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Columbia Journal logoVolume Nine, Number Three    May 2004    www.columbiajournal.ca

    Thirty Years Late: Khmer Rouge Trials   

    Carole Pearson 

    Nearly 30 years ago, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge launched an ideological-based purge which left an estimated three million people dead by the end of its four-year reign of terror. No one has been prosecuted for committing these atrocities and the road to retribution has been a long and winding one.

    Khmer Rouge rememberedIn 1997, the United Nations set up the mechanism for the Cambodian government to bring former Khmer Rouge before an international tribunal for their crimes. Talks were subsequently held between chief UN negotiator Hans Corell and Cambodian Minister Sok Am to determine how to formally conduct the tribunal. The UN will foot the bill for the expensive trial which is expected to take three years but whatever the outcome, it will likely be more show than substance.

    Pol Pot, the notorious leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in 1998. The regime’s Deputy Prime Minister, Ieng Sary, was granted amnesty by the Hun Sen government in 1996. Many officials in Cambodia today were former Khmer Rouge and, predictably, the government has limited defendants to the top leaders of the organization. This has reduced the number of perpetrators to be prosecuted from hundreds to only a handful. Estimates are that just seven Khmer Rouge leaders will face trial.

    Asia Times journalist Alan Boyd writes, “What transpired under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, does not fit the profile of genocide under the UN definition of international law. Unlike genocide, this wholesale slaughter was not driven by ethnic hatred. This was the imposition of an ideology, a return to an idealistic rural egalitarian society that went horribly wrong.”

    Pol Pot’s rural egalitarianism turned Cambodia into a forced labour camp. Conditions were harsh and people died from overwork, disease and starvation. Torture and mass executions contributed to the number of dead. Victims included those associated with the former government, army officers, teachers, doctors and anyone who challenged the actions of the Khmer Rouge. In the end, one-quarter of Cambodia’s population was dead.

    Currently, efforts to get the tribunal underway are stalled as the UN waits for trial legislation to be ratified by the Cambodian parliament. Since national elections last July failed to produce a government, parliament has not been in session. Another set-back occurred on April 18, 2004 when King Sihanouk publicly condemned the UN-backed tribunal by calling it an insult to the victims of the genocidal regime.

    Reports say it was not clear how a trial of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders could be construed as an insult but indicates that more delays are ahead for a process already moving at glacial speed. Some are not convinced a trial will serve any real purpose at this late date, especially one held in Cambodia with a majority of Cambodian judges.

    Human Rights Watch calls Cambodian atrocities “some of the most serious and systematic human rights violations in history,” and expresses doubts that any trial in Cambodia will serve justice to the millions of victims of the Khmer Rouge.
                       
    US role in Khmer Rouge rise to power    

    In an article for  “The Guardian”, John Pilger says Cambodia’s genocide actually did not begin with the Khmer Rouge victory but “five years earlier when American bombers killed an estimated 600,000 Cambodians.” He notes, “In one six month period, more tons of American bombs were dropped on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan during the Second World War, the equivalent of five Hiroshimas.”

    In March 1969, US President Richard Nixon and his National Security assistant Dr. Henry Kissinger gave approval for a series of secret and illegal bombing missions on North Vietnamese base camps set up inside the Cambodian border. While Nixon had been elected on a promise to wind down the war in Vietnam, the US was, in reality, escalating its operations in the region.

    “There are only two men responsible for the tragedy in Cambodia today, Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger,” Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk told “Sideshow” author William Shawcross in the late 1970s.“By expanding the (Vietnam) war into Cambodia, Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger killed a lot of Americans and many other people. . . and they created the Khmer Rouge.”

    As the North Vietnamese army were driven further into Cambodia by the US into an area already destabilized by the bombings, local villagers rose up against the invaders. A combination of elements set up the conditions for the rise in popular support for the Khmer Rouge.

    The US has supported calls for an international tribunal into the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. In 1994, the US Congress passed a resolution to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice. But, as Chalmers Johnson points out in his book, “Blowback”, the resolution specified “the court restrict efforts to the period from 1975 to 1979, after years of carpet bombing were over and before the US government began to collaborate against the Vietnamese communists with the Khmer Rouge.”

    With many of the key players already dead and/or beyond prosecution (even including Nixon and Kissinger), a trial may accomplish little other than uphold the principle that someone should be held accountable. As Shawcross says at the conclusion of “Sideshow”, “Cambodia was not a mistake. It was a crime.”       





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