Cambodia: Is Justice Possible After Genocide?

In Cambodia I often heard that the particularity of the Cambodian genocide is the fact that “they killed their own people”. They mean by it that Khmer Rouge killed their ethnic kin, other Khmer.

Many Cambodians born after the short but violent period of the Khmer Rouge, cannot believe the horror stories of the previous generation. “My parents tell me their stories, but I did not believe them,” said Uon Silot, a fiction writer and farmer, and added: “They told me – we tell you so that the same does not happen to you.”

How difficult it should be for those parents to tell their traumatic stories. And how painful it is after narrating them to be faced with disbelief? The idea of the impossibility to pass the story of mass violence even to one’s own children poses existential questions. Are we as human civilization capable of learning “lessons” of genocide? And therefore, can we immune the next generation from human violence and self-destruction? 

“Genocide has become the identity of Cambodia,” told me Youk Chhang, director of Documentation Centre of Cambodia. “Everyone in this country has been affected by Genocide. There is no way to escape it. All the kids of this country are born either from victims or perpetrators” of the genocide, he concludes.

In Cambodia I often heard that the particularity of the Cambodian genocide is the fact that “they killed their own people”. They mean by it that Khmer Rouge killed their ethnic kin, other Khmer. Moreover, both the victims and the perpetrators often belonged to the same social classes: Khmer Rouge leaders were urban and foreign educated who exterminated the urban intelligentsia; the rank-and-file soldiers were uneducated, peasant children who exterminated other peasants in their hundreds of thousands. After the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had only 7 lawyers and only 43 medical doctors survived. For this reason the mass violence in Cambodia is called auto-genocide, or genocide of the self. But, I wonder, is there any genocide that is not self-mutilation, and destruction of one’s own society? 

Cambodia has another surprising lesson; what happened after genocide, and how the international community – with the exception of Vietnam and the Soviet Union – supported, financed and armed the Khmer Rouge. The US, China and Thailand, for over a decade after the Vietnamese forces chased away the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh and most of Cambodia, kept supporting them politically and financially. It was the Cold War and Cambodia was dominated by Vietnam, a Soviet-ally. Therefore, both the Atlantic alliance but also China, in order to oppose the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance, kept sending millions of dollars of military aid to Pol Pot and his criminal gangs. In January 1979, Khmer Rouge forces had collapsed in a matter of two weeks in front of the Vietnamese assault. Yet, they were regrouped and continued to fight because of the important international aid. US-China also demanded the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops, which could have opened the way for the return of the Khmer Rouge to take power in Cambodia. In the 1980’s, China alone provided the equivalent in $1billon in cash and weapons to the Khmer Rouge, including sending 20 Chinese tanks in 1990. US President Jimmy Carter, and his advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, found it appropriate to use the threat of the Khmer Rouge over Cambodia, in order to reduce Vietnamese influence over South East Asia. 

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was seen in luxury hotels in Thailand, only few years after his troops had executed thousands for simply having “stolen” some rice or couple of mangos to satisfy their hunger while working on the rice fields. Thailand also provided logistic bases for the Khmer Rouge until the second-half of the 1990’s. This international aid enabled the Khmer Rouge to keep an army numbering between 20’000 and 40’000 and continue the war against Cambodia. 

Those who had killed a quarter of the entire population of Cambodia, even after losing power and practically no control over Cambodian territories, were nevertheless given the privilege to keep Cambodian representation at the United Nations. Pol Pots henchmen were awarded the right to keep Cambodia’s UN seat eleven more years after they lost control over Phnom Penh. International Community could easily bring to justice the criminals responsible for the genocide of the Cambodian people, but denied it out of geopolitical games. Cambodians had been simply “liberated by the wrong power” write Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis authors of Getting Away with Genocide? 

Not only this Western-Chinese alliance deny justice for a decade-and-a-half, but also empowered the genocide perpetrators to continue their war for another two-decades, killing thousands of people, and continuously threatening their victims of their possible return to power. 

Vietnamese forces finally withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, at the height of Soviet perestroika and detente between Moscow and Washington. International aid to Khmer Rouge stopped only in 1990. The Cold War was ended, and they were no more needed. Yet, Khmer Rouge remnants continued to be active until 1997-98, financing their operations through illegal trade of gem and timber, and through smuggling operations. 

The fact that Khmer Rouge continued their military operations was a major impediment to bring the genocide perpetrators to justice. In fact, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is in power in Phnom Penh since 1985, gave amnesty to many Khmer Rouge leaders in order to end their rebellion and to put an end to the war. Peace instead of justice, the classical post-conflict dilemma. 

Khmer Rouge Denial

Even after the death of between 1.3 and 1.7 million people, it would be hard today to find a former Khmer Rouge leader who assumes responsibility. All of them deny any responsibility, and wrongdoing. “Brother Number 2” Nuon Chea denied responsibility by saying Pol Pot was the one taking decisions: “Pol Pot was the party secretary. I was just the deputy secretary and sometimes I had no influence.”  Pol Pot himself had denied the crimes, is on the record in an interview with the BBC saying that S-21 is a Vietnamese propaganda plot. 

Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge leaders were brought in front of an international court only a quarter of a century after they were chased out of power in 1979, the agreement reached between Cambodia’s government and the UN only in 2003.

Importance and impossibility of justice

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in charge to bring to justice those responsible of genocide is composed of Cambodian judges operating under national legislation, and international ones providing support through the UN. Yet, from the beginning the two sides had problem of confidence: each side accused the other of “political motifs”. Cambodians are suspicious of the UN for the role it played in the 1980’s. International community is suspicious of the Cambodian government, as the current Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior figures had once been members of the Khmer Rouge, before defecting to Vietnam. The slow movement of the tribunal posed additional challenges. The total number of charged and accused people that were brought in front of the ECCC is only nine. Up to today, three former Khmer Rouge leaders have been sentenced to life in prison, including: Nuon Chea former “brother number 2”, Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge Chief of State, and Kaing Guek Eav also known as “Duch”, the former head of the notorious S-21 prison. Two died while their trials were going on, while investigating judges considered Im Chaem to be not among those most responsible, and case closed. The verdict of three remaining cases (Meas Muth, Ao An and Yim Tith) is expected for later this year. 

The result of years of legal battles to address the open wounds of the Cambodian genocide is meagre, to say the least. Justice, in any traditional sense, that of equal punishment for a crime committed, is impossible after genocide. It is impossible to bring in front of a judicial system millions of crimes committed in such a time: millions killed, others who lost their property, deportations, rape, torture. For every single loss, pain and frustration, a traditional justice system is powerless to articulate an adequate answer, compensation. At best, a tribunal can provide symbolic justice, by judging a handful of those who are responsible for the mass crimes committed. This symbolic justice will not satisfy the victims – that is why any society that survived genocide remains highly politicized and mobilized – but at least it will inform society that mass killing, deportations, confiscation of property and rape is something to be condemned. How many societies today have not achieved even this symbolic justice, and as a result cannot distinguish between good and evil? 



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Vicken Cheterian