Failing justice: Why young Cambodians need to know about the Khmer Rouge

Photo: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/CC BY 2.0

Hun Sen’s government plagues the trials of surviving Khmer Rouge members and few are brought to justice for their horrific crimes.

By Oliver Ward, edited by Francesca Ross

A great injustice just occurred in Cambodia. UN-sanctioned judges have dismissed all charges against former Khmer Rouge Cadre, Im Chaem. The lady defendant was suspected of running a forced labour camp in the 1970s. Her charges included crimes against humanity, murder, and enslavement but the judges decided she did not play a senior enough role to be charged.

She was not present when the trial took place. The Cambodian police force would not arrest her. The court’s progress is constantly held back by government opposition to the cases and other court proceedings brought against former Khmer Rouge cadres. Prime Minister Hun Sen, and many other members of the government are former members of the militia.

The trials are important for Cambodia to move forward

Over 1.7 million people were killed under the brutal regime and this has left deep scars on families across the country. There is a genuine public appetite for justice. David P. Chandler, author of A History of Cambodia and Voices from S-21, said that he does not think “the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge should be allowed to die in peace”.

Nuon Chea was found guilty of crimes against humanity in 2014 following a trial where the public galleries were full of the Cambodian public. They wanted to hear the proceedings and better understand the period. Many individuals witnessed crimes under the Khmer Rouge but had no idea of what was occurring on a national scale.

Her trial represented an opportunity for the public to hear the evidence and document these terrible acts when the information is not readily accessible otherwise. The public celebrated in the gallery when Pol Pot’s “Brother number 2,” was found guilty.

People like Bou Meng, who survived the Toul Sleng S-21 extermination camp, expressed approval, simply smiling and saying “good, good”.  He has been left deaf in one ear from receiving electric shocks to his head during his time in the camp.

He had to use a small ammunition box as a toilet and “if any waste spilled out we had to lick it from the floor,” he said. Putting members of the Khmer Rouge on trial represents an admission of this terrible past and is necessary to give survivors like Bou the justice they deserve.

The ECCC has its work hampered and obstructed by government.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is the tribunal established to prosecute remaining members of the former regime for their crimes against humanity. It was established in 2001.

By 2016 only three trials had come before the court, at a cost of over US$ 260 million, as Prime Minister Hun Sen hampered and obstructed their investigations. For example, when the commander of the S-21 extermination camp, Kang Kek Iew, went on trial in 2012, the country’s leader made his own personal lawyer available to the defendant’s legal team.

Hun Sen is himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier. He joined at 17 years old and rose through the ranks to Battalion Commander in the province of Democratic Kampuchea. This puts him in an area known for the arbitrary imprisonment and forced labour of the Muslim Cham population in 1975. His battalion were undoubtedly implicit in the crimes although there is little written evidence of his personal involvement.

Hun Sen undermines the principles of judicial independence.

The acquittal of Im Chaem is the latest setback in bringing the upper echelons of the Khmer Rouge to justice. Ven Ra is a former Khmer Rouge soldier living in Pailin. She said that the tribunals only “prosecute the people who lost the internal war in the Khmer Rouge” Hun Senafter the leadership split into two warring factions in the 1990’s.

The winners of the feud are those currently in government.” The leadership of the CCP are mostly former Khmer Rouge, what about them?” she asks.

Many Khmer Rouge killers live openly in retirement.

Many members of Pol Pot’s regime are able to live relatively openly in retirement due to the ECCC’s inability to bring criminals to trial. Commanders like Ta An, a senior figure who allegedly sent 150,000 people to death during the purges, are living comfortable lives in the jungle villages around Pailin. This lack of accountability has led many to question the value of the ECCC trials and wonder if the money could be spent better.

Cambodia needs to deal with its past to preserve its future.

Im Chaem joins the growing list of former Khmer Rouge that have been acquitted, had their cases dismissed on medical grounds or died before they could go on trial. But that does not mean the trials have had no impact. They have ensured the documentation of the horrors of the past.

The history of the Khmer Rouge was not taught in schools until 2009. This means the court proceedings are some of the first opportunities for the young population of Cambodia to better understand the history of their country.

Students like 17 year-old Rhoul know the Khmer Rouge” made Cambodia suffer and have made families lose their family members. The kids could not go to school and the country lost millions of people”. But he adds that “Prime Minister Hun Sen was not a part of the Khmer Rouge.” Adding, “He was the one who liberated the country.”

There is still some way to go to seeing young people understand their country’s dark past. There are pending cases against Meas Muth, Ao An and Yim Tith but given the verdict reached in the case of Im Chaem, it would be too optimistic to assume convictions will be secured. But as long as the trials continue, so does the education of the next generation of Cambodians. This is vital to ensure the future of the country will look brighter than the past.