Letter From - Autumn 2007

Letter from Cambodia: At Last, a Tribunal for Khmer Rouge Atrocities

By Dustin Roasa | September 1, 2007


Monysophak Temple sits in a tranquil rice field about three hours southwest of Phnom Penh, in Cambodia’s Kompong Speu Province. Not so long ago, that rice field was jungle. During the second half of the 1970s, Khmer Rouge soldiers regularly led groups of local residents into the dense foliage, where they bound them, shot them, and drove tanks over their bodies.

Non Rin, a 68-year-old Buddhist nun with creased skin and bristly silver hair, still remembers the victims’ last moments. “They called out to their mothers for help before being shot. I could hear their voices coming through the trees,” she said. The Khmer Rouge executed her husband this way after accusing him of laziness; he had fallen ill and didn’t have the strength to rise out of bed.

Non sat around a low wooden table with Min Chon, another nun, and Eh Hav, an aging monk, as they recounted their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. There hadn’t been many occasions to do so since the regime lost power 30 years ago, and the two women began to weep into their checkered shawls. “I still feel sad about the old days,” Min said.

Like most Cambodians, the three spent the Khmer Rouge years working long hours in the fields while subsisting on little food—in their case, one bowl of water porridge with cassava leaves per day. Starvation, disease, and executions were widespread in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when the regime engineered the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people, almost a quarter of the population, in the name of a radical Communist agenda that rejected markets, religion, and cities.

In the time that has passed since Vietnam invaded in 1979 and ended Khmer Rouge rule, not a single member of the movement has been punished. That will soon change. In 2003, after years of negotiations, the United Nations and the Cambodian government established a war-crimes tribunal that is expected to begin hearing cases early next year. Known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCC), the court includes Cambodian and foreign judges and will prosecute defendants under both domestic and international law. In July, the court issued its first indictment, for Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), who ran the notorious S-21 prison. The investigating judges are also considering indictments against four other possible defendants, whose names have not yet been released.

The hope is that the tribunal will bring a sense of finality to the Khmer Rouge period. Cambodians have waited 30 years for justice, much longer than the victims of atrocities in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Consequently, they are living in a society where psychological problems are rife, official impunity is pervasive and endemic, and—perhaps most shocking—an entire generation of young people is growing up doubting the existence of the Khmer Rouge. If the court is to stand any chance of addressing these issues, however, it will have to overcome some major obstacles. With only around $20 million a year at its disposal, the ECCC’s budget is the lowest of any similar tribunal in history. (A court in Sierra Leone, previously the world’s most poorly funded, had an annual budget of $40 million, and the International Criminal Court at The Hague operates on $100 million yearly.) In addition, the former leaders expected to be indicted are aging and in danger of dying, while an awkward “super-majority” structure that divides power between the Cambodian and foreign judges has rendered the court opaque to average observers.

Yet most Cambodians’ concerns are more fundamental. They fear that the worst perpetrators won’t be punished, that only a small part of the whole story will be told, and that the government will interfere with the outcome. I spent several weeks last November listening to dozens of farmers and villagers throughout the country’s impoverished rural provinces. Many feel disconnected from a process ostensibly being conducted in their name. And while almost all welcome the idea of the court, they have doubts about what it will be able to achieve. They see the court’s mandate, which limits prosecutions to a handful of top leaders, as too narrow, and are wary of meddling by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who, among other things, is accused of orchestrating a rules dispute that nearly derailed the court this year. Indeed, the more time I spent in the country, the more I wondered whether the court in its present form will be able to provide what Cambodians say they need: a full public reckoning with their Khmer Rouge nightmare.

Non, Min, and Eh worry about a lot of things, but they are most concerned about perpetrators escaping punishment. Boset Commune, where their temple is located, was treated especially harshly during the Khmer Rouge years. It is situated in Cambodia’s southwest, the region that zone commander Ta Mok, nicknamed “The Butcher,” ruled with notorious brutality. Non, Min, and Eh are still angry at Ta, who faced likely indictment before dying of natural causes last year, but they do not blame him solely for the suffering their community endured.

“Ta Mok never directly killed anyone himself. The local cadres actually carried out these killings,” Eh said. He still remembers the names and faces of Boset Commune’s leaders, but they have long since relocated to other parts of the country. “Some of them are dead, and maybe others were granted amnesty or given deals by the government,” he said.

Anger like Eh’s is common among survivors. For them, local cadres were the public face of a paranoid central government that concealed its identity from the people. But local authorities were more than just tools of the central government. According to official Khmer Rouge documents, they had significant autonomy within the regime’s hierarchy to carry out atrocities as they saw fit. The experiences of survivors, many of whom lived in several parts of the country as a result of forced relocation, reflect this. Conditions varied widely among regions, depending on who was in charge locally. A humane cadre could make a village relatively bearable; a cruel one could render it hellish.

Regardless, the court will not prosecute these men. Nor are many of them likely to testify. According to rules agreed to by the United Nations and the Cambodian government, indictments will be limited to senior leaders and “those most responsible for serious crimes.” In practical terms, this will mean five to 10 cases, according to court officials. Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former midlevel Khmer Rouge commander who defected to Vietnam, insisted on these limits throughout negotiations with the United Nations. Likely candidates for prosecution include Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two, and former foreign minister Ieng Sary, both of whom live freely in Cambodia. Pol Pot, who died in 1998, will not be tried posthumously.

Yet information exists on many people who were not top leaders. Much of it can be found at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a nongovernmental organization with a large archive of Khmer Rouge–related material. The Documentation Center has compiled dossiers on thousands of former regime members at all levels—including cadres and soldiers—through interviews and field research, but “it’s up to the prosecutors to determine if this is to become part of the evidence or whether these people should be on trial,” said Youk Chhang, the center’s director. Many of them have gone into hiding out of shame or fear of retribution. “That doesn’t hide their original identity. They can be found,” he said.

I wanted to do just that. Armed with the names and locations of several former cadres, I set out to track them down. I wanted to ask them if they supported the tribunal. If so, who should be prosecuted? And how did they feel about their own Khmer Rouge pasts?

In search of a man named Sang Soeun, I traveled to Battambang Province, along the Thai border. I arrived at Ek Phnom Temple, the location given as his address, at midmorning. Monks and nuns bustled about the temple grounds as loudspeakers blared music in celebration of Bon Om Tuk, a three-day holiday marking the end of the rainy season.

I spent half an hour asking around for Sang, but no one had heard of him. I was about to give up when a man with piercing eyes walked up to me in short, forceful strides. He wore his robe tucked below his right shoulder, exposing taut muscles and a small tattoo of an X below his collarbone. The other monks looked ethereal next to him. I knew it was Sang.

A teenage monk introduced us, and we walked across the dusty grass of the temple grounds to his room. My interpreter and I sat on the floor as Sang, placid except for a vein that bulged above his right eye when he spoke, held court on a raised bamboo platform. He became a monk two years ago, he explained, to do good deeds and “work for the future.” Like all monks, he led a spartan life funded by small donations. He hadn’t joined the temple until he was in his 50s, however, having spent his early adulthood, the time of life when most Cambodian men don the saffron robe of Theravada Buddhism for at least a few months, outfitted in the black garb of the Khmer Rouge.

A poor farmer, he joined the revolution because he felt “bitter toward the oppressive class.” He was quickly reassigned from Battambang Province to the Ministry of Commerce in Phnom Penh, where he worked in a cotton distribution center. It was 1976 and the city was a ghost town, its residents relocated at gunpoint to outlying labor camps. He was unaware of the suffering occurring at the time, he said, because he and his coworkers were cut off from any contact with the countryside. He believed he would be executed had he tried to desert. When the regime fell, he left Phnom Penh and worked as a spy for the Vietnamese occupation.

The tribunal was a good idea, he said, because “the Khmer Rouge was a dictatorship that made the people suffer.” The top leaders should face trial first, he said, but then prosecutors should work their way down the chain of command to the lower levels. But wouldn’t that expose him to prosecution? “I was just following orders from the big boss,” he said. “I was a victim.”

Later, Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center told me that former cadres commonly portray themselves this way. Public expression of remorse is rare in Cambodia. Further complicating matters, the line between perpetrator and victim is blurry. Many cadres lost family members and experienced immense suffering themselves, and not all of them joined the movement out of conviction. One I spoke to said he did so to avoid starvation; another was conscripted into the army under threat of execution.

Some Cambodians even feel sympathy toward their former tormentors. Suffering was so ubiquitous that almost all cadres can—and indeed do—claim to be victims. What’s left are millions of victims and no perpetrators. “We’ve interviewed over 4,000 former Khmer Rouge, and only one confessed to killing,” Chhang told me. “Can you imagine?”

And so the horrors of the past lie just beneath the surface of everyday life, where they’ve lurked, waiting to be exhumed and confronted, for decades. In rural Battambang Province, my interpreter, Soeum, and I happened upon a field he remembered from his youth during Khmer Rouge rule. Back then, he said, the field contained orange trees that bore fruit of renowned sweetness. The oranges tasted so good because the soil was enriched by the remains of victims in a mass grave. Another time, we cut through an expansive rice paddy on what seemed to be an elevated path but was actually an irrigation dam built by a mobile work unit, one of numerous slave-labor crews that formed the backbone of the Khmer Rouge economy. When we passed a wooden shack with children playing in the dirt yard, Soeum said without warning and with no apparent sadness that his mother had died there. “Someday I will come back and find her bones and make an offering,” he said, but his work as a journalist and translator in Phnom Penh has kept him too busy. Besides, he told me, victimhood isn’t celebrated in Cambodia like it is in the West. Ninety-five percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, and in that religion’s moral universe there are no innocent victims, only karmic justice. To declare oneself a victim is to implicitly admit to sins from a past life.

Soeum’s mother died of disease, which, together with starvation and overwork, likely killed more people than executions. Survivors are much more emotional when talking about the privations of the era than the violence. Without prompting, many offered me detailed accounts of their daily meals—mostly some variation of water porridge once a day—with unconcealed outrage.

“When it comes to lack of food and hunger and forced labor, it’s very personal,” Youk Chhang said. “People can talk about torture very openly and bravely, and they feel empowered now and can condemn these crimes. But when it comes to food, people still feel that they are victims.” According to Chhang, the Documentation Center has thousands of documents related to Khmer Rouge economic policies, which are alleged to have included exporting rice to China in exchange for arms during famine. Prosecutors will ultimately decide whether to prosecute such actions as crimes, said Peter Foster, a court representative, “but I would imagine starvation would be part of the testimony.”

In reality, no one knows what prosecutors will do. But a prominent legal study, Seven Candidates for Prosecution, by Stephen Heder and Brian D. Tittemore, builds hypothetical cases based on firsthand research against seven leaders responsible for formulating Khmer Rouge policy. (The death of one of the leaders, Ta Mok, came after the book was published in 2001.) Much of the evidence Heder and Tittemore present comes from the archives of the central leadership and relates to intraparty purges the regime carried out as it began to crumble. Many of the victims of these purges were tortured at the S-21 prison and executed at the Cheung Ek killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. But what happened at S-21, while indeed horrific, was an aberration. The prison’s 14,000 victims were mostly party officials (and their family members) whom the Khmer Rouge accused of spying or sabotage. The vast majority of the Khmer Rouge’s 1.7 million victims did not pass through S-21. They were executed on the whim of local cadres or succumbed in the countryside. Consequently, there is little information in the archives explaining how or why they died. Only survivors and cadres know what really happened, but few of them are likely to be involved in the court—if they are allowed to witness the proceedings as spectators at all. As with the trial of Saddam Hussein, prosecutors can be expected to present narrow cases designed to win a handful of convictions at the expense of establishing a comprehensive historical record of the period. That the court’s first indictment was for Duch, the man in charge of S-21, does little to dispel this notion.

Heather Ryan, who monitors the court for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said these issues have provoked a discussion in Cambodia’s human rights community. “The question is, does Cambodia also need other ways of dealing with lower-level cadres? There are truth commissions and domestic prosecutions,” she said. In the former Yugoslavia, domestic courts handled cases not taken by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, while truth commissions have been used in places like South Africa and East Timor. In Cambodia, however, such forums would go beyond the ECCC’s mandate. When the court’s three-year term expires and the international community goes home, the onus will fall squarely on the Cambodian government. “These things can only be successful if you have the political will, and I don’t know if the government does or not,” Ryan said.

It remains to be seen whether the government has the will to preserve the ECCC’s independence, much less implement any post-tribunal activities. Prime Minister Hun Sen is widely believed to have had the final say on the selection of the court’s Cambodian judges, who must return to their domestic posts—and the realities of one-party rule—when the tribunal is over. “This is a post-conflict country, and everything is political,” Chhang said.

Rampant politicization is evident in the countryside, where 80 percent of the population lives. Two figures dominate: Hun Sen, who heads the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party. They are a study in contrasts. Hun Sen shrewdly rose to prominence in the 1980s in the Vietnamese-administered occupation government, which gradually defused a decades-long Khmer Rouge insurgency by offering amnesties to guerrilla leaders and their militias. He solidified his reputation as a strongman in 1997, when he deposed his co–prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a bloody coup. Sam Rainsy, meanwhile, is an erudite former accountant who studied in France and appeals to the country’s educated elite. He is a frequent critic of the government, which has led to trouble on several occasions. He narrowly survived a grenade attack that killed 16 of his supporters in 1997, and in late 2005 he was forced into temporary exile in France after being convicted in a Cambodian court of defaming Hun Sen.

In this zero-sum game of domestic politics, villages display their allegiance, or captivity, to either party with prominent signs alongside the road. Often, the people I approached in villages loyal to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party wouldn’t talk to me for fear of retribution from the local authorities, while those in Sam Rainsy Party villages tended to be more open and critical of the government and the court. Once, while speaking to an opinionated Rainsy supporter who was unlucky to live in a People’s Party village, a gleaming SUV slowly cased the house. The man I was interviewing, who had declined to give his name, suddenly became quiet. “It is unsafe to talk too much about these things,” he said. “We are still living in fear of the local authorities.” My interpreter said it would be a good time for us to leave.

As this political drama plays out, the past continues to haunt Cambodian society. Psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder are common. “Spend one morning at the Russian Hospital in Phnom Penh,” said court representative Reach Sam-bath. “Every morning at least 400 people line up to seek psychological help. This is a very serious thing that Cambodians have to deal with.” Despite these scars, a generation is growing up doubting the existence of the Khmer Rouge. Official textbooks barely mention the period, and survivors have difficulty telling their children and grandchildren about it.

In Kandal Province, about an hour and a half outside of Phnom Penh, I talked with members of a family gathered on the dirt floor beneath their stilt house. As I discussed the court with the adults, several children inched forward to listen. When I asked the children what they thought about the tribunal, they were reluctant to talk. I asked their grandfather, Chhay Hay, a slightly built 64-year-old with graying sideburns and a quick smile, if he had told them about his experiences. He frowned. “My grandchildren refuse to believe that something so horrific happened. They wonder, ‘If it really happened, then how are you still alive?’” he said.

The story of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 still waits to be told. As time goes by, and the past slips further from collective memory, the opportunities to do so dwindle. Court officials hope the ECCC will correct this, but Cambodians are wary. After so many years of waiting, they are eager for their tormentors to face justice. But will the tribunal go far enough? “Finding the truth and punishing those responsible are equally important,” said So Phen Khun, a 62-year-old former mechanic for the regime. “If the truth is established, then there will be justice. You can’t have one without the other.”

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