A Judicious Return to Pol Pot's 'Killing Fields' ; the Constitutional Council Yesterday Approved Khmer Rouge Trials, Opening the Way for a Hybrid Crimes Tribunal

By Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Judicious Return to Pol Pot's 'Killing Fields' ; the Constitutional Council Yesterday Approved Khmer Rouge Trials, Opening the Way for a Hybrid Crimes Tribunal


Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Cambodians are a step closer to bringing the perpetrators of some of the 20th century's most heinous war crimes to justice.

The country's Constitutional Council yesterday approved a law to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders, whose rule was responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians through starvation, torture, and execution.

The decision is likely to clear the way for Cambodia to set a global precedent as the first country to hold a hybrid war-crimes tribunal, combining national and international law on its own soil. Moreover, Cambodia is moving closer to a self-examination of the "killing fields" regime from 1975 to '79 - a process of revelation and healing that it has not yet begun.

"What the people want is not revenge against the Khmer Rouge," says Ok Socheat, a member of the National Assembly. "What they want is the reality, the truth, of what lies behind the Khmer Rouge, because I don't think anyone really understands that. We need to have this trial so we can prevent genocide, but the people also need it so we can write our own history," he says.

Still, there are powerful forces both inside and outside Cambodia reluctant to sift through the ashes of the past - particularly under the microscope of the United Nations. Some observers say that plans for a tribunal will remain bogged down in disagreements between the UN and Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge leader who switched sides in 1978 and became this country's leader after a 1997 coup.

Others worry that Hun Sen will try to push through a hasty and tightly controlled trial in order to come out looking good before communal elections next year, and national elections the year after.

"Even with UN involvement, it's hard to believe that most of the Khmer Rouge leaders will be found guilty," says Mr. Socheat, a senior member of Funcinpec, a party that remains loyal to King Sihanouk, whose signature on the law is the next necessary step in the road to creating a tribunal.

It was the king who gave the Cambodian Communist Party their name - dismissing them before their rise to power as a pack of "Red Khmers." Their short but horrific rule was marked by an absurd drive to create an agrarian utopia, and the wholesale slaughter of families. They also abolished money, schools, urban living, religion, as well as potato picking and book reading. The surviving leaders of the regime, who saw massive bloodletting as part of their purification of Cambodian societal decadence, are comfortably ensconced near the Thai-Cambodian border. Only two leaders, Kang Kek Leu, or "Duch," and Ta Mok, are in detention.

Duch, an infamous torture and execution center director for the Khmer Rouge told investigators that he took orders from Nuon Chea, second only to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. "He called me in to meet me and he said, 'Don't bother to interrogate them - just kill them.' And I did," according to a new report released in Washington.

The War Crimes Research Office at the Washington College of Law, American University, in conjunction with the Documentation Center of Cambodia here, has just released research based on more than 1,000 documents, including telegrams, minutes of meetings, and testimonies of victims and perpetrators. The information would comprise some of the important and most disturbing evidence in a trial of surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

But the prospect of peeling away the layers of secrecy around the Khmer Rouge still stirs great resistance among senior officials here, where former Khmer Rouge members now hold some of the highest positions in government and have been absorbed into the military. China, Russia, and Thailand are also reluctant to back the trials. They could be implicated in the process of examining who helped one of recent history's most brutal regimes. …

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