In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge turned much of Cambodia into "killing fields." Now, 30 years later, an internationally backed tribunal is trying five officials of Pol Pot's regime. The first trial started on Feb 17th. The tribunal is a mix of international and Cambodian judges and lawyers. Many Cambodians are eager to see the Khmer Rouge brought to justice.
Rass: Mary Kay, what stories in particular are you going to be reporting on in Cambodia?
Magistad: The main story is the historic opening of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, 30 years after invading Vietnamese troops drove them from power. During their 1975-79 reign, the Khmer Rouge killed, starved or worked to death an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians -- almost a quarter of Cambodia's population at that time. This was all in the name of turning Cambodia back to "Year Zero," emptying its cities, abolishing its money, destroying such modern trappings as cars, TVs and refrigerators, purging the rich, the educated, the internationally-aware, and forcing city dwellers to join farmers doing heavy labor in the fields on starvation rations -- while the fruits of their labor were exported to China and elsewhere.
Rass: Why did it take so long for members of the former Khmer Rouge regime to go on trial?
Magistad: That's a good question. The Cambodian government first requested help from the United Nations in setting up a tribunal in 1997. That was 12 years ago -- which means it's taken three times longer for the details to be worked out than it took the Khmer Rouge to kill or cause the premature deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians. Why? Many people in the current Cambodian government are themselves former Khmer Rouge. Prime Minister Hun Sen was with the Khmer Rouge for 10 years, ending up as a battalion commander -- not a peon's job. One Cambodian friend of mine has likened the current government trying the Khmer Rouge to the Gestapo trying Hitler. This is one reason why the government has resisted -- hard -- any effort to try more than just a very small number of former top Khmer Rouge leaders. The concern is that it would hit too close to home, especially if evidence is presented that implicates them, and especially if the scope of the investigation
broadens to include current Cambodian government leaders who are former Khmer Rouge. Some Cambodians and international human rights advocates who originally advocated having a tribunal are now of two minds about whether justice served cold is really justice at all.
Rass: But their crimes are so quite obviously horrendous and supposedly easy to prove?
Magistad: You'd think. But it's a matter of having to find documents, or to get testimony from eyewitnesses that specifically implicates the defendants in the dock. In some cases, it's easier than others. The first person to stand trial is Duch, the director of a torture center in Phnom Penh called Tuol Sleng. The irony of putting this particular person on trial is that Tuol Sleng was the torture center to which Khmer Rouge whom the central government thought were disloyal were sent. There were almost 200 other such places around the country, to which ordinary civilians with no connection to the Khmer Rouge were sent, but those places haven't received the attention that Tuol Sleng has. Part of the reason is that Tuol Sleng is right in the capital, Phnom Penh. Another part is that when invading Vietnamese troops got to Phnom Penh, they found freshly tortured and murdered bodies in Tuol Sleng and took photos. Yet another is that Duch kept meticulous records of almost everyone who went into Tuol Sleng and of the dead bodies of those who were killed after torture. (All but less than a dozen of the 12,500 documented prisoners who were in Tuol Sleng were executed.) And then, when it was all over, the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government turned Tuol Sleng into a memorial museum, to remind visitors how bad the Khmer Rouge were. The irony, of course, is that the new Cambodian government was also made up of former Khmer Rouge -- just former Khmer Rouge who had broken with the center and fled to Vietnam. Most did this not out of revulsion with Khmer Rouge bruality, but either because they were partial to the Vietnamese than to the Chinese, who were backing the central Khmer Rouge government, or because they feared they would be the next victims in the fierce internal purges the Khmer Rouge did of their own rank and file, looking for 'hidden enemies.'
Rass: Why is this trial not taking place in a neutral place, in The Hague for instance?
Magistad: Another great question. When the parameters of the tribunal were first negotiated, the Cambodian government insisted it had to take place in Cambodia. They said this would give the Cambodian people more of an opportunity to participate in and observe the trials, and that one of the most important purposes of the tribunal was truth-telling, setting the historical record straight, and setting a precedent within Cambodian courts that leaders could be brought to justice for wronging the people they governed. It was also argued that this would help strengthen the Cambodian court system.
Those who argued against the tribunal being held in Cambodia said the Cambodian court system is inept, corrupt and politically controlled, and it would be impossible to have a credible and impartial tribunal in Cambodia. They also said that witnesses would have to worry about their protection -- since people have been known to be shot dead in broad daylight in Cambodia when they get on the wrong side of powerful political figures. Some who made these arguments have pointed to the pre-trial period as a confirmation of their fears. They say Cambodian judges on the tribunal are on the take, and have had to give kick-backs to the relative of a senior Cambodian government officials. They worry that witness protection is inadequate. And in terms of getting ordinary Cambodians engaged in the process -- state-run Cambodian television and other media have barely covered the process, and don't plan to air the trials live because "air time is too expensive during the day," according to the tribunal spokesman, a Cambodian. Instead, the hearings will be videotaped, and broadcast on one television station in the evening. Not only does this give the government a chance to cut out what it doesn't like, it also suggests it's given quite a low priority to a process that is meant to provide a national catharsis.
Rass: Will this trial be able to bring closure for the victims of the genocide?
Magistad: Closure is such a tricky word. Do you ever get 'closure' if you lose a loved one, or do you just slowly adjust to their absence while still grieving it? What if the loved one was killed in front of you by your neighbor, who became a Khmer Rouge? What if that former Khmer Rouge is now living just down the street from you, and is now a wealthy man? Many Cambodians live with varying layers of trauma, grief, resentment and anger about their experience during the Khmer Rouge era and of all that has happened since. That includes the fact that a culture of impunity has taken root in Cambodia, not disassociated from the fact that in 30 years, no Khmer Rouge official stood trial in person and had to answer for what he or she had done. Now, more than half of Cambodia's 14 million people are too young to remember the Khmer Rouge reign. They're not taught about it in school, and many question the stories they hear from their parents, even when the parents talk about their own personal experiences. Some older Cambodians hope, if nothing else, the tribunal will give younger Cambodians a reality check, and help them better understand the history that has shaped the country into what it is today. Up until now, younger Cambodians have been living with the legacy and effects of the Khmer Rouge era, without even realizing it.
On Jan 7th tens of thousands of Cambodians packed into a stadium in Phnom Penh to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Senate President Chea Sim lauded "those who sacrificed their lives to save us from genocide", when Vietnamese-led forces ousted the regime in 1979. Up to two million people died over the four years of Khmer Rouge rule. But none of its surviving leaders have yet faced justice, triggering criticism of foot-dragging by the government. A UN-backed war crimes trial of five henchmen of the late leader Pol Pot is expected to begin soon.
UN-backed tribunal makes first charges (Aug 2007)
Cambodia's killing fields
30 years ago, a coalition of Cambodian and Vietnamese troops forced Pol Pot and his followers from power - after a four-year reign which left as many as two million people dead. There was no hero's welcome for the conquering troops. Nor was there a nervous population, fearful about the intentions of the incoming army. Because Phnom Penh was almost completely deserted.
The Khmer Rouge had forced millions of city-dwellers to march to the countryside when it took power in April 1975. In the intervening years only a small number of party workers were allowed to live in the capital, and they had fled as the Vietnamese-backed forces approached.
Two million dead
Under the Khmer Rouge, tens of thousands were executed as "enemies of the revolution", often on the flimsiest of pretexts. Others perished on the grueling journey from the cities to rural villages, or starved to death while working as forced laborers on collective farms. As many as two million Cambodians are thought to have died because of the policies of Pol Pot's government and the actions of Khmer Rouge members. The current government says the end of that era is a cause for celebration. Prime Minister Hun Sen was among the Cambodian troops who joined Vietnamese forces to oust the Khmer Rouge.