Thirty years after Pol Pot’s reign of terror, Cambodia is beginning to come to terms with this dark chapter of its history. In the capital of Phnom Penh, the main perpetrators are under trial at a UN-supported tribunal. An estimated two million people died during the Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979, brutally murdered by their own countrymen, or victims of starvation, overwork and untreated disease.
Efforts to set up the tribunal were haunted for years by wrangling between the Cambodian authorities and the United Nations over funding, responsibility and national sensibilities. In 1997, Cambodia asked the international community for assistance in bringing the Khmer Rouge to trial, but only in 2003 was the formal agreement on establishing a joint tribunal signed by the Kingdom of Cambodia and the United Nations. In July 2006, 17 Cambodian and 12 international judges and prosecutors were sown in for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
Today, five members of Pol Pot’s gang are being held on the tribunal compound: Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s chief ideologist and deputy, Khieu Samphan, former head of state of the so-called “Democratic Kampuchea”, Ieng Sary, ex-foreign minister and his wife Thirith, as well as Kaing Guek Eav (better known as “Duch”), former director of the notorious Tuol Sleng detention and torture centre. Their average age is 76, all are in poor health, but they have grown old peacefully. All maintain they have done nothing wrong.
Much remains yet to be clarified, and some headlines have been negative. It is a disaster in historical, political and moral terms that not only Mao’s China supported the Khmer Rouge. The West still recognised their so-called “Democratic Kampuchea” long after they were driven from power. Today, interaction between the Cambodian and international sides of the tribunal is fraught with difficulties. Uncertain funding and political interference – from even the highest levels – are a further cause for concern.
In one public hearing, Duch’s lawyer argued that the way his client was being detained violated his human rights. The Cambodian spectators burst out laughing – which, in Asia, is a typical gesture of embarrassment. Victims are allowed to submit complaints to the tribunal, and facilitating that is a daunting challenge. The ECCC is breaking new ground in the history of international criminal law by offering victims an opportunity to participate in the proceedings. A further complication arises from the fact that most of the surviving Khmer-Rouge victims have not formally organised as a group. At the ECCC, a “Victims Unit” has been set up in support of them. Its task is to advise those who have lodged either individual or collective complaints, as well as to cooperate with civil society organisations that are acting in support of victims too.
What matters most, of course, is whether the tribunal will help to bring peace and reconciliation to Cambodia – and if so, how? On their own, legal proceedings will not reconcile the victims and perpetrators. The ECCC’s stated objective is to punish “only” the persons with the greatest responsibility for the atrocities. The high-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge, who are still alive, strenuously deny the charges. For the regime’s survivers, the tribunal and renewed public debate are reopening painful wounds.
Descendants, who should be considered traumatised persons of the second and third generation, have begun to ask questions, and dialogue of the generations can indeed foster societal renewal in Cambodia. Information is needed – and this is where the German Development Service (DED) comes in. It’s programme “Civil Peace Service” employs ten experts. In cooperation with Cambodian partners, they are addressing national reconciliation in the context of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Key measures include
– hosting public discussions throughout the country,
– organising group visits to the tribunal,
– providing legal advice,
– psychologically supporting victims and low-ranking perpetrators willing to testify,
– enlightening young people, and
– giving advice on how to deal with the media.
Since the end of the Khmer Rouge’s terror regime in 1979, no serious effort was made to come to grips with Cambodia’s past. The government, with international assistance, has been investing a lot of energy in the country’s economic development; but only little attention has been paid at the national level to reconciling the victims and perpetrators of Khmer Rouge attrocities.
Even today, Cambodia’s schoolchildren are still not taught about the Khmer Rouge regime. Many pupils are confused as to why so many innocent people were killed, and who was responsible for the genocide. They find it hard to believe that Cambodians were capable of cruelly wiping out the lives of their own people, and they do not know what to make of the contradictory accounts by their parents and grandparents. Their reactions range from fascination and curiosity to total denial.
Young people in Cambodia have to rely on personal accounts if they want to learn about the past. Many of the survivors, however, don’t want to be reminded of what happened, and many victims cannot bear to talk about their suffering and feelings. Former perpetrators remain silent, or twist the truth in order to justify their actions. In the confusion of the civil wars before 1975 and after 1979, many people became both perpetrators and victims.
Today’s parents and grandparents grew up in a period marked by violence. Families were torn apart, and mental anguish and physical terror were everywhere. Many survivors are still traumatised. Recent consequences include domestic abuse, youth violence and political violence. However, Buddhism has proven resilient, and its teachings of non-violence and compassion help the people to overcome a legacy of suffering. Professional psychologists, let alone trauma therapists, are very rare in Cambodia, of course.
The tribunal is important, but legal action in itself will not heal the wounds. What matters is how the victims, their supporters and the perpetrators of genocide will live together in the future. It is vital to foster wide-spread dialogue on reconciliation and justice in Cambodia, and thus further develop a democratic culture based on rights such as freedom of speech, assembly and the press, and allowing for broad participation in political decision-making. This challenge is a long-term one, and it will pay to rise to it.