Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Khmer Rouge trial is inadequate

April 22, 2009
A. Gaffar Peang-Meth
Pacific Daily News (Guam)

"Small countries have littlepower to alter the region, let alone the world," said Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in his April 9 address on "The Fundamentals of Singapore's Foreign Policy: Then and Now."

He expressed, in an eloquent and easy to remember way, the nature of national interest in international relations: "Friendship ... is not a function of goodwill or personal affection. We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation."

In this space on June 18 of last year, I wrote, in "Lessons of Hartford, Laos, Cambodia," about a streetlight surveillance camera that captured the scene of 78-year-old Angel Torres "tossed like a rag doll by a hit-and-run driver" on a busy street in Hartford, Conn., "left unattended by dozens of passers-by," and I quoted Alexander Green of -- "Without compassion, there really isn't much to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom."

Tying the story in a domestic environment to politics on the world stage, where politics can get ugly as a country acts to promote its national interest, I quoted Mao Zedong's "Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed," and Nikita Krushchev's "Politicians are the same all over the world. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river." I wrote, too, about Americans' exit from Laos and Cambodia.

Thirty-four years ago, in April 1975, Cambodian Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, one of the "seven traitors" earmarked for death by the victorious Khmer Rouge, responded to U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean's offer to evacuate him from Phnom Penh: "I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me to freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.

"You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well," continued Matak, "if I shall die on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we all are born and must die (one day). I have only committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans."

Six days after Dean was evacuated by helicopter from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge entered the capital. According to Dean's "oral history" of events in Cambodia deposited at the Jimmy Carter Library, Matak "was executed publicly" near Phnom Penh's Grand Hotel.

Dean claimed that in "message after message" sent to Washington, he pleaded: "If the Khmer Rouge take control of the country, there was going to be a bloodbath."

As many in the world had enough of the United States' war and the destruction and suffering in the former French Indochina, American national interest dictated a U.S. withdrawal from the region. The chant around the globe then was, "Let Peace Have A Chance!"

From April 17, 1975, when Chinese-backed Pol Pot took control of Cambodia, to Jan. 7, 1979 -- when some 200,000 Vietnamese regular troops, supported by tanks, heavy artillery and aircraft, spearheaded a breakaway Khmer Rouge faction that knocked Pol Pot out of power -- an estimated two million Cambodians and some foreigners died under Khmer Rouge rule as a result of starvation, forced labor, torture and arbitrary killings.

It is believed that hardly a Cambodian family anywhere had not had at least one member fall victim to the Khmer Rouge's atrocities.

Among those who were part of that Khmer Rouge faction that allied itself with the Vietnamese invasion of 1979 were Heng Samrin, currently Cambodia's National Assembly Chairman, current Prime Minister Hun Sen, and current Senate President Chea Sim, among others in the current Cambodian leadership.

But the No. 1 Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, most wanted for Khmer Rouge's crimes against humanity, died in 1998, the year the United Nations pressured Cambodians to create a special court to try the Khmer Rouge leadership.

In 2001, a law to create a court of Cambodian judges (to be in the majority) and international judges under Cambodian jurisdiction was passed, and finally a joint tribunal was set up in 2006.

The Christian Science Monitor reported the United Nations at first opposed the arrangement "because of widespread concerns over the notoriously corrupt Cambodian judiciary, and its lack of independence." But on Feb. 17 this year, the tribunal known as the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia began its hearing of its first accused -- former math teacher Kaing Khek Eav, alias Duch, commandant of the gruesome S-21 Tuol Sleng torture center.

Four other defendants -- Nuon Chea, chief ideologue next to Pol Pot; Khieu Samphan, former president of Khmer Rouge Cambodia; Ieng Sary, foreign minister; Ieng Thirith, Sary's wife and minister of social affairs -- all in poor health, are to be next on the stand.

With the objective to put the accused before the victims or their families and the media for each to explain his or her actions, and the ultimate goal to "achieve justice, promote peacebuilding, encourage reconciliation, and begin healing," as Radio Free Asia Web site says, the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal ought to help put a much-needed end to Cambodia's dark history and unleash a "national reconciliation" process.

The trouble is, the trial of a mere five Khmer Rouge leaders for the death of about two million people in 1975-1979 is far from adequate to bring justice and national reconciliation to Cambodians, to begin healing and promote peacebuilding in the country.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at

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