No Redemption: The Failing Khmer Rouge Trial

By Yang, Allen | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

No Redemption: The Failing Khmer Rouge Trial


Yang, Allen, Harvard International Review


Three decades after planning the genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians, the remaining leaders of the infamous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia are finally being-brought to justice. Between July and November 2007, the five most prominent living former leaders of the radical communist group were arrested in anticipation of their appearance in an official tribunal, which is receiving backing from the United Nations and the international community. However, with the Cambodian government seemingly uneager to bring these ex-leaders to justice, the trials may only stir up bitter memories and expose the Cambodian government's flaws.

The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, after the previous government's involvement in the Vietnam War led to its collapse. The group immediately initiated radical changes, such as forcing city dwellers to march miles to agricultural collectives, eliminating money, disestablishing schools, and arresting intellectuals. Thousands of Cambodians were held in prisons and tortured until they confessed to crimes they did not commit. Pol Pot, the charismatic but secretive leader of the Khmer Rouge, oversaw the slaughter of at least 1.7 million people in the span of less than four years. This genocide was largely unknown in the Western hemisphere until many years later.

The Vietnamese occupation of Phnom Penh in 1978 shook the Khmer Rouge from power, beginning the regime's long period of decline. By 1989, the Vietnamese withdrew, and the United Nations stepped in to help establish a new government. Despite the clear majority of votes in the elections of 1993 for the royalist political faction, the present Prime Minister Hun Sen ultimately came to power as the leader of a coalition government. There was little influence from the Khmer Rouge in any of these developments, as the group was largely dissolved by the mid-1990s. It finally surrendered completely in 1999.

After the formation of the new government, most of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge were either granted official pardons or left alone. Pol Pot, the mastermind and "brother number one" of the Khmer Rouge, was put under a lifetime house arrest imposed by the remaining fragments of the Khmer Rouge after an internal power struggle. He died in 1998 of natural causes. Currently on trial are prominent leaders such as Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea, "brother number three" Ieng Sary, his wife the social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, and infamous prison leader Kang Kek Ieu, also known as Duch. All are over 60 years old; some are nearing 80. Most were only arrested in late 2007.

In 1997, the United States and United Nations began calling for the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders after Prime Minister Sen welcomed two such leaders in their return to Cambodia. Although Sen initially opposed such an international tribunal, claiming it would only cause more division in Cambodia, he eventually requested aid from the United Nations to set up official tribunals for the leaders of the Khmer Rouge when international pressures did not cease. Sen also insisted that other crimes against humanity in Cambodia be investigated, especially the US' carpet-bombing in the country during the Vietnam War. Although these additional requests were rejected by the United Nations, Sen's approval launched the process to set up the tribunal.

In 2000, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stopped the establishment negotiations, accusing the Cambodian government of not keeping up its end of the negotiations. Talks began again in 2003 after renewed promises from the Cambodian government, and the trials are now set to begin in 2008. The tribunal, with its budget of US$56.3 billion, will officially try the leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity. Five judges will sit on the tribunal, three of whom will be Cambodian. The cases will be decided with a majority vote, and the maximum punishment for a conviction will be life in prison. …

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