Youk Chhang has waited 35 years for justice, for himself, his deceased family members and his country, which was forever changed in less than fours years under the murderous rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
That doesn’t mean he will be celebrating today when a war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh delivers its ruling in a trial of the two most senior surviving figures from Pol Pot’s movement on charges of crimes against humanity. More important, he said, is for Cambodia to learn from its dark past in which an estimated 1.7 million people died.
“Please don’t toast,” said Youk Chhang, 53, who has researched Khmer Rouge crimes for two decades as director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “What we lost no one can bring back. There are so many tears that you run out of tears. So, we have to get from being a survivor to being an educator.”
Many Cambodians are too young to remember the Khmer Rouge reign of terror from 1975 to 1979, with more than a third of the country’s 15 million people under the age of 18, and others see more pressing issues to consider in a nation where more than half the population lives on less than $2.30 a day. For those like Youk Chhang whose lives were shaped by the regime’s genocidal rule the need for closure continues to cast a shadow over the country.
The verdicts against Khieu Samphan, 83, the regime’s former head of state, and Nuon Chea, 88, its chief ideologue, will be the first delivered against senior leaders who devised and implemented the policies that turned Cambodia into a charnel house and bequeathed the term “killing fields” to the world. Pol Pot’s peasant army took power after a U.S. bombing campaign during the Vietnam War stirred discontent in the countryside against General Lon Nol’s coup-installed government.
At gunpoint, Khmer Rouge fighters emptied Phnom Penh’s hospitals of the dying and the wounded. Those who refused to leave their homes were killed. Within days of Pol Pot’s victory, Phnom Penh’s more than 2 million people were expelled to rural work camps in the countryside where starvation, hard labor, disease and death awaited.
There is ample evidence to convict both Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, said Craig Etcheson, who spent six years investigating Khmer Rouge crimes in the co-prosecutors’ office at the United Nations-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh. Court proceedings for the pair on additional charges, including genocide and mass forced marriages, began last week in the second part of their trial.
“The scope of the catastrophe that was visited on the Cambodian people and the heinousness and the callousness of what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people really beggars belief,” Etcheson said. “In that three years, eight months and 20 days, millions and millions and millions of individual crimes were committed against the Cambodian people.”
The tribunal came too late for Pol Pot, who died in a jungle hideout in 1998. Set up in 2006, the court has prosecuted just one person, Kaing Guek Eav, a Khmer Rouge commander who was found guilty in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison. The court has been beset by budgetary shortfalls and claims of mismanagement and political interference. It’s also faced criticism that it has prosecuted too few suspects and spent too much money, more than $200 million since beginning operations.
Two other senior leaders of the genocidal regime, which collapsed in 1979 when Vietnam invaded, were also scheduled to face trial. Ieng Sary, the regime’s foreign minister, died in 2013, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the social affairs minister, was declared unfit for trial in 2011 due to dementia.
The frustration with the court is understandable, said Heather Ryan, who has monitored the tribunal for the U.S.-based Open Society Justice Initiative. “Nonetheless, when I talk to people about the court, both ordinary Cambodians as well as legal professionals, I am amazed at the near unanimity of opinion that it will be good to have a judgment in this case.”
Kaing Guek Eav, better known as “Comrade Duch,” was a former math teacher who operated a Khmer Rouge prison camp in Phnom Penh, code-named S21, where more than 12,000 men, women and children were tortured, executed, and dumped in mass graves. Duch, who apologized for his crimes during his trial, wasn’t a senior member of the regime like Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, who have maintained their innocence.
“They were among the leadership so they should be given life in prison,” said Bou Meng, who was one of only a handful of people to survive S21 because his skill at painting revolutionary portraits of Pol Pot was seen as useful. Anything less is “unacceptable,” said the 73-year-old, whose wife disappeared at the prison.
Learning the truth
Youk Chhang said the verdict would be historic. Just the same, he said it’s time for the country to move forward, while still remembering its past. “At the end of the day, as I have mentioned, we must continue to educate our children,” he said.
One young person he has been able to reach is Huy Senghol, a 24-year-old law student who volunteered at Youk Chhang’s research center. Her father, Him Huy, was a feared interrogator at S21 whose low rank in the regime excludes him from prosecution at the tribunal.
Huy Senghol said she had only ever known her father as a good and hard-working man, and before she worked at the research center she didn’t believe that atrocities had occurred under the Khmer Rouge. After years of hearing the stories of victims, she said she now knows how wrong she was.
Huy Senghol said justice must be done and the senior people responsible for so much horror and for ordering people like her father to take part must be punished.
“Cambodia will move forward and be prosperous when the victims feel relieved, and their anger fades, because they see justice,” she said.