Will the final Khmer Rouge ruling close a dark chapter?

Will the final Khmer Rouge ruling close a dark chapter?

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan is seen inside the courtroom of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on the outskirts of Cambodia as he awaits a verdict on Nov 16, 2018. (Reuters photo)
Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan is seen inside the courtroom of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on the outskirts of Cambodia as he awaits a verdict on Nov 16, 2018. (Reuters photo)

Last week, a UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia upheld a genocide conviction for 91-year-old Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Rejecting Samphan's appeal was the tribunal's last ruling after 16 years of attempting to bring those responsible for the regime to justice.

Under the Khmer Rouge, more than 1.7 million Cambodians, roughly a quarter of the population, were killed by execution, torture and starvation between 1975 and 1979 before the regime was overthrown.

After years of negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government, the Khmer Rouge tribunal, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), was established in 2006.

In 2010, Kaing Guek Eav, the head of the notorious S-21 prison and known by the nom de guerre "Comrade Duch," was sentenced to 35 years in prison.  He died in 2020.

In 2018, Samphan and another high-ranking official Nuon Chea, who died in 2019 , were sentenced to life in imprisonment after being found guilty of crimes against humanity, and of the genocide of ethnic minority Vietnamese and Muslim Chams.

Mixed perceptions of tribunal's success

Over the years, the Khmer Rouge tribunal drew criticism for being overly politicized and narrowly focused on a limited number of former regime members.

For example, members of the current government, including Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, were once Khmer Rouge cadres before defecting.

"It has had limited success with alleged political interference …Not all the truth was revealed," said Noan Sereiboth, a 32-year-old political blogger.

More than $330 million was spent in total on the tribunal. In the end, it convicted just three people. Several Khmer Rouge leaders died either before the tribunal began — including Pol Pot, the regime's notorious premier — or while standing trial. 

"A judgement of success or failure depends on expectation," Alex Hinton, director of the External Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, and Unesco chair on Genocide Prevention at Rutgers University, told DW.

"I had modest expectations for the court that were met. So, despite the cost and controversies, I regard the Khmer Rouge tribunal as a limited success," added Hinton, who testified before the court.

The shadow of the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge era still effects Cambodian politics today. The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has been in power since 1979, when its founders, including many defectors, were helped by Vietnamese troops to overthrow the regime.

In 2017, the government forcibly dissolved the only viable opposition party on spurious charges of plotting a US-backed coup and, the government insinuated, threatening Cambodia's hard-won peace.

Hun Sen has long justified his government's autocratic ways by claiming that only his party can save Cambodia from drifting back into the anarchy of the Khmer Rouge era.

"In order to make sure this regime never returns, we must participate in maintaining peace," he said this year on May 20, the National Day of Remembrance.

On the other side of the political spectrum,Cambodia's political opposition movement sees the country as being in the grip of an authoritarian CPP government since 1979.

"When the ECCC was established, many Cambodians hoped it would bring truth and justice for the victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, and pave the way for reconciliation," said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a local NGO. 

"The handful of convictions secured by the tribunal, despite the breadth of human suffering witnessed during the genocide, make it hard to claim that justice has truly been achieved," she told DW.

Survivors weigh in

Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge's killing fields, told DW that "success is an illusion when you start to compare a piece of paper or numbers to the loss of million lives during the genocide."

He added that many survivors see the tribunal as a "meaningful effort to prosecute the crimes of genocide that took place on Cambodia's soil where survivors can fully participate and making sense out of the process by themselves."

According to a recent DC-Cam survey of thousands of Khmer Rouge survivors, a majority (52%) said they had not directly followed the events at the tribunal. However, 81% of survivors said they thought the tribunal was doing good, whereas just 8% said the opposite. An overwhelming majority said its contribution to society brought justice.

Craig Etcheson, an expert on the Khmer Rouge tribunals told DW that the entire exercise was worth the effort because it was "the last chance to attain some small measure of justice for the Cambodian genocide."

How does Cambodia move forward?

Many survivors say the task for Cambodia's younger generation is to better understand the country's past by moving away from the highly politicized and still raw interpretations of the Khmer Rouge period.

More than three-quarters of Cambodia's current population is under 30, yet only in the past decade or so have schools begun to teach about Khmer Rouge period, helped in part by textbooks produced by DC-Cam.

According to the DC-Cam survey, Cambodians agree better education in needed to help young people understand the history of the Khmer Rouge.

Survivor Chhang said more research needs to be conducted on exactly what happened during the Khmer Rouge era, focusing on personal stories and a nuanced understanding of events.

Not enough research has gone into the lives of the perpetrators, he said. More history needs to be written about how people lived day-to-day. 

Ou Virak, president of Future Forum, a Cambodian think tank, said whether Cambodia can move on with closure from the Khmer Rouge period depends on "the next generation's ability to get answers their parents and grandparents need, and to start conversations openly about what has happened and why."

"This will require more than re-reading history books. It will require a change in the political space, more support for the national reconciliation process by all political actors and our education system," he told DW.

However, Virak said he doesn't see this happening anytime soon, with or without the support of the international community.

"What's sad is the people who have lived through the Khmer Rouge era are now aging and the window of opportunity for a meaningful international reconciliation process is slowly closing."

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