In the wake of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Japan last week, we must consider the price of justice. The topics of his talks with Japanese leaders included a request for financial support for an international tribunal to try surviving members of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Japan should provide those funds. But it should also continue demanding that the tribunal provide a full accounting — real justice — for the victims of that savage government. A show court that provides anything less will only compound the indignities, and the injustices, the people of Cambodia have already endured.
It has been three decades since the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. The world watched when the fighters clad in black pajamas, many of them adolescents, occupied the nation’s capital in 1975. From Phnom Penh the movement’s leadership announced that they would rebuild their society; they declared “year zero” and ordered Cambodians out of “polluted” cities and into the countryside. Any sign of the bourgeoisie was fiercely exterminated: The mere wearing of glasses was enough to warrant execution.
After only four years in power, the Khmer Rouge managed to kill some 2 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the population. It created the famous “killing fields” that are today synonymous with torture and murder. Its rule was sufficiently brutal to provoke a Vietnamese invasion in 1979. That unleashed 13 years of civil war that ended when a peace deal was brokered in 1991 and U.N.-sponsored elections were held in 1993.
The Khmer Rouge resisted the peace agreement, refused to disarm and threatened to disrupt the elections. The Cambodian people were not intimidated and turned out in droves to vote. Marginalized, the Khmer Rouge made noise, but was effectively spent as a political force. Gradually, its leaders defected to the government in Phnom Penh, usually in return for amnesty and the right to keep some ill-gotten gains. The top leadership, including former head Pol Pot, remained in the jungle, unrepentant to the end. In the 30 years since the Khmer Rouge took power, no key individuals have been held accountable for the atrocities committed.
There are a number of reasons for the failure to seek justice in Cambodia. On a mundane level, there is the lack of funds to support the tribunals. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge was successful at eliminating many of Cambodia’s lawyers and judges. The country does not have the legal infrastructure to hold a legitimate trial.
The international community has offered to help, but that raises issues of its own. Like any other country, Cambodia is sensitive to infringements of national honor and does not want to cede jurisdiction or sovereignty to a foreign tribunal. That reluctance is compounded by domestic political concerns: Mr. Hun Sen has made a number of deals with former Khmer Rouge members and he is not eager to have their history and those arrangements reviewed. The prime minister himself is a former member of the Khmer Rouge who left the movement when offered an opportunity to join the side of the invading Vietnamese.
Other key players, such as the United States and China, are equally reluctant to see a full airing of history. While the U.S. in particular harbors no great affection for Mr. Hun Sen, Washington and Beijing both provided support for the Khmer Rouge when Vietnam invaded and they would rather wish that bit of history be forgotten. As veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, they have considerable say over the shape and mandate of any tribunal.
Given these formidable obstacles, the agreement to create a court is impressive. It must not founder because the price tag is too large. It is estimated that the court will cost about $56.3 million, of which foreign governments will pay $43 million and the Cambodian government the remaining $13.3 million. Phnom Penh says it can only pay $1.5 million, however, and would like Tokyo to help out.
Japan, Cambodia’s largest aid donor, has already pledged $21.5 million to support the court. Japan has played a key role throughout Cambodia’s “return to normalcy” in the 1990s, providing financial support and key personnel to administer the peace agreement. Still, if Cambodia cannot raise the additional funds itself, Tokyo should help out.
Justice should not be left to the accountants. The international community should send the message that criminals will be held accountable for the actions. The people of Cambodia have made their preferences clear. They risked their lives when they dismissed the Khmer Rouge threat and voted in 1993. Their bravery is a lesson to us all.
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