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Cambodia’s Genocide Tribunals

6 May 2009

Thirty years after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia, responsible for the killing of up to 2 million innocent people, the trial has begun in Phnom Penh of one of its most notorious cadres. Farrah Tek, a Cambodian-American studying at the University of Mary Washington, who has recently finished an internship with MRG in London, explains the significance of this trial for Cambodians.

When I was growing up my Mom would tell me stories about how when she was just 10 years old, Khmer Rouge soldiers forced her to work in the fields from sunrise to sunset under the scorching sun whilst leeches fed on her legs. She was not allowed any breaks, was given only one meal a day and went to bed missing her parents and seven siblings, from whom she was separated as part of the policy of the communist regime.  She said it felt like “forever” and never thought it would end.  Luckily the end did finally come – four years later in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge regime under the notorious Pol Pot was ousted following a Vietnamese invasion.

Under the horrifying reign of Pol Pot, about a third of the Cambodian population was killed under a systematic policy of torture, execution, starvation, and forced labor – these included minorities, such as the Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Christians.

For nearly thirty years after the fall of the regime, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge lived freely amongst their victims. Even Pol Pot himself initially lived an ordinary life unpunished, only being placed under house arrest after executing Son Sen, his right-hand man and one of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. For thirty years, survivors have had to learn how to live through their pain and anguish. For thirty years, they have had to confront their dreadful past in order to live an ordinary life.  For thirty years, survivors of the Cambodian genocide have waited for the trial of the remaining perpetrators.

Justice is now a possibility.

A couple of weeks ago, the Cambodian Tribunal underwent its first trial of Kaing Guek Eav, who is more commonly known as Duch.  The Tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), was established more than three years ago to place the perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge on trial.  As the director of Tuol Sleng, a political prison also known as S-21, Duch was responsible for the death of more than 17,000 innocent people.  He admitted to his crimes last week and asked for the forgiveness of the Cambodian people.  For Cambodians who were affected by the genocide, it is crucial to see the conviction of those responsible for the killings of their family and friends.

Though there has been much written about these human rights violations in Cambodia, there is little known about how badly minorities were affected.  According to my professor in Human Rights, Dr. Gregory Stanton, in his article Seeking Justice in Cambodia, “Muslim Chams and (…) Christians were murdered at a rate higher than ordinary Kampucheans.”  Dr. Stanton’s census showed that the Cham Muslims showed “a mortality of over 50 per cent, whereas in the general population it was around 21 per cent.”  As one of the directors of the Cambodian Genocide Project, he has conducted many interviews with the Cham community in Cambodia, who especially support the Tribunal because they were “victimized more than most groups.”

The Cham were forced to assimilate into Cambodian society, made to eat pork, prohibited from using their own language and coerced into speaking the Khmer language.  In other extreme cases, the Khmer Rouge murdered entire Cham villages.  Dr. Stanton told me of one instance when “an entire Cham village was thrown off a cliff into a deep ravine, where they all died.”  In an article entitled Genocide Unpunished by Ben Kiernan, a professor of International and Area Studies and director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, about 90,000 Muslim Chams were killed after being evacuated from their villages at gunpoint.

Recently, the BBC reported that Cambodian Tribunal staff had been forced to pay bribes in return for their jobs, resulting in international donors suspending funds for the trials.  Some international human rights groups, concerned over the Cambodian government‘s commitment to meet out justice, have called for an international tribunal.  But victims of the Khmer Rouge regime and Cambodians all over the world like me want to see the trial succeed. Cambodians need to see that their own legal system is able to convict human rights violators. That success depends on both the Cambodian officials’ and the UN’s ability to resolve the issues over alleged corruption and instilling the trust needed for international donors to continue funding the Tribunal.

Until then, we’ll just have to wait and see.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.