Cambodia: justice after genocide

Khmer Rouge mass killings were followed by cynical geopolitics. By the time justice took the stand, was it also impossible?

Vicken Cheterian
24 October 2018
Siem Reap, July 2018 elections

Siem Reap, July 2018 elections. Image: Vicken CheterianMany Cambodians born after the short but violent period of the Khmer Rouge, which lasted from mid-April 1975 to December-January 1978, cannot believe the horror stories of the previous generation. “My parents tell me their stories, but I did not believe them,” says Uon Silot, a fiction writer and farmer, who adds: “They said to me – the reason we are telling you is so that the same does not happen again, this time to you.”

How difficult should it be for those parents to tell their traumatic stories? And how painful is it to be faced with disbelief? The idea that it might be impossibile to pass the story of mass violence even to one’s own children poses further, existential questions. Are we as a human civilisation capable of learning “lessons” from history? And consequently, can we immunise the next generation from human violence and self-destruction?

“Genocide has become the identity of Cambodia,” Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, tells me. “Everyone in this country has been affected by genocide. There is no way to escape it. All the kids of this country are born either from victims or perpetrators” of the genocide, he concludes.

In Cambodia I often heard that the particularity of the Cambodian genocide is the fact that “they killed their own people”. People who say this mean that the Khmer Rouge killed their ethnic kin, other Khmer. Moreover, both victims and perpetrators often belonged to the same social classes: Khmer Rouge leaders were urban and foreign educated who exterminated the urban intelligentsia; the rank-and-file soldiers were uneducated, peasant children who exterminated other peasants in their hundreds of thousands. After the Khmer Rouge regime fell, only seven lawyers and forty-three medical doctors are known to have survived in the whole of Cambodia. For this reason the mass violence in Cambodia is sometimes called auto-genocide, or genocide of the self. But, I wonder, is there any genocide that is not self-destruction?

Cambodia has another surprising lesson; what happened after genocide, and how major actors of the international community supported, financed and armed the Khmer Rouge. In January 1979, Khmer Rouge forces collapsed within two weeks when faced by a large-scale Vietnamese assault. They retreated from Phnom Penh and gradually were confined to parts of western Cambodia. Yet thanks to this vital international aid, they managed to regroup and stay alive as a threat to the new rulers.

For over a decade after Vietnamese forces expelled the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh in early January 1979 and then confined them to parts of western Cambodia, influential states – including the United States, United Kingdom, China and Thailand – supported the movement politically, militarily and financially. In the late cold-war decade of the 1980s, the new power in Cambodia was dominated by Vietnam, a Soviet ally. The Atlantic alliance but also post-Mao China, in opposition to the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance, continued to recognise Pol Pot and his criminal gang as Cambodia's legitimate government, and holders of the country's seat at the United Nations.

The US and China also demanded the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops stationed in the country, which could have opened the way for the Khmer Rouge's return to power. Throughout the 1980s, China alone provided the equivalent of $1 billon in cash and weapons to the Khmer Rouge, including twenty Chinese tanks sent in 1990. Jimmy Carter and his hawkish national-security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski found it appropriate to hold the threat of the Khmer Rouge's return in efforts to reduce post-war Vietnam's influence over southeast Asia.

Pol Pot, still the Khmer Rouge leader, was seen in luxury hotels in Thailand – the same man who sent people wearing spectacles or able to speak foreign languages to be executed. Thailand provided logistical bases for the Khmer Rouge until the second half of the 1990s. Such aid enabled the Khmer Rouge to keep a guerrilla force numbering between 20,000 and 40,000 in the field and and continue the war inside Cambodia.


Siem Reap province, election poster (Hun Sen on the right). Image: Vicken Cheterian

Those who had killed a quarter of Cambodia's entire population were, after losing power and territorial control, also handed the privilege of representing Cambodia at the UN. This situation lasted for eleven years after they were chased from Phnom Penh. The international community could have brought to justice the criminals responsible for the genocide of the Cambodian people, but preferred to play geopolitical games. Cambodians, write the authors of Getting Away with Genocide?, had been “liberated by the wrong power”. 

This western-Chinese alliance postponed any chance of justice and empowered the genocide perpetrators until at least the early 1990s. It took until 1989, the height of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and Moscow-Washington detente, for Vietnamese forces finally to withdraw from Cambodia. International aid to Khmer Rouge stopped only in 1990, their use as a cold-war tool over. Yet the group's remnants continued to be active until 1997-98, financing their operations through illegal trade and smuggling of gems and timber. 

The fact that Khmer Rouge continued their military operations was a major impediment to delivering justice. In fact, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen – who rode to power with Vietnamese support in 1979, and is Phnom Penh's strongman to this day – gave amnesty to many Khmer Rouge leaders in order to end their rebellion and put an end to the war. Peace arrived not with, but instead of justice: the classical post-conflict dilemma.

Justice allowed and denied

Even after the death of between 1.3 and 1.7 million people, it is hard to find a single former Khmer Rouge leader who has taken any share of responsibility for the genocide. Nuon Chea, “Brother Number 2” to Pol Pot's "Brother Number 1", said that the latter was the one taking decisions: “Pol Pot was the party secretary. I was just the deputy secretary and sometimes I had no influence.”  Pol Pot himself, who died in 1998, always denied his crimes, and told the BBC on the record that the notorious Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison is a Vietnamese propaganda plot.

A few of the leaders were brought in front of an international court – the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – only in 2004, under an agreement reached between Cambodia’s government and the UN the previous year. The process, whereby Cambodian judges operating under national legislation, and international ones providing support through the UN, proved grindingly slow.  From the start, the two sides lacked trust, each side accusing the other of political motives.

More widely, the Cambodian side were suspicious of the UN for the role it played in the 1980s, while the international community was suspicious of the Cambodian government, both for its authoritarian rule and because senior figures – including Hun Sen – had themselves belonged to the Khmer Rouge before defecting to Vietnam in the late 1970s. The international side insisted on limiting trials to a handful of top Khmer Rouge leaders, giving amnesties to others.

The slow movement of the tribunal posed additional challenges. The total number of charged and accused people brought in front of the ECCC amounted only to nine. Until today, just three former Khmer Rouge leaders have been sentenced to life in prison: Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge's nominal president, and Kaing Guek Eav (also known as Duch), head of the notorious S-21 prison. Two died while their trials were ongoing, while investigating judges closed the case against Im Chaem as they found him not among those most responsible. The verdict on three remaining cases (Meas Muth, Ao An, and Yim Tith) is expected later this year.

The result of years of legal battles to address the open wounds of the Cambodian genocide is meagre, to say the least. In part this was always inevitable. Justice in any historic sense, that of equal punishment for a crime committed, is impossible after genocide. A judicial system cannot be presented with millions of crimes committed in times of such darkness as Cambodia experienced in 1975-79: millions killed, many others deported, raped and tortured, losing their loved ones, homes, property, and life chances. For every single loss, pain and frustration, a traditional justice system is powerless to articulate an adequate judgment and compensation.

At best, a tribunal can provide symbolic justice, by condemning a handful of those who are responsible for the overall, society-wide crimes committed. This partial justice will not satisfy the victims – that is why any society that survived genocide remains highly politicised and mobilised – but at least it will declare to society and posterity that mass killings, expulsions, confiscations, and violations of the body are and must be condemned.

How many societies today have not achieved even this symbolic justice, and as a result cannot distinguish between good and evil?

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