|July 30. 2007
Justice and the Cambodian Knot
by Uli Schmetzer
The wheels of international justice are turning so slowly in
Cambodia the leaders of Pol Potâ€™s genocidal regime in the 1970s are in danger of
dying of old age before a court hears the evidence against them.
Unlike other parts of the world - the Balkans for example - the
baffling delay in bringing to justice the last of the still alive Khmer Rouge ogres is partly
the result of reluctance by an international community whose own conscience over the
Cambodian Killing Fields is far from lily-white and partly the fault of a Cambodian
government anxious to sweep this murderous chapter of its past under the table without
delving too deeply into who was guilty, who was not and who collaborated.
Perhaps the real hitch is this: The accused know too much.
They know the United States and its allies realized Pol Potâ€™s
regime was murderous and working to death its citizen (1.7 million perished) but did
nothing to stop it. The accused know Washington engineered a military dictatorship in
Cambodia and then carpet bombed â€˜neutralâ€™ Cambodia during the Vietnam
On the Cambodia government side many of those in power in
Phnom Penh today - including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodiaâ€™s strongman -
were active members of the Khmer Rouge or, like Hun Sen, senior military officers during
the pogrom years.
During the ten year long charade over a trial both sides argued
technicalities, the composition of the court, the type of laws under which the accused
would be judged and the type of evidence permitted. In contention was even the location
of the court which Hun Sen insisted must be within Cambodia, so retaining his power to
manipulate, stop or influence proceedings.
Finally on July 18 this year, six years after Hun Sen told the worldâ
€™s media: â€œI see no further obstaclesâ€� (to the trial) the prosecution announced
five people would face the international court (stacked with Cambodian judges) for
crimes against humanity. But at the same time the prosecution stipulated the names of
those five would be kept a secret.
That secret is about as porous as a sieve since only five top cadres
among the Khmer Rouge regime are still alive to answer for the Maoist folly of a regime
that set out to eliminate the countryâ€™s entire intellectual and professional class. In Pol
Potâ€™s Cambodia anyone wearing glasses was classified as an intellectual and
marked for extermination or worked to death in concentration camps that provided labor
for Pol Potâ€™s lunatic irrigation projects.
At the infamous S-21 torture center in Phnom Penh, a kind of
Khmer Rouge Auschwitz, tens of thousands were tortured and executed.
The director of S-21, Kang Kek Iev, 63, has been held in pre-trial
detention since 1999. He was found that year working as an official in a humanitarian
organization in Phnom Penh. He had also converted to â€˜Born-Again Christian.â€™ He
is one of the five expected to face trial.
The man on top of the list of five is sure to be Nuon Chea, 82, Brother
Number Two in the Pol Pot hierarchy and the most senior Khmer Rouge after Pol Potâ
€™s death in 1998. Since he and other Khmer Rouge laid down their weapons as part of
an amnesty in the late 1990s Nuon Chea has lived a comfortable existence in northern
Pailin, a town that was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge before they surrendered.
(Most of the Khmer Rouge fighters have been integrated in the Cambodian army which is
very much under the control of Hun Sen.)
Brother Number Two has shown no repentance. During interviews he
has argued the skulls and bones found in Cambodiaâ€™s Killing Fields were those of
victims killed by American bombs. He derides the entire genocide story as an invention
concocted by the â€˜victorsâ€™ and describes the Khmer Rouge era a war of
independence against invaders â€“ first the Americans then the Vietnamese. His only
concession is: â€œWe made a few mistakes.â€� But he still praises his boss, Pol Pot.
Less loquacious is Khieu Samphan, 76, the former Khmer Rouge head of
state who also lives in Pailin near Nuon Chea, but keeps a low profile.
The most affluent of all five is Ieng Sary, 78, Pol Potâ€™s foreign minister
and his wife Jeng Tirith, 75, the former minister for social affairs. The couple live in style
in Thailand, giving credit to reports they escaped with much of the Khmer Rouge loot.
Both avoid the media and are frequently absent from their villa near the Thai-Cambodian
If the trial ever materializes it will be a surprise in the post-Pol Pot history
of a nation on which the international community lavished three billions dollars alone to
safeguard a democratic election in the 1990s which ended up reconfirming in power Hun
Sen. He was the former Khmer Rouge officer who defected to Vietnam and was installed
as a Vietnamese puppet Prime Minister when Vietnamese forces invaded and defeated
the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
Since then international aid has not only kept Cambodia alive but has
enriched a new hierarchy whose ideas and practices are about as democratic as were
those of Pol Pot and his predecessors.
Nine years ago Hun Sen asked for international financial help to set up a
trial of senior Khmer Rouge survivors. Since then the trial has been periodically
postponed thanks to scores of contrived technical objections. Still the financial aid for the
trial kept flowing into Cambodian coffers, as it always does in that country.
Former U.N. general secretary Kofi Anan once described the envisaged
Cambodian genocide trial like this: â€œNo situation illustrates the grave implications of
international ambivalence then the 20 year failure to bring Cambodiaâ€™s former Khmer
Rouge leaders to trial for their crimes.â€�
Sadly, like other mass killers since World War II, the Khmer Rouge tyrants
have enjoyed impunity so far and may do so in the future. After all those who know
Cambodia realize the threads of its past and its present are so intertwined no trial can or
will be allowed to unravel the Cambodian Knot.