Genocidal Leaders on Trial Forty Years Later
February 28, 2015
The Cambodian genocide, a tragic event in Cambodian history that claimed the lives of about 2 million citizens (around one-fourth of the total population), occurred forty years ago under the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot, notorious dictator and head of the regime, envisioned an agrarian socialist society and targeted intellectuals, urban citizens, doctors, lawyers, religious leaders, and anyone who challenged the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died in 1998 under house arrest and never faced an international tribunal for his actions. Until August of last year, only one Khmer Rouge leader, a prison guard, had been sentenced for crimes related to the genocide. Recent developments in the trial of two major Khmer Rouge leaders have shed light on some of the gruesome tactics used against victims.
Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, two of the most senior surviving leaders of the regime, currently face life sentences from a UN-backed court in Phnom Penh. The two are denying involvement in the genocide and appealing their convictions. The case has brought forth several witnesses who have testified against the two individuals and who have described general Khmer Rouge execution and torture techniques. A final decision has not been made in the existing case against Chea and Samphan but the trial is set to resume again on March 3.
Despite the devastating impact that the genocide had on Cambodian society, some current politicians do not want to continue prosecuting former Khmer Rouge leaders. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that expanding the scope of the investigation to include more trials against former Khmer Rouge leaders could possibly start a new conflict in the country: ‘“If war reoccurs, how many people would die?” he asked, adding that “the value of peace, the value of lives” must be considered above seeking justice. (Dunya News)’ This introduces a new question to be considered by the country’s judiciary – is forty years long enough to simply forgive and forget?
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, located just outside of Phnom Penh. The center was built at one of the many former killing fields used by the Khmer Rouge to torture and execute victims, and it is a chilling site to visit. Mass graves at this particular site uncovered about 9,000 bodies after the fall of the regime, and remains are on display to visitors. After visiting the site, hearing stories of survivors and speaking with locals, it became clear that the devastating impact of the genocide is still apparent today. According to the few individuals that I spoke with, most adults have many family members or friends who died during the Khmer Rouge regime. I imagine that, for some Cambodians, the conviction of major leaders of the regime could bring a level of peace to the situation, but the tragedy will still remain for many years to come.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Atlanta Council on International Relations.