BRUSSELS — Cambodia is currently witnessing the commencement of what is likely to become a grotesque farce. In July, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia will try four Khmer Rouge leaders, as well as the commandant of the infamous S21 Tuol Sleng prison, for crimes committed more than 30 years ago. The trials are expected to cost more than 150 million euro, a sixth of the country’s annual GDP.
The ECCC has already started taking testimony from witnesses. The former leaders on trial will be Pol Pot’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, his wife Ieng Thirith (social affairs minister), Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea and President Khieu Samphan. The other man in the dock is Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch from the notorious S21.
We’ve been here before. Eight months after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the new government tried Pol Pot and Ieng Sary in absentia, sentencing both to death. The trial’s pointed references to a Chinese master plan of genocide, however, injected an unpalatable political flavor that Washington found unacceptable, given the Cold War configurations at the time. Retribution was left in limbo until today.
Cambodia’s tragic history of more than 60 years culminated in the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s reign from 1975-79, when Pol Pot tried to wipe history and society clean in the ultimate revolution. For him, Kim Il Sung and Mao Zedong might have “socialism as a base but they were not clear of the capitalist framework.”
The result was many hundreds of thousands starved, and tens of thousands casually killed by cadres of Angkar (Pol Pot’s decision-making organization) in the countryside. This was matched by the torture and killing of a comparable number of cadres in the purges that swept Angkar as failure, incompetence and lying were read as sabotage.
Pol Pot ordered a series of bloody incursions into Vietnam. The Vietnamese counterattacked, invading in December 1978 alongside former Khmer Rouge soldiers who had fled the purges. Phnom Penh was captured in early January. Instead of welcoming the overthrow of the truly awful by those considered merely undesirable, the United States, China, Thailand and Britain all aligned themselves with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
Clinging to control in the far western fringes of Cambodia, they continued to hold the country’s seat at the United Nations with annual arm-twisting in New York from Washington and Beijing until 1990. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher even sent in the SAS to train, as she put it, the “good” Khmer Rouge. How she distinguished who they were was never entirely clear.
Now almost two generations on, a final accounting is to be enacted. It’s as if the Nuremberg Trial of World War II Nazi leaders were being held in 1975. No one has thought to ask the people of Cambodia what they want.
With no secondary mechanism for low-level offenders, there will inevitably be scapegoating of these five survivors at the top. With the exception of Duch, they are old and ill. It is likely that one or more will die before the trial ends.
The ECCC’s terms of reference exclude from consideration all crimes against humanity outside of the Khmer Rouge period of power in Phnom Penh. So, former U.S. State Secretary Henry Kissinger won’t be on the stand waving his Nobel Peace Prize while defending the illegal and secret U.S. bombing of Cambodia (and Laos) when more tons of high explosives were dropped than during World War II. Nor will other political figures attempt to justify the post-1979 collaboration with this murderous regime.
Asia’s equivalent of Nuremberg was the less gentlemanly and more political International War Crimes Tribunal of the Far East. Here the unspoken issue was whether Japan’s Emperor Hirohito should be indicted. The decision was made to spare him so that he could act as a conservative rallying point against the threat of communism.
The ECCC faced a similar decision. Khieu Samphan was head of state only from 1976, so if he’s to be tried, why not “King-Father” Norodom Sihanouk who preceded him? The process is expected to last until 2012 at least.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, 400 defendants were tried over three years at a total cost of 20 million euro. In Cambodia, it’s working out to be 600 times more expensive per defendant.
One of Ieng Sary’s lawyers is Jacques Verges, famous for defending Gestapo member Klaus Barbie (“Butcher of Lyon”). In a quixotic twist of fate, Verges was the man who signed up his client, along with Pol Pot, to the French Communist Party in the early 1950s. His grandstanding and histrionics will make the trial entertaining if not elucidating.
In a rethreading of the 1979 “trial,” some defense lawyers will argue that Japan’s heavy funding of the costs of the ECCC — 17 million euro so far, compared to 750,000 euro from the European Union — is not unconnected to a desire to see Beijing’s support of Pol Pot put in the dock.
After decades of refusing to properly apologize (from a Chinese perspective) for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people at Nanking in the 1930s, Japan’s neoconservatives could use a Chinese atrocity as a counterweight. The saddest thing about this whole unfolding fiasco is that this might be the best and worst we can hope for.
Member of the European Parliament Glyn Ford has just returned from a visit to Cambodia.
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