Sometimes justice is a slow process. In the case of Cambodia it has taken 40 years to finally prosecute some of those involved in crimes against humanity and genocidal murder during the communist dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge. Together with the United Nations, Cambodian prosecutors have indicted and convicted a number of those connected with the former ruling regime.
Following in the footsteps of the Vietnamese communists, the Communist Party Of Kampuchea—or the “Khmer Rouge,” as they were known—emerged during the country’s civil war, led by a small cadre of Cambodian intellectuals who learned their Marxist theory as students in Paris. Over the years the party grew stronger, taking advantage of a shifting domestic political landscape in Cambodia during the late 1960s. Finally, Khmer Rouge forces seized the capitol city of Phnom Penh in April of 1975.
Once in power, the Khmer Rouge began to implement radical Marxist-Leninist and Maoist programs. They planned a pure agrarian socialism intended to root out “bourgeois” urbanization and reverse modernization; they forced all Cambodians into collective farms in the countryside where citizens would perform endless manual labor. They believed that this would purify the Cambodian people and create a master race. According to the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor, the Khmer Rouge “wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation.”[i]
Of course, this radical transformation came at a high cost. To accomplish this utopian agrarian society, the Party “abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture.”[ii] During the evacuations to the countryside, many thousands died either through exposure, starvation, or by the bullet of a Khmer Rouge commando.
After the Khmer Rouge consolidated power, they proceeded to arrest and kill those who they regarded as impure. Thousands of soldiers, military officers, civilians, and intellectuals were accused or being traitors and were sent to prison camps or killed. The Khmer Rouge also aimed to eliminate minorities such as the Sham, Vietnamese, Muslims, and Chinese. By the time their short rule came to an end in 1979, the Khmer Rouge had killed an estimated two to three million people—roughly a quarter of the country’s entire population. This ethnic cleansing is considered one of the worst human crimes of the 20th century, along with the Holocaust, China’s Great Leap Forward, and Stalin’s Purges.
Forty years later, in 1997, two Cambodian Prime Ministers wrote to the UN requesting a trial against the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge for war crimes, international crimes, human rights violations, and genocide. The main purpose of the request was to provide justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge Regime.
As UN expert David Scheffer said:
“It is an unprecedented and increasingly productive endeavor to achieve justice … One cannot walk down any city or rural path in Cambodia without meeting someone deeply impacted by the atrocious crimes of the past… Much of the populations, both older and younger, who were direct victims or are deeply influenced by what happened to family members and ancestors 40 years go, remain hostage to different degrees of trauma and reflective grief.”[iii]
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) were established in 2005, and became fully operational in 2007. Among those being tried by the ECCC is Kang Kek Lew, who was head of Internal Security under the Khmer Rouge and ran the Cambodian prison camps. Lew was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life in prison. Nuon Chea, who was Pol Pot’s right hand man, received a life sentence for crimes against humanity in August 2014, and still awaits a separate trial for charges of genocide. Khieu Samphan, former Head of State and Pol Pot’s successor, also received a life sentence for crimes against humanity on August 2014. Former Deputy Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs Ieng Sary and his wife Eng Thirith were accused of planning, ordering, and overseeing the crimes of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. However, Ieng died in the midst of the trial, and his wife was declared mentally unfit to stand trial.
The defendants’ advanced age has given rise to controversy—Nuon Chea is 88 and Kheiey Samphan is 83, for instance—and the trials are expected to last until 2017. “Critics describe the tribunal, which began its proceedings more than two decades after the rule of the Khmer Rouge, as too little, too late, and too costly.”[iv]
The Khmer Rouge’s legacy has extended over the decades and continues to influence Cambodia to this day. Many established figures in local and national politics held positions within the Khmer Rouge; the current Prime Minster, Hun Sen, was himself a Khmer Rouge battalion commander, and is doing everything he can to limit the scope of the tribunal and interrupt its progress, even warning that there would be “civil war” if the court issued more indictments.
The tribunals have come late, it’s true, but better late than never. The perpetrators of these crimes should be held accountable, and by seeing through these trials to their conclusion—despite the protestations of self-interested politicians currently in power—Cambodia can win a victory for the rule of law in a country that has been plagued by so much death, terror, and lawlessness.