Who Will be Convicted of the Khmer Rouge’s War Crimes?
by Chris Tenove
photograph by John Vink
In fact, Cambodia today could be dismissed as insignificant. It is tiny and poor, a territory half the size of Newfoundland and Labrador, with an economy less than 1 percent the size of Canada’s. What gives Cambodia an important — and tragic — place in world history is its continuing role as an ideological battleground. Most recently, it was a front line in the Cold War, with the US, Maoist China, and Soviet-backed Vietnam each using the Khmer Rouge as a tool to advance its interests. Then, in 1992, Cambodia became the first modern recipient of a major UN “nation-building” intervention, a military and political tsunami that cost $1.5 billion (US) and produced mixed results.One of the consequences of Cambodia’s war-wracked decades is the confusion many of its citizens feel about their history. Everywhere I travelled, people asked me, Why did we go hungry for four years? Why were children given guns and families sent to the killing fields? Why were we invaded and driven to civil war?This confusion has been exacerbated by the Cambodian government, which has discouraged public debate about the past and stripped recent history from school curricula. Prime Minister Hun Sen set the tone when, as the last Khmer Rouge holdouts were surrendering in 1998, he told Cambodians to “dig a hole and bury the past and look to the future.” Today many young people are skeptical of the stories their parents tell of the Khmer Rouge years, stories that seem too horrific to be true.
The trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders will undoubtedly trigger a new debate about the past, but the shape it will take remains nebulous. Funded by a $56.3-million (US) donation from a voluntary group of countries (including Canada), the eccc is a new and imperfect experiment in international justice — one that has teetered on the brink of self-destruction since it began operations in September 2006. Repeated allegations of political interference, ineptitude, and corruption prompted a United Nations Development Programme audit, which found that many of the Cambodian staff were unqualified and overpaid for their positions. In early 2008, the tribunal nevertheless asked for another $114 million and a two-year extension of its original three-year term; as this article went to print, the donor countries had not yet agreed to the increase. Despite the tribunal’s early difficulties, some Cambodians want its mandate to be expanded even further, and that afternoon in Phnom Penh I began to understand why.I arrived at the compound at the same time as a bus carrying several dozen Cambodian villagers, there for one of the tribunal’s outreach events. We filed into the peach-coloured courthouse and sat down in the plush blue seats of the main courtroom. An eccc staff member carefully described the upcoming trials, taking care to introduce such exotic concepts as “due process.” (In Cambodia’s justice system, the average criminal trial takes less than thirty minutes, and the verdict can sometimes go to the party that pays the largest bribe.)After the presentation, the villagers, who’d travelled from the northwestern rice-producing province of Battambang, began to ask questions. “Will Pol Pot be put on trial? ” asked a stout farmer. No, explained the staffer. Pol Pot died in the jungle in 1998. “Can you dig up his bones and put them on trial?”The reply — that the dead cannot be tried under international law — seemed to baffle the questioner. Many Cambodians believe that the spirits of the dead are reincarnated or return as ghosts. Why, some ask, shouldn’t the top Khmer Rouge leader’s name and spirit bear the disgrace? According to a recent study by Tara Urs for the Open Society Justice Initiative, this is just one of the ways in which a Westernized legal proceeding may fail to provide meaningful symbolic justice. Some also want to see the execution of any living former leaders found guilty, a penalty the eccc cannot order. Others want lower-level Khmer Rouge cadres put on trial.But the visitors from Battambang were most concerned about the prosecution of non-Cambodian perpetrators. A young man waved his arm in the air. “What about those who stood behind the Khmer Rouge?”“What about the French professors?” a grey-haired man quickly interjected — a reference to the years Pol Pot spent in France, where he became a Communist ideologue. The questions continued. What about the Vietnamese? What about the United Nations, which did nothing while we suffered? The villagers seemed willing to cast the net even further than Nuon Chea had.Each time, the answer was the same. The eccc’s mandate is narrow: to try senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia’s official name under the Khmer Rouge, and those most responsible for violations of domestic and international law during that period. That’s where the investigations will end.