Yale University



A-Z Index

"The Khmer Rouge trial should be a shared experience,"

by Kavi Chongkittavorn

The Nation [Bangkok], August 22, 2006

Thirty years after the genocide, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is set to start prosecutions next year in Phnom Penh. It will take another three years for the final verdict to be released.

During the intervening period, much could happen. The death of Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge's military chief, on July 21 of tuberculosis, immediately raised concerns about whether the trial can deliver justice.

Officially known as Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea, this kind of hybrid court is being used for the second time in Asia, after East Timor. The court was created when the Cambodian National Assembly passed a law calling for its establishment in 2001.

After the Cambodian government asked the UN in 1997 to help the country to establish a tribunal to prosecute the Khmer Rouge's senior leaders, negotiations between the government and UN proceeded slowly and at one time collapsed. It was only in 2000 that the process was revived and subsequently agreed upon. The Cambodian government asked for help because it felt that the Cambodian judiciary lacked sufficient resources and expertise to undertake such a complex task on its own, and also because the crimes are of such magnitude as to be of worldwide concern. During the Khmer Rouge's 1975-1978 reign of terror, it forcibly relocated people out into the countryside, killing 1.7 million people, or 21 per cent of the population in the process. Some 1.3 million died of torture, execution and starvation. As the Khmer Rouge slaughtered the Cambodian people, neighbouring countries like Thailand and Vietnam were silent. This was their shame, and they have never shown any remorse.

Now, it is time for reflection and confessions. This historic tribunal could serve a broader purpose by making the trial a shared experience for the rest of the region. People of future generations must ensure that such crimes against humanity never happen again, in their own countries or elsewhere.

The tribunal's 17 judges and 13 jurists must bear in mind that the genocide was carried out in full view of Cambodia's neighbours. According to Yale University's Genocide Programme, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge ran 158 prisons and 309 mass-grave sites with an estimated total of 19,000 grave pits. There are 76 post-1979 memorials to victims of the Khmer Rouge. Some of these are near the Thai border.

Thailand, which turned a blind eye to the Khmer Rouge's atrocities, must reflect on this horrible past. It was an open secret that top Thai military leaders had links to Khmer Rouge leaders like Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary. They justified these ties on the grounds of national security. This explains why the Khmer Rouge was able to operate along the Thai-Cambodian border and even crossed over into Thailand at will. This part of the story has not been questioned clearly enough. Suffice it to say, the Thai people paid no attention to the genocide next door.

For Thailand, the Khmer Rouge tribunal will serve as a useful tool to educate those in power, especially about high-handedness. For example, what lessons have the Thai people drawn from the atrocities in Tak Bai and Kru Se? Judging from comments by Thailand's leaders in the past few weeks, they still do not understand the situation in the South.

The report of the National Reconciliation Commission, which was submitted to the government in early July, was the product of a genuine desire to resolve the conflict in the South and to begin the long process of national reconciliation. Unfortunately, some old hacks, bureaucrats and uniformed men, who are used to relying on intimidation and trepidation, want to continue the status quo in the South. The report remains unimplemented.

The Southeast Asian media must pay special attention to the trials. Along with the Cambodian people, the Southeast Asian press could learn from the investigation process and evidence used. In more ways than one, the process will serve as a review of a turbulent chapter in the region's history - April 17, 1975, to January 6, 1979. People who are now in their 20s could use the lesson.

For three years, eight months and 20 days, the Cambodian people suffered from the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. They want to see the trial proceed and judgements handed down. They want a proper closure for their suffering. This will be good for all Southeast Asians. After all, within the region, Burma continues to oppress its people and abuse ethnic minorities. It carries out extra-judicial executions and recruits child soldiers. Hopefully the Khmer Rouge trial will set a precedent in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps the Khmer Rouge trial will allow Thais to look back with some detachment at what they did and should have done. Perhaps it will even help prevent the same mistakes from occurring again.


Top of page.