After years of delays, the leaders who presided over the Cambodian genocide are set to receive justice — if they don’t die first.
Cambodia opened hearings this week for a second trial of the two most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, under whose rule nearly a quarter of the population died. The country became notorious for its “killing fields,” where masses of people were murdered and buried.
After defeating government forces in a five-year civil war, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, renaming it Democratic Kampuchea. Extensive US bombing campaigns targeting North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia played a role in destabilizing the country and helped set the stage for the Khmer Rouge to capture Phnom Penh.
What ostensibly began as an attempt to purge the country of traces of the old regime and create a utopian socialist agrarian society quickly morphed into a campaign of brutal savagery that, for a country as small as Cambodia, is virtually unparalleled.
Accusations against 88-year-old “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, a former prime minister who was second-in-command to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, and former President Khieu Samphan, who is 83, were so numerous that their trial in a special UN-backed tribunal was split in the hope that at least some of the proceedings would be resolved before they die.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were charged last year with crimes against humanity and war crimes related to purges and the forced migration of millions during their administration of the government. A verdict on those counts is expected August 7.
In the second portion of the trial, which opened on Wednesday, the pair is charged in the deaths of an estimated 100,000-500,000 ethnic Cham Muslims and 20,000 members of the country’s Vietnamese minority — crimes that the tribunal has alleged amount to genocide.
The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, as the tribunal is officially known, will also hear accusations that the men were complicit in rapes that resulted from an estimated 200,000 marriages forced upon couples in the late 1970s. The tribunal is overseen by Cambodian and international judges.
Both former officials maintain their innocence.
To date, the tribunal has convicted only one member of the former regime, Kang Kek Lew, who is known as Duch. He was found guilty in 2010 of crimes against humanity for overseeing the Khmer Rouge’s security apparatus and prison camps, including the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison (which was known as S-21 and is now a genocide museum) where as many as 20,000 people were murdered. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Pol Pot died in 1998, just as the last Khmer Rouge holdouts were weighing whether to hand him over for trial.
Between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians — 21 percent of the population — perished from starvation, disease, overwork, torture, or murder at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Millions were forcibly moved from cities to the countryside. Intellectuals, people who spoke foreign languages, and those with professional skills were persecuted, as were people who wore eyeglasses or those who cried at the funerals.
The regime’s treatment of Cham Muslims, who were killed at a rate double that of ethnic Khmers, was particularly severe.
Many who survived found themselves caught up in a nationwide campaign of forced marriage. The ceremonies occurred with little or no notice, joining hundreds of former strangers in mass ceremonies overseen by regime cadres.
“The couples had to sit in rows and then took an oath and held hands in from of officials,” Doueng Savornt, a legal expert at the Cambodian Defenders Project who works with the tribunal on gender-based violence, told VICE News. “Then they were brought back to live together under the supervision of Khmer Rouge officers who made sure they were having sex together in order to have children.”
“If they found they were not having sex, they would call and warn them — sometimes both, sometimes just the man — that they would face severe punishment,” he added. Those who didn’t comply could be “sent to forced labor camps or ‘re-educated,’ meaning they were killed.”
The resulting trauma has gone largely unexamined in Cambodian society.
Despite a heavy international presence and $200 million in funding, the tribunal has suffered criticism for a dearth of convictions and longstanding allegations of corruption and government interference. Court workers have gone months without pay and last year a group of local translators went on strike.
Plans to indict more officials intimately involved in the genocide have been endlessly delayed, leading many to believe Prime Minister Hun Sen is afraid the investigations will lead too close to his own government. Two international judges resigned from the tribunal in protest over interference in the remaining two cases under investigation — numbers 003 and 004. Defendants in both have not been named but are speculated to include high-ranking members of the country’s armed forces.
Hun Sen has said the current trial against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan should be the tribunal’s last. Further investigations, he claims, would threaten the “stability” of the country and risk violence, a notion that Doueng Savornt believes is ludicrous.
“They say it will turn into chaos or war, but I don’t understand — what war, what chaos?” he said. “Everything is under the hand of the government.”
But Wednesday’s hearing already appeared to cut close to the current regime.
Lawyers for Nuon Chea asked the court to call as witnesses three former Khmer Rouge members who now serve as high-ranking officials in the government, including the current national assembly president. In the past, however, Hun Sen’s allies have simply refused to testify.
Hun Sen began his career as a commander in the Khmer Rouge, but fled the country in 1977 when Pol Pot began to target those within his own government.
Today, troops with ties to the infamous Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok still patrol the disputed Preah Vihear region that borders Thailand, and many former low-level Khmer Rouge officials remain in government ministries.
“You have people working in the telecommunications bureaus and with commercial infrastructure who were young Khmer Rouge cadres,” Andrew Mertha, professor of government at Cornell University, who specializes in Cambodian politics, told VICE News.
“Whether or not they were involved with the killings, they are nonetheless associated with them,” he said. “These people are very much in a position of power.”
For many Cambodians born after the genocide, the trial has introduced them to details that family members have been hesitant to discuss.
In a country where few read the newspaper and many still rely on state-influenced TV and radio broadcasts, there are questions over how many are aware of the proceedings. But thousands of Cambodians have traveled to the tribunal, which maintains a Khmer website explaining the charges and history of the regime’s abuses.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
Photo via Flickr