Khmer Rouge trial: Time for soul searching.

Hong Kong, China ? In 1978, some Western countries and organizations took action at the U.N. Human Rights Commission to stop the Khmer Rouge's violations of human rights in Cambodia, but got nowhere when communist countries blocked the attempt. In the same year U.S. President Jimmy Carter described the Khmer Rouge as "the world's worst violators of human rights."

In the 1990s, America wanted to bring Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who continued an armed struggle against the elected government of Cambodia, to justice. In 1997 the Cambodian government asked the United Nations to create an international tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot then died.

Later, the Cambodian government wanted a Cambodian trial with U.N. assistance. In 2007, the U.N.-assisted tribunal was created and began work. Five surviving top Khmer Rouge leaders were subsequently arrested and charged with various crimes.

Last week, the Khmer Rouge tribunal began the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, head of the notorious S-21 prison of the Khmer regime, where over 12,000 people were tortured and killed. Duch is charged with crimes against humanity, homicide and torture.

The trials of Duch and other Khmer Rouge leaders will reveal at least some of the truth about this particular episode of Cambodia's history, deliver some measure of justice for the victims and help Cambodia address its tragic past. They will also consolidate the "special measures" that were deemed necessary, according to the state signatories to the peace agreements concluded in 1991 to end the war in Cambodia, "to assure protection of human rights, and the non-return to the policies and practices of the past."

However, those trials should not overlook the need for the Cambodian people themselves and others to do some soul searching.

Prior to the Khmer Rouge's rise to power, the overwhelming majority of Cambodian people were Buddhist. Proportionally speaking, there must have been many Buddhist Khmer Rouge officials, from top leaders to the lowest-ranking cadres. After their defeat, many of them have willingly returned to Buddhism which, alongside other religions, they destroyed during their rise to power.

Cambodians should try to answer the question - which has been repeatedly heard in private but has not been raised in public - as to how these Buddhists among the Khmer Rouge could help kill some 1.7 million of their fellow countrymen in the short span of four years during their rule.

Recently, in a Buddhist temple, an elderly Cambodian who had been forced to abandon his monkhood when the Khmer Rouge came to power answered this question for a Buddhist foreign visitor: "The mighty communism simply swept Buddhism away."

This answer begs further questions: Why was Buddhism unable to restrain those killers, temper their ruthlessness and the harshness of communism? Why, just a few years after embracing communism, did they abandon all notions of Buddhist ethics, when the overwhelming majority of the Khmer Rouge had been so nice to people during their struggle for power? Was Buddhism just skin deep, and were Buddhist ethical values - such as respect for life, loving-kindness and compassion - not the Cambodian people's strong, deep-seated core values as these people might have thought?

Cambodians need to do some deep soul searching as to how Buddhist they were prior to the Khmer Rouge times, and even in current times, where crimes are no less ruthless. The Cambodian Buddhist clergy and the Cambodian government should inquire into the failure of Buddhism to restraint the Khmer Rouge's extremism.

Other peoples may need to do a different kind of soul searching. When the Khmer Rouge was killing its own people many countries, mainly in Asia, did not utter a word. No Asian country was on record supporting the attempts by Western countries and organizations at the U.N. Human Rights Commission to end the Khmer Rouge's violations of human rights.

China, for instance, which was supporting the Khmer Rouge and which could have influenced them, maintained "normal and friendly relations," ignoring altogether the massacres that were going on and doing nothing to stop them.

Back then, the way a state treated its own people was of no concern to any other state. Rather, it was considered an internal affair of that state, which no other state could interfere in.

This particular norm of international relations cost dearly the powerless Cambodian people in the Khmer Rouge times and has continued to cost enormously other nations such as East Timor and Burma.

Based on the tragedy of the Cambodian people and others, this norm should be completely abandoned. How a state treats its own people should be the concern of other states too.


(Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)

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