As Khmer Rouge trials near end, is Cambodia ready to move on from its dark past?


The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in Phnom Penh chronicled the Cambodian genocide. Source: Shutterstock

AFTER 11 years of hearings in a special courtroom set up on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s long-awaited United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal appears to be winding down. The tribunal has secured just three convictions over the horrific crimes committed by Pol Pot’s murderous regime during the 1970s genocide, in which two million Cambodians perished.

There is now serious doubt whether two further cases will proceed, amidst a lack of funds and continued pressure to end the trials from Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The trials have polarised opinion. Many have criticised them as slow and expensive, noting it has taken more than a decade to convict just three men at a cost of more than US$300 million. Yet other onlookers have struck a more positive tone, suggesting at least a semblance of justice has been served for victims through the achievement of three legally-sound verdicts, matching up to international standards.

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Supporters of the process argue more importantly, the trials have enabled Cambodians to talk more openly about the atrocities, breaking a deeply-ingrained culture of silence and allowing the country to move on from its dark history.

Yet in the end, events outside the courtroom may give the best indication of Cambodia’s ability to put its past to one side in the hope of a brighter future. In spite of the existing convictions and irrespective of whether further cases go ahead, no number of prison sentences or declarations of guilt will ever provide justice for the horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

In the context of the tribunal’s final stages, it is developments in wider politics and society that will determine Cambodia’s capacity to heal the deep wounds that held the country back for the last four decades.

Before assessing the legacy of the Khmer Rouge tribunal and asking whether Cambodia is ready to move on from the darkest chapter in its history, it is first necessary to trace the origins of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime and examine why victims had to wait more than 30 years for their day in court.

The Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia on April 17, 1975, after its troops seized the capital Phnom Penh, and ousted the government of Lon Nol following a bitter five-year civil war.

Almost immediately, the Khmer Rouge’s notorious leader Pol Pot – inspired by his own radical version of Marxist-Leninist ideology – set about transforming the country into a communist agrarian utopia, emptying the cities and transporting millions of people to forced-labour camps in the countryside.

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A year later, Pol Pot declared “Year Zero” as he sought to construct a new state, changing the country’s name from the ‘Khmer Republic’ to ‘Democratic Kampuchea’. In the labour camps, thousands died of starvation, disease and exhaustion; and it was not long before a campaign of execution began to unfold on an unimaginable scale.

Teachers, lawyers, opposition figures and just about any member of the educated middle-classes were targeted for eradication in what became known as the “Killing Fields” – a network of rural extermination camps and squalid urban prisons, where up to two million people were slaughtered in just four years.

Stacked human skulls at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Cambodia. Source: Shutterstock

The Khmer Rouge was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese forces, yet the group’s leadership fled to remote jungle areas from where they continued to wage an insurgency. Western powers initially paid scant attention to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, allowing them to serve as Cambodia’s legitimate representative at the UN until 1990 – a position reflecting their Cold War opposition to Soviet-backed Vietnam’s occupation of the country.

Pol Pot died under house arrest in his jungle hideout in 1998, and by the turn of the century, the Khmer Rouge ceased to exist.

After years of political wrangling between the UN and Hun Sen, an agreement was eventually reached in the mid-2000s on establishing an international tribunal to investigate the abuses which had taken place 30 years before.

The tribunal – named the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – was set-up in 2006 on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It was decided a hybrid panel of Khmer and UN-appointed judges would try only those defendants deemed ‘‘most responsible’’ for the crimes.

Eleven years later, only three men have been convicted. In 2010, Kaing Guek Eav – former director of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh – was found guilty for his role in the genocide. In 2014, Khieu Samphan – former Head of State during the Khmer Rouge years – and Nuon Chea – Pol Pot’s trusted second-in-command – were jailed after being found guilty of forcing mass evacuations to labour camps.

The two men are currently awaiting an additional verdict on charges of genocide following the conclusion of a second trial in June.

Two further cases, centred on three lower-ranking officials – a naval commander and two former regional secretaries – are now unlikely to proceed amid opposition from Hun Sen, who has suggested further prosecutions could lead to ‘‘civil war’’. The lack of political will to proceed, along with fact four decades have now passed since the genocide – during which time many of the accused have died – makes it apparent the tribunal is entering its final stages, with future convictions unlikely.