Cambodia's Recovery and the Trials of Khmer Rouge Leaders
Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families and émigré communities. Although the current government teaches about Khmer Rouge atrocities in the schools, Cambodia has a very young population and by 2005 three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge years. The younger generations would only know the Khmer Rouge through word-of-mouth from parents and elders.
This photograph of one of the Khmer Rouge victims of the Killing Fields is one of the many photos displayed in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh.
In 1997, Cambodia established a Khmer Rouge Trial Task Force to create a legal and judicial structure to try the remaining leaders for war crimes and other crimes against humanity, but progress was slow, mainly because the Cambodian government of Hun Sen, despite its origins in the Vietnamese-backed regime of the 1980s, was reluctant to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to trial. Funding shortfalls plagued the operation, and the government said that due to the poor economy and other financial commitments, it could only afford limited funding for the tribunal. Several countries, including India and Japan, came forward with extra funds, but by January, 2006, the full balance of funding was not yet in place.
Nonetheless, the task force began its work and took possession of two buildings on the grounds of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) High Command headquarters in Kandal province just on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The tribunal task force expects to spend the rest of 2006 training the judges and other tribunal members before the actual trial is to take place. In March 2006 the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, nominated seven judges for a trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders.
In May 2006 Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana announced that Cambodia's highest judicial body approved 30 Cambodian and U.N. judges to preside over the long-awaited genocide tribunal for surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.
The proposed trials of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge are of much interest and of great importance to the people of Cambodia. They are also the object of much discussion and disagreement and political maneuvering. Following the chronology (below)are recent developments and incidents in the final stages of the trial process. Some are strange; some almost unbelievable to the western world. Most indicate what many observers believe, that the present government really doesn't want the trials to proceed and will continually throw obstacles in the way of the accused ever testifying.
The latest addition to these notes will be in red.
A Chronology of Modern Cambodia
- 1954: End of French colonial rule in Cambodia
- 1969-1973: U.S. bombs Cambodia
- 17 April 1975: Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge enters Phnom Penh and establishes an extreme form of peasant Communism
- 25 December 1978: Vietnam invades Cambodia
- January, 1979: Pol Pot deposed and
Vietnam establishes puppet government in Cambodia
- 1979-1996: Pol Pot wages guerrilla war against series of Cambodian governments
- 1993: United Nations-sponsored elections lead to new constitution and the re-establishment of the monarchy
- 1997: Cambodia requests UN help to establish tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders
- 1997: A coup establishes Hun Sen as prime minister
- 1998: Pol Pot dies
- 2003: UN and Cambodia sign agreement to set up special courts for Khmer Rouge leaders
- 2006: Cambodia and international community pledge most of money needed for the trials to proceed
|18 April 2006 (From the Cambodia Daily ):
|Through reviled by most as the leader of a regime responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million, Pol Pot is still loved by some who believe that he was a patriot, and who gathered...to pray for his return....
Former Khmer Rouge soldiers and Cambodians from various provinces joined together to hold a ceremony for Pol Pot and monks prayed near his grave. They organized a ceremony for him as they want him to be reborn and to look after villagers here....
Though some of visitors were former followers of Pol Pot's regime, others had been drawn by superstitious belief that the former Khmer Rouge chief brings luck from beyond the grave....
|4 May 2006 (Adapted from the Cambodia Daily ):
This article appeared right before the judges were announced and expressed a hope that good people would be chosen. Note the Cambodian officials' focus on the money being paid to the judges, reflecting the common excuse that many (most?) judges are corrupt because their salaries are so low.
NGOs Call for High Standards in KR Judges
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee has outlined qualities it expects in appointees, and urged council members to make their selections wisely.
Besides holding a university degree in law and having legal training and experience in criminal cases, the Cambodian and international candidates should be able to act independently and be of high moral character....
Candidates should hot have been disqualified repeatedly from cases because of personal interests, the statement said, adding that they should be impartial and possess integrity....
Even if all appointed Cambodian judges give up their political affiliations, their rulings would be met with skepticism due to the judicial system's bleak reputation, [said the executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.]
"Right now, the people do not trust and do not believe any Cambodian judge to be clean. No one trusts Cambodian judges," he said.
Several court officials defended their profession, saying that anyone appointed to the tribunal would be compelled by their boosted salaries to act impartially.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Director Chiv Keng said he doubted judges would predetermine defendants' guilt without listening to both sides. According to the law and also the high salary, they are independent," Chiv Kent said....
Normally, judges follow a code of conduct, a code of law and have a high conscience, so they do not do anything wrong," he maintained.
He added that the presence of international court officials would keep the train fair and the biases of their Cambodian counterparts in check.
The municipal court's Deputy Prosecutor Ngeth Sarath, who said he was also not a nominee, agreed. "They get paid an international salary, so they must be independent...."
8 May 2006:
The Khmer Rouge tribunal process seems to be caught up in the same lack of transparency that plagues the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) government. In February local and foreign journalists were prevented from accompanying KR victims as they visited the killing fields and the tribunal courthouse, one of the first public events organized by the tribunal. A public affairs official later said there was a "miscommunication" and the press was not barred.
Now different tribunal officials are distancing themselves from a Voice of America broadcast which named the judges and prosecutors for the trials. One spokesperson said he was misquoted in an article reporting he confirmed the list, and then he imposed a restriction that The Cambodia Daily newspaper can ask questions of officials only in writing. No other paper was so singled out. The tribunal's Chief of Public Affairs is Helen Jarvis, an Australian who is now a Cambodian citizen and who has been a long-time advisor to the CPP Deputy Prime Minister. Some legal observers have questioned her impartiality given the strictures put on only one newspaper and her close ties to the ruling party.
|9 May 2006 (Adapted from the Cambodia Daily ):
After all the wrangling about whether government officials had or had not confirmed the list of judges for the Khmer Rouge trials, King Norodom Sihamoni approved the official list.
There are 17 Cambodian judges and officials and 13 others from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, Sri Lanka, and the United States.
The Open Society Justice Initiative welcomed this important step but questioned the government's process for selecting Cambodian officials.
King Approves List of Judges for KR Trial
"These appointments give hope that justice will be done in Cambodia," said...the executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.... "However, the opaque nature of the Cambodian government's section process is a cause for concern."
[The] executive director of the legal aid NGO Cambodian Defenders Project said he was concerned that some of the Cambodian judges held law degrees from countries such as Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and the former USSR. "In Soviet bloc countries, legal education is very narrow,"he said. "They don't focus on evidence or the rights of the accused. They do not care. The difficulties of the state are more important than the freedom of the people."
|15 August 2006 (Adapted from the Cambodia Daily (19 July 2006) ):
Last month 12th year students graduated from Cambodia's high schools without ever once hearing about the Khmer Rouge, without a single lesson about the Pol Pot regime which ruled from 1975-1979 and killed up to 2 million people.
The first modern history textbook with information on the Khmer Rouge was introduced in 2002, but immediately after it was printed, it was withdrawn because of squabbling among the political parties about which election victories were noted and which were ignored. The Secretary of State for the Eduction Ministry noted in July that the book is still undergoing revision but did not say why it is requiring such a long time. The Education Minister himself said he was too busy to comment.
That is not surprising since the ruling party has no real interest in publicizing the events and personalities of the Pol Pot era nor in supporting the Khmer Rouge tribunals. The official government spokesman, always sure to give the party line, shifted the blame to the international community who, he said, had demanded that the word "genocide" be removed from the school books. I doubt the international community wished to have all references to the Khmer Rouge expunged so it is probably fair to say others, within the Cambodian government, bear the responsbility for not teaching young people today about an important chapter in their country's history.