Killing fields justice

As Cambodia prepares to try two key Khmer Rouge leaders for war crimes, international ambivalence abounds



Inside the Khmer Pagoda in Côte-des-Neiges, head monk Hok Savann sits wrapped in a saffron robe before a large statue of the Buddha, mulling over the newly inaugurated war crimes tribunal in Cambodia. A monk next to him impassively watches a newscast from a Cambodian satellite television station, occasionally interrupting to help his senior find the right wording for an answer.

Neither of the two had visited Cambodia in three decades. Savann left in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge, a movement inspired by a mixture of nationalism and Maoism, captured the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and plunged the country into four years of terror. Today, in another pagoda a 10 miles south of Phnom Penh, thousands of skulls, shattered by pickaxes and clubs, which spared the frugal Khmer Rouge genocidaires from using bullets, are arranged in a memorial to the victims.

Sunlight pours into the pagoda through the windows, and Savann shifts in his seat when asked whether he'd return to Cambodia. "There is no respect for the law there, there is no security," he says. "The government does not believe in human rights."

Bloody legacy

Cambodia has seen little security in the past decades. Before 1975, which Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot declared Year Zero, the country suffered a civil war and a U.S. bombing campaign that killed an estimated 200,000 civilians after emerging from decades of French and Japanese colonial rule. The weakened, traumatized country became a laboratory for the French-educated leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who emptied the cities and forced millions onto rural communes. Between 1.5 million and three million Cambodians were executed or died of starvation before Vietnam invaded the country in late 1978 and routed the Khmer Rouge the next year.

Leaders of the movement now face the possibility of trial for genocide and crimes against humanity after a United Nations and Cambodian war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), convened in Phnom Penh earlier this month. Like most Cambodians, Savann lost relatives in the genocide, and although he's "satisfied" at the prospect of justice, he says it may have come too late.

Pol Pot died in 1998 under house arrest, his remains burnt on rubber tires and a mattress. Last weekend, Ta Mok, another Khmer Rouge leader known in Cambodia as "The Butcher," died in a Cambodian military hospital. Ta Mok was one of two Khmer leaders detained by the government for war crimes.

"[Khmer Rouge] leaders are very old, and very sick," says Savann. Still, "Cambodians are happy" some officials will be held accountable. "[The trials] will help young Cambodians to know their history."

Concordia professor Frank Chalk, who directs the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies, agrees. "Right now, there is a generation of young people who never learned why their parents wake up with nightmares," he says. "They don't understand the trauma of what their parents and grandparents experienced."

Chalk, who is visiting Cambodia again this summer, has been campaigning for more than a decade to have the genocide taught more thoroughly in Cambodian schools. He says the trials should encourage more discussion between generations on the genocide.

Chalk points to plans by the Documentation Center of Cambodia to bring in elders from the countryside to observe the trials, and then go back to their communities and recount what had happened. The CCD also plans to tape the proceedings and distribute cassettes to Cambodians who couldn't attend the trials.

Politicized proceedings

Trial proceedings have barely begun?prosecutors will spend this year building cases for indictments?but the arrangements have already come under criticism. The ECCC is the result of a decade of wrangling between the UN and Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, who asked that the tribunal act within Cambodian law, and that 17 of the 27 judges be Cambodian. Critics say the Cambodian judges are employees of the state who might overrule indictments based on politics.

With a budget of $56.3-million (U.S.), the ECCC is the lowest-funded trial of its kind, but Hun Sen, whose country lost hundreds of millions of dollars last year to corruption, says his government cannot afford its share of the costs, while international donors have yet to fully donate their shares.

Montrealer and leading ECCC prosecutor Robert Petit says whatever faults the tribunal might have, it's better than having no trials.

"Whatever the shortcomings, this is it," he tells the Mirror. "We have what we have. This is the only chance for accountability for these war crimes."

Although the Cambodian government needed coaxing to sign the agreement to hold a tribunal, and is refusing to pay its share of the costs, Petit says, "The important thing is that they signed the agreement."

Pol Pot's friends

The proceedings, and the choice of Khmer Rouge officials who will be indicted, will be followed closely by several countries that had stakes in Cambodia, says Chalk. "Nobody has clean hands in this," he says.

The prime minister himself was a member of the Khmer Rouge before he defected to Vietnam in 1977, when the Cambodian government purged members seen as loyal to Vietnam. Following the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the Khmer Rouge became the backbone of opposition forces bases in Thailand, fighting over the next decade to dislodge the Vietnamese-installed government.

The coalition attracted the support of several countries opposed to Vietnamese influence in Cambodia, including China, the U.S. and Britain?which gave training to what then-U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the "more reasonable" Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge finally disbanded in 1998, and some of its officials ended up in Sen's government. Since defecting, Sen has repeatedly condemned the Khmer Rouge, but has also questioned whether prosecuting them might open rifts in Cambodian society, saying that Cambodia "should dig a hole and bury the past."

However, a survey conducted by the Khmer Institute for Democracy, a Cambodian non-governmental organization, shows more than 90 per cent of the population favour the prosecution of the movement's war criminals. Eighty-nine per cent of the poll respondents said they constantly thought of the genocide.

"I think [the tribunal] is late," says Savann. "But I'd like to see justice."

The Khmer Rouge

Formally the Party of Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge had its origins in the People's Revolutionary Party, formed in 1951. The movement started a rebellion in 1968, and with the government weakened by internal fighting and a devastating U.S. bombing campaign, the Khmer Rouge succeeded in taking over the country in 1975.

Estimates vary on the number of Cambodians who died under the Khmer Rouge. The most widely accepted estimate is more than 1.5 million, but perhaps as many as three million Cambodians.

The tribunal

Officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal is the result of an agreement signed in 2004 between the Cambodian government and the United Nations.

Twenty-seven judges and prosecutors, 17 of them Cambodian, will work on the tribunal. To avoid a drawn-out spectacle like the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the tribunal has a limit of three years to prosecute and try suspects. It is expected to open next year.


Until last week, the Cambodian government held two Khmer Rouge officials in custody: former military commander Ta Mok, who died on July 21, and Kang Kek Leu, nicknamed "Duch," who was a chief interrogator in S-21, a prison where thousands of Cambodians were killed. No more than a dozen of the higher-ranking leaders of the Khmer Rouge are alive.


The tribunal operates on a budget of $56.3-million (U.S.). Cambodia was supposed to contribute $13.3-million, but Prime Minister Hun Sen said the funds were unavailable. Cambodian opposition groups called on Cambodians in the country and abroad to donate money for the shortfall. Foreign donors announced they would cover Cambodia's costs. Canada pledged $2-million, and the U.S., after initially refusing to fund a tribunal with Cambodian judges, has pledged money if it is assured that Hun Sen won't politicize the tribunal.


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