Closing Cambodia’s 'killing fields' without closure

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from April 1975 to December 1978, when the most brutal genocide of the Cambodian population took place under its leadership.

Published: 21st August 2021 12:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st August 2021 12:09 AM   |  A+A-

The 'prisoners' were taken to the 'Killing Fields', where they were either bludgeoned or hacked to death as the military wanted to save bullets.

The 'prisoners' were taken to the 'Killing Fields', where they were either bludgeoned or hacked to death as the military wanted to save bullets. (File Photo | AP)

Earlier this week, on 16 August 2021, the final hearing in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal began, which is the appeals case of Khieu Samphan. This appeal is critical as it will be one of the final hearings in the Supreme Court of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. After nearly a period of 15 years, the second significant case in the trials is moving towards a more substantive end, even though it may not really ensure closure for the victims of the Khmer Rouge atrocities that affected a whole generation of Cambodians born prior to 1978.

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from April 1975 to December 1978, when the most brutal genocide of the Cambodian population took place under its leadership. Following the withdrawal of the US from Indochina in 1975, all the three countries of the region—Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam—came under communist regimes. Interestingly, till the American departure, the political groupings within these three countries had a common enemy in the US, but this gave way to internal rivalry and tensions, particularly between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. Historical animosity and suspicions were played on by the Khmer Rouge to denounce the Vietnamese as the next enemy and there were deep suspicions relating to ethnic Vietnamese who were settled along the Cambodia-Vietnam border for years. While internally in Cambodia, there were increasing signs of factionalism within the Khmer Rouge, the ostensible target of the group’s ire were citizens of the country who were caught between rival political factions and the ravages of a long-drawn war. One of the factions supported by the Vietnamese ultimately led to the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese intervention established the Heng Samrin regime in January 1979. From 1979 till 1991, Cambodia was locked in a cold war stalemate that saw little headway till it gave way to an UN-mandated peace settlement that led to elections in 1993. However, from 1998, the country has again been under single-party rule with the Cambodian People’s Party and Hun Sen at the helm of affairs.

The ECCC was established under the auspices of the UN in 2006, even though the initial request for the setting up of the tribunal occurred as early as 1997, when the Royalist Party FUNCINPEC was also part of the ruling coalition with the CPP. The core of the ECCC’s mandate was the trial of those persons clearly implicated in the genocide that took place. The Khmer Rouge’s central leadership consisted of five members—Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirath, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Of these, Pol Pot died in 1998 even before the ECCC was operational. Ieng Thirath, the wife of Ieng Sary, suffered from dementia and was declared unfit to stand trial in 2011 and eventually died in 2015. The remaining three were Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan—all three were indicted for crimes against humanity under the auspices of the ECCC and were under detention.

The actual two cases that were heard were Case 001 of Kaing Guev Eav, who was popularly known as Duch. He was in charge of the Khmer Rouge detention centre called Tuol Sleng interrogation centre or the S21. A school converted into a detention centre, this still carries the memories of those tortured and killed under the regime and stands as a tribute to the suffering of those souls. Duch was found guilty of excesses against humanity and imprisoned for an initial period of 35 years, which was to be commuted for time served in detention. But an appeal to the Supreme Court led to this being converted to life in prison, where he died in September 2020.

Case number 002 was against both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Ieng Sary, the third person against whom it was filed, died in 2013, which led to the case against him being declared null and void. In Case 002, two separate charges were brought against both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. The first was 002/01, which began in November 2011. The final judgment in August 2014 found both of them guilty of crimes against humanity. They were given life imprisonment, which was upheld by the Supreme Court Chamber on appeal and its verdict came in November 2016. The second case 002/02 was against specific cases of genocide against the Cham and other ethnic minorities as well as the roles played in extermination centres set up under the Khmer Rouge. The trials for the second case started in October 2014 and were concluded by early 2017, and both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were found to be in contravention of the Geneva Conventions and guilty of charges of genocide against minority ethnic and racial groups. While this verdict was delivered in 2018, the appeal of this to the Supreme Court within the ECCC was still pending. In August 2019, Nuon Chea died, leaving only Khieu Samphan as the sole survivor of the leadership of the dreaded era. There is a sense of poetic justice in this as Khieu Samphan authored the thesis that was to have a direct bearing on the implementation of the agrarian reforms advocated by him. However, given the time it has taken to conclude the cases and the age of those facing trials, a true sense of closure is far from achieved.

Shankari Sundararaman

Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi


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  • Raveendranath MN

    It is academic to chronicle the events
    1 month ago reply
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