Cambodia’s wheel of history rolls on

20. Mar 2009

Alexandra KentSenior ResearcherNIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

Thirty years after the end of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, a ‘hybrid’ war crimes tribunal has finally begun. A mixed team of Cambodian and foreign lawyers have just kicked into motion with the trial of ‘Duch’, the first of five suspects to be tried. The others are Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan, Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sary and Nuon Chea.

Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, was responsible for the renowned Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. The prison was a converted high school, rehashed into one of the most gruesome torture centres imaginable. An estimated 20,000 people were incarcerated there and tortured mercilessly before being summarily executed at the nearby killing fields of Choeung Ek as enemies of the revolution. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 they released the 7 captives who, against all odds, had survived and they converted the prison into a symbol of the Khmer Rouge insanity that they were offering to redress. Duch disappeared into the countryside but was rediscovered by Western journalists in 1998. By this time he had converted to Christianity, perhaps in the hope of escaping the karmic consequences of his deeds and finding forgiveness and salvation.

So who really cares about these trials and their outcome? The United Nations, China, the USA are thought by many to have blood on their hands for having supported or turned a blind eye to what was going on in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Yet the international community is now urging that the whole story be closed, with investigations focusing on the five scapegoats now held in custody. This irony aside, many Cambodians do hope that the trials will bring to light ‘the truth’ about what happened and about why and how Khmer could so savagely brutalize their own people. But few ordinary Cambodians believe that the country’s endemically corrupt judiciary will be able to carry out a fair and neutral trial, regardless of international presence. Many see the lawyers as taking advantage of an opportunity to bleed the arteries that are bringing money into the country to support the trials – ordinary people wonder how many pockets will be lined.

Cambodia’s swelling younger generation was not even born when the Khmer Rouge were ravaging their country. Some find it hard to believe the stories their parents tell of having to eat scavenged grubs, of old people being beaten by indoctrinated teenage cadres, of the complete breakdown of institutions and communities. Some think it would make far more sense to put all the tribunal money into dealing with today’s crimes – moped thefts, land-grabbing by the elite, the forced removal of the poor from urban slums so that private enterprise can use their land.

But even if the trials seem bizarre and anachronistic, is it permissible to allow crimes against humanity – the deaths of a quarter of Cambodia’s population – to pass unpunished? What signals would this give to perpetrators of today’s crimes in Cambodia? The trials may never see justice meted out where it’s properly due, but the process of conducting them may at least cast a spotlight onto the workings both of Cambodia’s current judiciary and the terrifying “wheel of history” that rolled over the country in the 1970s.