The Khmer Rouge tribunal

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mon, 08/02/2010
Pokpong Lawansiri, London
The Jakarta Post (Indonesia)

The UN-Cambodia hybrid Khmer Rouge Tribunal, known formally as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), delivered its first verdict of the Kaing Guek Eav or “Duch” on July 26.

Duch was the torturer-in-chief of the S-21 prison during the rule of the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were believed to have been killed or died from hard labor and starvation during this period.

The ECCC is also in the process of investigating four senior KR members on the charge of crime against humanity.

They are Nuon Chea (KR Second-in-command after Pol Pot), Ieng Sary (KR Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs), Ieng Thirith (KR Minister of Social Affairs and Education), and Khieu Samphan (KR Head-of-State).

Has the progress of the ECCC, which started its trial in March of 2009 been up to the expectation of the political observers? Here is criticism and concern underlying the ECCC.

First, the ECCC is believed to have been suffering from political interference from Phnom Penh. Early this month, the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) issued a report highlighting the impediment facing the ECCC after the UN prosecutor wanted to extend the investigation to include five more suspects, apart from the existing five that are being investigated by the ECCC.

PM Hun Sen’s response was that: “If the court wants to charge more senior Khmer Rouge cadres, the court must show the reasons to Prime Minister Hun Sen…Hun Sen only protects the peace of the nation.”

The agreement, which established the ECCC that was made between the UN and Cambodia, underlines the responsibility of Phnom Penh to give full assistance to the ECCC.

With the recent decision by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a UN special expert on the ECCC, we shall see whether the issue of political interference will be thoroughly addressed.

Second, the mandate of the ECCC has been much politicized and is limited to trying the atrocities committed during the KR period of April 1975 to January 1979.

In his interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Noam Chomsky, the emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that “the leading US political establishment like Henry Kissinger, a member of the late president Richard Nixon’s administration…should also be held accountable for creating the conditions that paved the way for the rise of the [KR]”.

While acknowledging the mass atrocities committed by the KR regime, we shall never forget the level of atrocities committed during the US secretive bombing of Cambodia from 1968-1973.

The map of US bombing points released by Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) shows that more than half of the country was affected by the indiscriminate bombings.

Professor Ben Kierman, director of the program, puts the casualties figure from the bombing at 150,000 deaths, while Edward Herman, the professor of Wharton School, and Noam Chomsky put the figure at 600,000 using the figure provided by the Finnish Commission of Inquiry.

Based on this, we can never naively claim that US bombing led to the mass executions by the KR or refuted the mass atrocities by the KR regime.

But, to a certain extent, the blanket bombing, which directly led to the destruction of livestock and food planting areas, could definitely play a role in the mass starvations due to the lack of food due to follow during KR’s rules.

Last, what is the implication that the ECCC and the atrocious history of Cambodia will have on the region of Southeast Asia? Can we learn any lesson from Cambodia and prevent such atrocities from happening again?

As the ECCC’s trials are being conducted, very little attention has been given by Southeast Asia governments to learn from this. Beside, the historical understanding of this period of history in Cambodia remains a mystery and are kept out of the school textbooks.

Many scholars argue that ASEAN states do not want to talk about the ECCC so much for fearing that its role in relation to the atrocity could be exposed.

“ASEAN has been largely silent on the issue of the KR” said Dr. Lee Jones, a Southeast Asia expert from the Department of Politics at Queen Mary University of London “[It] also reflects the often-ignored fact that ASEAN also backed the [KR], materially and diplomatically, once they had been overthrown by Vietnam….They sheltered, re-armed and helped rebuild the [KR], and helped them retain Cambodia’s seat at the UN, so they could form a buffer against Vietnam, fueling a decade-long civil war.

Just like China and the US…regional governments would prefer their grisly collaboration with the [KR] to be quietly forgotten rather than exposed to scrutiny.”

With all these issues and concerns in mind, we shall await and see if the ECCC can improve and develop into a tribunal where it will offer to Cambodians the genuine justice that is not based on selectivity and discrimination.

And whether it can shed light on finding truth in the roles of different actors in a conflict, which is still affecting one of the poorest countries in the world to this day.

With the recent decision by Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special expert, we shall see whether the issue of political interference will be thoroughly addressed.

The writer is a World Bank scholar at the Department of Political Science, University College London. Views here are the author’s own.


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