From Cambodia to Myanmar, genocide scholars have their work cut out
Finding justice for the "crime of crimes" is an arduous and fickle affair. Genocide inevitably reaches from the corridors of power, where vested interests will do their best to mitigate culpability, to the traumatized lowest rungs of society.
With their leaders compromised, the authorities in Myanmar can not be trusted to independently administer justice or discover the truth behind the alleged genocide of the Rohingya any more than Pol Pot could be relied upon to account for atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Usually it is a military, foreign correspondents or aid workers who get in first and report. Outside help arrives and efforts to prosecute are internationalized. It’s tried and tested.
Nuremberg and Tokyo trials followed World War II. The United Nations has backed genocide trials in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Guatemala, Darfur and Cambodia and the International Criminal Court has been established to deal with current and future tragedies.
Friends of the dead
Gathering evidence and winning convictions has its roots in far off places.
Craig Etcheson was an impressionable 23-year-old dividing his time in California between rock concerts and PhD studies in mathematical models of war when Vietnam invaded Cambodia at the end of 1978 and lifted a veil on the true scale of carnage by the Khmer Rouge.
The deaths during three-and-a-half years of about two million people, a third of Cambodia's population, was something the young mathematician found incomprehensible. Etcheson researched, travelled to Cambodia and crawled through the mud and bones.
He became an investigator in the Office of the Co-Prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal and keeper of the coordinates; the secret locations of mass graves where thousands of men, women and children were battered to death, dumped and buried.
Forty years later, genocide convictions in Cambodia have been secured and Etcheson, a visiting scientist at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has written his 10th book, "Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals."
"After you have seen hundreds and then thousands of mass graves you gradually find a certain kind of peace with the dead, and then eventually one forms a curious social alliance with them," Etcheson said.
"For me it's always been about the victims," he added. "For others it's about abstractions, establishing legal precedents and defining terms like genocide, instead of addressing issues 'like these were once actual living human beings'."
Scholars, genocide and the future
Last week, Etcheson was among the academics at a prestigious conference held, in Asia for the first time, by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS).
He said the most impressive aspect of the Phnom Penh gathering was a large group of young Cambodian scholars who are now on the cutting-edge of genocide research.
"They have the language, cultural and technological skills necessary to correct previous errors in Cambodian genocide scholarship, to uncover new nuances in what happened under the Khmer Rouge, and to take research on the topic into new and very creative directions," Etcheson added.
It's been a long road for Cambodia. This country's social fabric was obliterated by the Khmer Rouge, a legacy which was not even on the school curriculum until the tribunal became a serious force to be reckoned with about a decade ago.
Thus, the IAGS conference was seen as another turning point in how Cambodia sees its past and deals with the devastating impact of genocide going forward. And there are wider implications.
"These young researchers are properly trained and proving themselves to be worthy successors to the first generation of foreign scholars of the Khmer Rouge... who could potentially make contributions to the study of other genocides," Etcheson said.
Shades of Cambodia in Myanmar
The alleged genocide of the Rohingya pales when compared with the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, but in Myanmar there are shades of Cambodia where Pol Pot and his henchmen lived freely for decades amid Cold War politics and a civil war that did not end until 1998.
In Myanmar, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, Brigadier General Than Oo and Brigadier General Aung Aung head the 'most wanted' by U.N.-backed investigators for the ethnic cleansing of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims.
The generals continue to do as they please, just like the Khmer Rouge leaders — Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Son Sen — once did.
But politics and societies do change. Of the Khmer Rouge leaders, three are serving life sentences. Others were murdered, saw out their last years behind bars or died under suspicious circumstances.
And justice does have a habit of catching-up. The fall from grace by the pro-democracy icon and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, since the Rohingya crisis spiraled out of control in 2017, has been spectacular.
The United Nations has documented the genocide allegations as they once did in Cambodia. And recently the United States announced sanctions against all four Myanmar generals and their families.
Add to that a fresh generation of scholars who, like Etcheson, are capable of pursuing genocide allegations within an international legal framework, and the impunity enjoyed by the generals looks decidedly shaky.