Did the Khmer Rouge really commit genocide?


A Cambodian woman looks at portraits of victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh. While the regime's crimes are commonly referred to as "genocide," experts differ on the matter. An upcoming trial could render a verdict.


Tang Chhin Sothy

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Like many elderly people, Halamas believes everything was better back in the day.

In her case, it’s easy to imagine why.

The gaunt but well-dressed 73-year-old, who wears her gold jewelery at home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, lost everything in the brutal Khmer Rouge revolution of the mid-1970s.

Her house, a wooden structure on stilts, is in the exact same spot as it used to be, four decades ago. “But it was much bigger and way more beautiful than now. Then the Khmer Rouge came, and we had to leave everything behind,” she said.

For more than four years Halamas and her husband Muhammad Sat witnessed torture and starvation. They lived in constant fear of execution. Then they returned to the place where they had fallen in love and started to raise a family.

“Nothing was left, it was all gone. We lived in shacks and tried to make money, so that little by little, we could rebuild our house,” she said, as she scooped rice out of a green tub. Halamas' eyes glistened with tears. Her husband nodded quietly.

At least one out of every six Cambodians perished under the fanatic Maoist regime, which used force to create a society led by uneducated farmers. The wealthy, educated and urbanites were labeled class enemies and driven to the countryside to live in settlements akin to concentration camps.

As members of the ethnic Cham minority, the ordeal was particularly risky for Halamas and Muhammad. Yale historian Ben Kiernan calculates that 36 percent of the Cham — a Muslim community that has lived in Cambodia for centuries — perished under the regime.

Now, the Cham's plight is central to a trial that will soon be making news from Phnom Penh — which will address the question of whether the regime was actually genocidal.

No one seriously disputes that the Khmer Rouge were among the most heinous killers of the bloody and war-ravaged 20th century.

Yet while the regime’s is commonly labeled “genocidal,” in fact no Khmer Rouge official has yet been convicted of that particular crime. And 35 years after the Khmer Rouge were ousted, well-intentioned experts debate whether or not the term legitimately applies.

The most widely accepted definition of the crime — from the United Nations’ 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted after the Holocaust — specificies that genocide involves intentional killing of a specific national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Historians differ over whether the Khmer Rouge had the requisite intentions to eliminate particular groups, or whether their brand of killing — perpetrated through violence, disease, hunger and gross negligence — was essentially more democratic.

Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University and an expert on the Khmer Rouge, is among those who argue that genocide was committed.

“Their religion, language and culture, large villages and autonomous networks threatened the atomized, closely supervised society that the Pol Pot leadership planned,” Kiernan wrote in "Centuries of Genocide." The 36 percent death rate for the Cham “was double the death rate suffered by the country’s ethnic Khmer majority,” he wrote, repeatedly using the word “genocide” to describe the atrocities.

In contrast, another foremost scholar on modern Cambodia’s history, David P. Chandler, recommends caution with the Cambodia context.

“Keep the quote marks or add the word ‘alleged,’” Chandler said. Under the UN definition, a genocide of the Muslim Cham will be “almost impossible to prove” as the intent to eradicate them was missing.

“To support charges of genocide against the Cham, some … have pointed to their being made to eat pork, stop saying prayers and cut their hair. This is extreme harassment, rather than genocide,” he said.

As he spoke to GlobalPost, Muhammad Sat’s recollections tended to support Chandler’s point of view. He said the best chance to stay alive — whether for the Cham or for the majority Khmer — was to assimilate as much as possible.

“Anyone who was caught praying would be executed immediately, I think that was the case for us and also for Buddhists,” who make up the majority religion in Cambodia, said Muhammad Sat.

As he talked, he kept returning to the topic of food. He described how large the pots in the camp’s kitchen were, and the handful of rice that would be used to make porridge for dozens.

He doesn’t believe that he was targeted any more than others who came from the city. “They didn’t care who you are. If you prayed, you were executed, no matter if you were Buddhist or Muslim.”

In October, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is scheduled to hear testimony from Cham survivors like Muhammad Sat, as well as members of the Vietnamese community, to determine whether co-defendants Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are guilty of genocide — and if the term so widely used to describe the Khmer Rouge’s frenzy is suitable.

In a previous trial, the two were already found guilty of crimes against humanity. For that, they were sentenced to life in prison.

“The convictions earlier this month in case 002 only really covered a very small fraction of the crimes that Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea are alleged to have committed, and it’s critical that the wider issue of genocide be addressed by the next phase of the trial,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

William Schabas, an expert on human rights law and genocide who currently heads a team investigating war crimes allegedly committed by Israel, said the new trial in Cambodia “has been driven by a desire to salvage the word 'genocide' so that it can be applied to at least some small part of the Khmer Rouge activities.”

Public and political enthusiasm for the trial, however, remains low.

“I have difficulty understanding the wisdom behind concluding a trial of two very old people with a conviction for crimes against humanity, sentencing them to life imprisonment, and then starting all over with another trial for genocide,” Schabas wrote in an email.

All that and the $200 million that were spent to find justice for the victims matters little to Muhammad Sat.

“I feel indifferent about the tribunal, and I don’t really follow it,” he said.

He does, however, acknowledge that the proceedings might matter more to those who lost family members during the Khmer Rouge.

Muhammad Sat worked as a chef in the cantina, a position that allowed him to steal food and thus helped his wife and two children survive.

“We are Cham, but we were luckier than others,” he said.