Magazine article New Internationalist

Facing History in Cambodia

Magazine article New Internationalist

Facing History in Cambodia

Article excerpt

Pol Pot and his victorious Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia in April 1975 - Year Zero. In a few short days the Khmer Rouge turned back the clock, driving people out of the cities, transforming Cambodia into a vast network of slave labour communes and mass graves. The goal was to return the country to a peasant economy. There would be no class divisions, no money, no books, no schools and no hospitals. The city was drained of its inhabitants. Those who refused were shot. In four short years nearly two million people died from murder, torture, disease and starvation.

Today, Cambodia is a popular tourist destination. Phnom Penh is thriving. Busy cafés, trendy restaurants and noisy nightclubs dot the streets. But the deep trauma of the 'killing fields' has yet to be addressed. An agreement between the Cambodian Government and the UN to bring surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justice was only signed in 2003.

Two years prior to that, the Cambodian National Assembly passed a law to create a court to try serious crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 regime. Officially the court is called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (Extraordinary Chambers or ECCC). The resulting joint UN-Cambodia Tribunal (known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) was launched in 2006. The first trial began in February this year.

Denial of justice

Beneath the surface calm of Khmer smiles, the absence of healing and the denial of justice have cast long shadows over this country and its people. Old wounds and scars, both mental and physical, have long festered, exacerbated by the lack of closure.

Despite the passage of time, Cambodians have never stopped clamouring for justice. Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which was set up to investigate the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, says the Tribunal is important because, 'we still suffer from the legacy of Pol Pot. We have so many terrible experiences bottled up inside us... The only way to free us is to have a complete accounting - to bring real justice.'

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT), based in Phnom Penh, is a 'hybrid' system. It brings international jurists together with local lawyers and judges, within a legal framework that blends Cambodian rules of evidence with international law.

But the KRT has sparked deep controversy and drawn enormous flak in its painfully slow attempts to deliver justice for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago. Indeed, the swirl of negative comment, coupled with serious funding problems, has fuelled speculation that the KRT could collapse long before any trials are completed. Allegations of corruption and political interference from Prime Minister Hun Sen have dogged the KRT from the beginning.

But there are countless reasons why this legal process should continue, despite its flaws. Support for the Tribunal is critical, both to honour the memory of the dead and to provide justice and accountability for survivors.

All attempts to advance international justice in the last decade (including international tribunals on human rights crimes in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone) have been dogged by flaws and political problems. But the Cambodian Tribunat - the tribunal that pundits said would never happen - has been mired in intense political controversy for years.1

Perfect impunity

Thanks to the 'Cold War' and the 'evil empire' politics of US President Ronald Reagan, Pol Pot and his cohorts enjoyed almost perfect impunity from prosecution during the 1980s and 1990s. This despite passionate pleas from exiled Cambodians and the Phnom Penh Government to remove the Khmer Rouge from the country's seat at the UN - and to put the regime on trial for mass murder.

Contrary to some claims, Western governments have not imposed the Tribunal - it is the belated fulfilment of Cambodian demands for justice that date back to the early 1980s, shortly after the country was liberated. …

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