From 1975 to 1979, Khmer Rouge forces under dictator Pol Pot held Cambodia in a death grip. Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese were slaughtered, and anyone who appeared to be educated, too urban, or influenced by Western “free-market” thinking was killed. Even wearing glasses, which the government saw as suggesting literacy and therefore contamination by outside influences, could mean a death sentence. Torture and mass executions were widespread and systematic, with victims often being killed by pickaxe to save the price of bullets. The brutal regime attempted to break family ties and encouraged children to inform on their parents, outlawed Western medicine, depopulated cities, and forced urban dwellers onto communal farms and labor camps where they were worked ruthlessly.
In four short years, executions, starvation, disease and overwork decimated the small country. Estimates vary, but most say by the beginning of 1979 at least 1.7 million people — nearly a quarter of all Cambodians — were dead. Khmer Rouge’s stranglehold on the populace only ended after Vietnam invaded the country — over the protestations of the U.S., U.K., and China, who ensured the genocidal regime could keep its seat in the U.N. and could continue to wage a civil war against the new Vietnamese-backed government. (For more on the genocide and the world’s response, I recommend Samantha Powers’ book A Problem From Hell — while this information is available in many places, I learned it first from her work.)
Decades After a Genocide, Leaders Are Finally Charged
Now, more than 30 years after they led a government responsible for millions of painful deaths, the four most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge are closer to paying for their crimes (dictator and “Brother Number One” Pol Pot died in 1998 while under house arrest by a Khmer Rouge faction). A U.N.-backed Cambodian court has indicted Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, and Ieng Thirith for war crimes including genocide, breaching the Geneva Conventions, crimes against humanity, murder, enslavement, torture, and rape as a result of forced marriage. All four were in the innermost circles of the Khmer Rouge government, serving as, respectively, ideologist and “Brother Number Two”, head of state, foreign minister and deputy prime minister, and minister for social affairs. The four, who have been detained since 2007 and interviewed 46 times by investigating judges, will be tried next year.
This indictment follows the tribunal’s July conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, or “Duch,” who ran the infamous S-21 (or Tuol Sleng) interrogation center and prison where approximately 14,000 Cambodians died. Though he was not part of the inner circle of the Khmer Rouge, his guilt was easily demonstrated and he became the first senior Khmer Rouge official tried and convicted for his crimes. Duch was sentenced to 35 years in prison, less 11 years served and 5 years to compensate for detention in an illegal military prison (Cambodia does not have the death penalty).
All four of those currently under indictment have denied the charges against them, arguing that, despite their seniority, they did not know of the killings and torture perpetrated under them. Spiegel Online suggests the case against Nuon Chea will be fairly easy to prove, as he has signed papers directly linking him to the notorious “killing fields” and has admitted to knowing about a few of the killings, but is not optimistic that enough irrefutable evidence exists to legally demonstrate the guilt of the other three. Given the range of witnesses called in Duch’s trial, however, and the extensive evidence-gathering process underway, I am more hopeful. Perhaps it’s legally naive on my part, but it seems like the sheer magnitude and the systematic nature of the torture, killing, and forced labor that happened under the Khmer Rouge negates any possibility the people running the government could have been unaware of what was happening.
Of course, even if the evidence exists, there is a lot of potential for complications and hold-ups. Possible obstacles range from the slow speed and high expense of the investigation (which is extremely far-reaching) to the age of the defendants (the youngest is 78, and all are in failing health) to the possible interference of the Cambodian government (several current officials have Khmer Rouge connections and have not supported the tribunals).
Will There Be Justice? What Does That Mean?
Still, these trials are important to the people of Cambodia. The trials give victims of the regime the opportunity to confront those responsible for their pain while making their stories part of the public record, and allow all Cambodians to hear the evidence. At the trial of Duch, dozens of victims and victims’ family members came forward to directly challenge and condemn him for his actions, to express their pain, to demand explanation, and to give or (more frequently) explicitly withhold forgiveness. To give evidence against their tormentors, to be part of the process of bringing them to some degree of justice, seems to be deeply important to many survivors.
For instance, survivor Chum Mey talks about his experience giving evidence in this video around the 4 minute mark. (The powerful website where I found this video, “Time for Justice, Cambodia“, has over five hours of footage and analysis of the trial of Duch, including testimonies by victims and guards and reactions from Cambodian citizens attending the trial.) He feels strongly that he is there to bear witness for the millions who died and to see justice done. His voice has a note of pride when he says the judge seemed concerned that he might attack Duch — Chum Mey can now see the monster who had him tortured half to death as a mortal, even weak, man. For him, he says, the trial process was “everything [he] hoped.”
However, as many have pointed out, including Chum, there’s no way any penalty these leaders pay can be proportionate to the atrocities they perpetrated. After Duch’s conviction, many Cambodians expressed their anger and frustration with his sentence — the equivalent of 11 hours for every person murdered in the center he ran.
When we begin to speak in terms of millions of lives, it can seem that “justice” for earthly individuals is a fairly abstract concept. Other projects in Cambodia focus on truth and education beyond the trial testimonies as a means of finding peace, rather than justice, in the sense of “appropriate consequences for crimes.” Cambodia has a museum documenting the genocide where the Tuol Sleng prison once stood — a permanent monument to the atrocities. One Cambodian journalist has made documentaries in which he records ordinary civilians — many steps removed from the leaders being tried by the tribunal — talking about taking part in the massacres, in a kind of film “truth commission.”
He told Al Jazeera, “Many people were killed, but we don’t know – we do not see anyone coming out to confess how they killed the people. That’s why I want to show the documentary to as many Cambodian people as we can.” As the Cambodian people face the Khmer Rouge leaders in the coming months, we wish for them truth, justice and peace.
Photo of skulls of Khmer Rouge victims taken by Adam Carr, shared through Wikimedia Commons.