On Friday, November 16th, two of the main leaders of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime were found guilty of genocide against the Cham and Vietnamese ethnic groups but also of crime against humanity and war crimes. These two major figures of the Khmer Rouge are first Nuon Chea, 92 years old and both chief ideologist and deputy leader considered the right-hand man of Pol Pot; Secondly, Khieu Samphan aged 87, head of state who embodied the regime’s public face. These two leaders were sentenced for a second time to life imprisonment, as death sentence doesn’t exist in Cambodia. Indeed, a previous trial in 2014 had already been conducted, finding Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan guilty for crimes against humanity connected with forced transfers of people and mass disappearances.
guilty for crimes against humanity
The crimes against humanity convictions in the latest trial relate to activities at work camps and co-operatives led by the Khmer Rouge. These crimes included murder, extermination, deportation, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution on political, religious and racial grounds, attacks on human dignity, enforced disappearances, forced transfers, forced marriages and rape. On a similar level, war crimes, breaching the Geneva Convention include wilful killing, torture and inhumane treatment.
It is, however, the first time that two leaders of the Khmer Rouge Regime are legally accused and proofed to be the authors of a Genocide, even though, Khieu Samphan has not been found guilty of genocide against the Cham for insufficient evidence. There are still debates among academics whether the term genocide is appropriate for what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. This echoes to the controversial genocide definition, a term coined by the UN after what happened to the Jews in World War II as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. The question then persists: can a regime be defined as genocidal when so much of the Khmers are responsible for other Khmer killings?
There are still debates among academics whether the term genocide is appropriate for what happened in Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge regime in power from 1975-1979 is responsible for the death of at least 1.7 million Cambodian. The Khmer Rouge movement was initially born out of the struggle against French colonization. It gained power in the 1950s with the Indochina war and became an official party in 1968. Vietnam war aggravated perception of the West as the American used the Cambodian territories as a regrouping zone while bombing it to destroy Vietnamese enemies. In March 1970, Marshal Lon Nol, a Cambodian backed by the Americans attended a coup d’etat to unseat the current head of state Prince Sihanouk. From then began a civil war in which Pol Pot head of the Khmer Rouge allied with Prince Sihanouk against Lon Nol’s government. It lasted for 5 years until April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took control of the capital’s city, Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge regime [was] responsible for the death of at least 1.7 million Cambodian.
From that day Pol Pot and his close supporters forced urban populations to exile in labour camps in the countryside. Based on radical adaptations of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist they sought of creating a self-reliant, classless, agrarian society. Pol Pot declared the “Year Zero”, abolished money, private property and religion and set up rural collectives. Anyone considered an intellectual or against the regime were executed. No one was safe, as you could easily become a target of the Khmer Rouge even if you were initially supporting them. Before being killed the people were massively tortured. One of the most famous Prisons in Cambodia is a previous school renamed S-21 in Phnom Phen. Only seven people came out alive of S-21. After being tortured, and forced to confess something they hadn’t done prisoners were executed in killing fields. On January 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge and established a socialist regime gathering amongst others Khmer Rouge defectors. Vietnam didn’t leave until 1989 and in 1991 a peace agreement was finally signed.
The mass killings supervised by the Khmer Rouge were silenced for years. In 2006 the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was established. It gathers both Cambodian and international prosecutors and judges. Up to today, only three people have been paying for their crimes at the cost of $300 million, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Duch. The latter was the commandant of S-21, convicted to life imprisonment in 2010. Today most top leaders of the Khmer Rouge are dead including Pol Pot who died one year after his arrest in 1997. Three more defendants have been investigated by the tribunal, however, the Cambodian side seems to be reluctant in pursuing trials.
The mass killings supervised by the Khmer Rouge were silenced for years.
From the very start, the tribunal has been criticised for its slow speed and inefficiency. The Cambodian slaughters were so considerable that today everyone is either a perpetrator or a victim of the regime. Former Khmer Rouge are everywhere in the society even in the government, including Mr Hun Sen prime minister of Cambodia. Previously mid-level Khmer Rouge he insists that people want to move on and that further prosecutions could lead to violence.
The Cambodian slaughters were so considerable that today everyone is either a perpetrator or a victim of the regime.
Despite critics, the tribunal has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the Cambodian society; it has brought in the open the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, a vital step for people who suffered from those crimes. In 2009, a short history of the Khmer Rouge period was for the first time included in high school curriculums, a step further to avoid history repeating itself.