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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.

SEE ALSO: Cambodia: Many senior Khmer Rouge officials won’t face justice tribunal

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.

Hun Sen. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

In this context, there has been much debate as to the tribunal’s legacy.

On the one hand, it has been labelled a failure: human rights groups have accused Hun Sen of obstructing justice, whilst criticising the narrow scope of the tribunal in terms of its brief to prosecute only high-ranking officials.

Many in the international community have lamented the trials as costly and time-consuming, drawing unfavourable comparisons with the results achieved by similar tribunals following atrocities in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. In a scathing 2014 report, the Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams accused the tribunal of ‘‘barely scratching the surface of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.’’

On the other hand, some have pointed out the only realistic alternative – despite the ECCC’s numerous faults – would have been no trials and no justice for victims. The tribunal successfully convicted three former leaders of the Khmer Rouge and brought their crimes into the public domain, helping to tackle a longstanding reluctance to discuss the atrocities in Cambodia. Forty years on and with Pol Pot deceased, the tribunal arguably made the best of difficult circumstances.

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Whilst the crimes of the Khmer Rouge will never be forgotten, it can be asked in light of the tribunal’s impending cessation, if Cambodia is now better-placed to move on from its dark past.

The genocide held back development and progress for decades, eliminating the country’s educated classes and leaving behind a deeply traumatised population. As a result, Cambodia remains amongst the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, ranked at a lowly 143 on the UN’s Human Development Index.

Yet there are signs of hope: Cambodia has an expanding workforce and its economy is growing at a rate of more than seven percent each year; and now that the trials are drawing to an end, the country has a unique chance to move forward and make a decisive break from its troubled history.

There are positive signs in the country’s economy. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Cambodia’s thriving economy, booming tourism industry and relative political stability may at first glance give the impression of a nation which has already moved on from the Khmer Rouge era. Yet the emotional scars of conflict and a culture of silence over the atrocities have cast a long shadow.

The fact the genocide is now discussed more openly as a result of the tribunal could provide the psychological spark needed to propel Cambodia forward on the path of development and catch up with other countries in the region.

Neighbouring Vietnam proves such a leap is possible under the right conditions, having compounded dire post-war predictions to serve as an example of post-conflict recovery in a traumatised society.

If Cambodia is to follow this route, the next few years will be crucial. Amid controversy over the end of the Khmer Rouge tribunal – centred on accusations of political interference – and in light of heightened uncertainty in domestic politics as rhetoric is ramped-up ahead of elections next year, it is clear there are still hurdles to be overcome.

If the country can navigate these obstacles and emerge from the next few years unscathed, the stage may be set for Cambodia to heal the final wounds of the Khmer Rouge era and move forward with a sense of hope and optimism.


(c) 2017 Asian Corespondent

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