouge: “The Khmer Rouge is everywhere, I see the killers running around freely.”

Former Khmer Rouge cadres who are now in power include Prime Minister Hun Sen, though according to most sources he was a low-ranking Khmer Rouge military commander and in a capacity not responsible for atrocities. But there are others in positions of prominence in Cambodia’s current ruling establishment who could be vulnerable and exposed during the trial, particularly if those accused began to talk or call in witnesses.

The bitter reality is that too many in Cambodia have too much hide—and it is hardly surprising that almost nothing is taught about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodian schools. The first-ever textbook on that era was published in April 2007, and only by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a private NGO. Copies were distributed to schools, libraries and government ministries. But even so, according to a recent survey conducted in Cambodia by the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, 80% of younger respondents said they knew very little or nothing about the Khmer Rouge regime. Patrick Vinck, director of the Initiative on Vulnerable Populations at UC Berkeley, told the Voice of America on Jan. 21: “And whatever they know, they only learned, or they mostly learned, from their family and from their friends. Only 6% told us that they had learned about it from school. And 9% told us that they learned through media, radio and television.”

Against this background, the number of accused has been limited to five—and the tribunal will look into only what happened during the Khmer Rouge’s time in power. A defender of the Khmer Rouge, Benson Samay, who represented one of the leaders, Ta Mok, made headlines in January 2000 when he said that he would subpoena Henry Kissinger and several others to testify on their role in the aerial bombardment of Cambodia which led to the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in 1975. At the time, Mr. Benson said that Ta Mok’s own testimony would not spare any of his former comrades, many of whom are now in government or living in quiet retirement in Cambodia. But Ta Mok died in prison from natural causes in July 2006 and took whatever secrets he had with him to the grave.

But a wild card is still Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who in the 1970s was in charge of the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh, better known as Tuol Sleng—and who now has become a born-again Christian. He is the first to stand trial and is expected to speak his mind. That could be embarrassing for many in the present government—and for China, the Khmer Rouge’s erstwhile backer.

The situation has changed drastically since June 21, 1997, when Cambodia’s then co-prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his bitter rival Hun Sen, agreed to send a joint letter to the United Nations asking for assistance “in bringing to justice those persons responsible for the genocide and crimes against humanity during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.”

The request was made after repeated demands from the international—mainly Western—donor community and the United Nations, represented in Cambodia by Thomas Hammarberg, a former director of the London-based human-rights advocacy group Amnesty International. Only a few weeks later, Hun Sen ousted Prince Ranariddh in a bloody coup d’état and forced him into temporary exile. The Western donor community was not pleased, and the United States and Germany suspended all nonhumanitarian aid until a free and fair election was held. Japan, then Cambodia’s largest donor, said it would halt new projects.

China, which Hun Sen had referred to as “the root of everything that was evil in Cambodia” in an essay written in 1988, nonetheless came to his government’s rescue. Julio Jeldres, longtime Cambodia watcher and the official biographer of ex-King Norodom Sihanouk, noted that China was the first country to recognize the new regime after the 1997 coup. In December of that year, Beijing delivered 116 military cargo trucks and 70 jeeps valued at $2.8 million. In February 1999, Hun Sen paid an official visit to China and obtained $200 million in interest-free loans and $13.3 million in foreign-assistance guarantees.

Since then, China has emerged as Cambodia’s biggest donor—and, unlike aid from the West, Chinese assistance comes with no strings attached for promoting democracy or good governance. China has also become a major investor in Cambodia, and Cambodia’s dependence on the West may further diminish, if and when newly located oil and gas reserves are exploited, even if it is uncertain that those deposits are as lucrative as originally thought. Nonetheless, China wants to maintain its powerful position in Cambodia, which now risks upsetting its cordial relations with Beijing if the Hun Sen government cannot control the tribunal, a task that will not be easy.

The agreement has been made and the trial has begun so there is no turning back now. But there’s no doubt a conflict of interests exists between the Cambodian and international judges—the interests of the former are closely tied to Cambodia’s national interests, while the latter are under no circumstances prepared to participate in a show trial.

The salvation for the present government—and for China—would be if death rather than the law ultimately catches up with the five accused, as it has not only with Ta Mok but also with the main Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, who died in 1998. Son Sen, defense minister under the Khmer Rouge and in charge of the security apparatus that dealt with real and imagined dissidents at that time, was killed by his own men in 1997. Also killed at the time was his wife Yun Yat, once one of the most prominent female leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Ke Pauk, another prominent Khmer Rouge cadre, passed away in 2002. In 1977, he assisted the top leadership in carrying out purges in eastern Cambodia, during which an estimated 100,000 people died.

At 66 years old, Duch is the youngest accused and the only one likely to survive any prison sentence, having already served nearly 10 years in custody without trial.But Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two” after Pol Pot, who is accused of sending many to a certain death in S-21, is 82 years old and in ill health. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary will be 80 this year and suffers from serious heart problems. His wife, Ieng Thirith, also among the accused, is 77 and reportedly unwell. The fifth of the accused, former head of state under the Khmer Rouge Khieu Samphan, is 78 years old. Only Duch’s trial is likely to be concluded this year, while it may take a year or even longer for the proceedings against the other four to come to fruition.

Many Cambodians suspect that although the government may not be able to interfere directly in the proceedings, it may be trying to delay them as long as possible—hoping the whole problem will die a natural death and go away. That would suit the Hun Sen government as well as its new Chinese backers. Trudy Jacobsen, an Australian academic, wrote in the March 2006 issue of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies’ bulletin that a local Cambodian driver told her he “didn’t really care what happened at the tribunal, as he knew the perpetrators would be reincarnated as beetles.” In the end, since real justice for all seems elusive, that may be the best the survivors of the Khmer Rouge terror can hope for.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, March, 2009

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