First Lady Michelle Obama is in Asia this week promoting her Let Girls Learn initiative. This weekend she will be in Cambodia, where she will have an important two-fold opportunity to highlight the tortuous legacy of communism in that country.
Cambodia is currently in the throes of something too few formerly communist countries have done: prosecuting those who committed crimes in the name of communism. The Khmer Rouge, adherents of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, controlled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. According to the Black Book of Communism, under the communist tyrant Pol Pot, more than 2 million Cambodians were worked, starved, tortured, or marched to death in the infamous Killing Fields.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunals, were established in 1997 and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. Their purpose is to try Pol Pot’s surviving henchmen for the genocide they led against the Cambodian people. A number of convictions—against former Party leaders and labor camp commanders—have already been made. Other trials are still ongoing.
The country’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge member himself, has warned the Tribunal against opening new cases, suggesting that such actions would spark a new civil war that could claim hundreds of thousands of lives. A government spokesman added that “The Khmer Rouge tribunal will be ended if it [creates] insecurity for the country because stability is more important than the Khmer Rouge tribunal.”
The Tribunal, for its part, is moving forward, launching two new cases against suspects in absentia earlier this month; a former Tribunal prosecutor called Hun Sen’s statements “hogwash” and the Tribunal’s current chief UN administrator assured Cambodians that, “it is a clearly established international standard that courts do not seek approval or advice on their work from the executive branch.”
The Tribunals ought to proceed uninterrupted, and the government ought to recognize that stability will be impossible without justice.
I was the only Western journalist to witness both the devastating Cambodian civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime that followed. I had exclusive interviews with top officials, who’d confessed to the use of torture chambers and forced labor under hideous conditions. I had researched dozens of Cambodians who’d been arrested, tortured and killed. And I had seen the once-vibrant capital emptied.
In her public remarks in Cambodia, the First Lady of the United States might highlight Becker’s story. Becker is educated, well-traveled, brave, eloquent, and professionally accomplished. You couldn’t ask for a more qualified heroine to inspire Cambodian girls to learn, especially about the legacy of communism in their own country.
Mrs. Obama could also express her support for the Tribunals, which would attract international attention to Cambodia’s pursuit of justice and a moral reckoning for the crimes committed by the communist Khmer Rouge.
FLOTUS has a platform to highlight one of the most shocking human rights abuses of the last hundred years, and to encourage the courageous actions of those who now seek justice. We hope that she can use this platform for good.