Cambodia: Doubts over the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is now weeks into its first trial with the prosecution of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, for crimes against humanity and war crimes. But as the trial continues, many wonder how effective the Tribunal will be in achieving national reconciliation, one of the goals of the project. Two major problems are allegations of corruption related to Tribunal funds and the limited number of indictments.

The corruption charges against the Cambodian government concern misuse of Tribunal funds, which were mostly donated by other countries. News reports are available here and here as well as an interview with the lawyer defending Nuon Chea, one of the defendants awaiting trial, posted at CAAI News Media.

Another issue for the Tribunal is that so few of the Khmer Rouge members will be put on trial. The scope of indictments is limited to the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

KI Media posted a piece by retired professor A. Gaffar Peang-Meth from the University of Guam, in which he writes:

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.

Sopheap Chak does not believe the Khmer Rouge Tribunal will bring justice, in part, because:

The foreign countries that supported the Khmer Rouge, or acted as the main catalyst for the emergence of this cruel regime, will not be brought to court. The tribunal’s regulations indicate clearly that only individuals who committed crimes will be tried.

Chak also does not believe the Tribunal will be able to reconcile the country:

For Cambodian society, real reconciliation will be found only when trust returns between individuals; when they can smile at and trust each other again. Thus, a national dialogue or truth commission should be set up so that people, especially the victims, can fully participate to address their suffering and their needs.


  • […] Cambodia: Doubts over the Khmer Rouge Tribunal […]

  • reaksa himm

    Complication of the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders: UN tribunal committee is blind to only one side of the coin:

    Many Cambodians longed to see Khmer Rouge leaders brought to trial. It has taken almost 30 years to bring about this opportunity. Duch is the first of the Khmer Rouge leaders to be tried. Many questions may arise: Can the trial of this one man bring justice to almost three million innocent victims? Clearly, the answer is NO. Many others were also involved in the killing. They also were responsible for the deaths of approximately three million people. Who should be tried and who should not be tried? What is the motive for the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders?

    We need to scrutinize critically the cause of the civil war that brought about the Killing Fields. If the American government had not been involved in overthrowing king Norodom Sihaknouk in early 1970, and bombing in Cambodia, would there have been any Killing Fields? This is the question we need to ask about the history of civil war in Cambodia.

    King Norodom Sihaknouk was overthrown by general Lon Nol who was supported by American government. He then had no option except to ally himself with the Khmer Rouge guerillas (his former enemy). He asked his loyal supporters to go to jungle to fight against the American soldiers in Cambodia. That was the golden moment for the Khmer Rouge guerrillas to rise against American soldiers in Cambodia. Khmer Rouge guerrillas could never have survived if the American government had not been involved in helping general Lon Nol to overthrow King Norodom Sihaknouk.

    When American soldiers arrived in Cambodia, their objective was to destroy all the Vietcong along Cambodian and Vietnamese border. They were also involved in bombing innocent Cambodian people. They would say that they helped to destroy all Khmer Rouge guerrillas. If that were all they had done, it would have please many Cambodians. The pitfall was that their bombs did not have eyes to identify who were the Khmer Rouge guerrillas and who were the innocent people. From 1973 to late 1974, bombings were intensified and many lives were lost. It was believed that bombings were ordered from American embassy based in Phnom Penh. It was also believed that Kissinger was the mastermind behind the scene. Unfortunately, no one spoke about this. None of the American government officials admitted to the shameful killing of almost five hundred thousand innocent Cambodian people. Until now, none of American government officials ever admitted this. No one has ever taken responsibility for the killing of innocent Cambodians.

    Imagine how their fellow Americans must feel. Imagine, too how Cambodians feel. American bombs eradicated countless families and villages. The Cambodian villagers could see no way out but to join the Khmer Rouge soldiers to fight against American soldiers in Cambodia. They were filled with rage, rancor and hurt. They were strongly determined to pay back what had been eradicated by American soldiers.

    When American soldiers left Cambodia, it was a big mess. They failed to prepare Cambodians to defend their own country. The consequence was extremely damaging to Cambodian society. Cambodia was then turned into the land of Killing Fields.

    When Khmer Rouge guerrillas marched into the cities on April 17, 1975, who were their first targets? Of course, they looked for American soldiers who had eradicated their villages and families. Their first intent was to take revenge. Actually, American soldiers had already pulled out of Cambodia. Khmer Rouge guerrillas eventually turned to those who supported American soldiers or as they would say, they looked for the CIA. Anybody who lived in the cities was accused of being associated with the CIA. Soon after they took over the country, the KR forced all city dwellers to go out to work in the countryside.

    During the Khmer Rouge period (from ‘75 to ‘79), China was also involved in the Killing Fields. China was behind the scenes of the Killing Fields. Who has the power to challenge China?

    To bring justice to Cambodian victims, United States and Chinese governments should be put on trial too. The UN tribunal committee is blind. They look at only one side of the coin. It would be good if they were to look at the other side of the coin. My philosophy is this: “When a person sees only one side of the coin, he is blind to other perspectives.” Trying only a few Khmer Rouge leaders will never bring justice to Cambodian victims, unless American and Chinese former governments are to be tried, too.

    Here is a good question that UN tribunal committee needs to critically answer: Is it possible for UN tribunal committee to bring these two former government officials to be tried? According to an old story, a little boy saw a reflection of the moon in the water. He asked if someone could bring the moon for him so that he could play with it. How can anyone bring substance from its reflection? Similarly, it is impossible to bring these former government officials to trial?

    Because some of the Khmer Rouge leaders are no longer in power, the UN tribunal committee has been trying so hard to put these remaining Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. It is ridiculous. Why? From 1975 to 1989, the UN was fully aware that Khmer Rouge leaders killed millions of their people, but the UN still supported the Khmer Rouge by holding a UN seat for them. This continued for ten years after the Khmer Rouge leaders had been forced from power. They did not recognize People’s Republic of Kampuchea, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was supported by Vietnamese government.

    Some of the current Cambodian government officials were former Khmer Rouge officials. Where is the UN tribunal committee drawing the line? Will these current government officials be tried too? Were they “good guys” or “bad guys”? Now, the UN tribunal committee is working so hard to indict several more Khmer Rouge leaders who are current government officials. It appears the UN tribunal committee does not understand Khmer proverbs: “Do not step on a sleeping dog’s tail.” Or, “If the wound is not painful, do not use a stick to poke at the wound.” Cambodians do not want to see civil war start again. What would happen if the former Khmer Rouge officials who are with the current government attempt to go to the jungle to resurrect the guerrilla group? It is predictable there will be civil war again. We do not want to see Cambodia fall into the Killing Fields again. What the UN tribunal committee is trying to do is laughable. The UN tribunal committee needs to examine an intricate Cambodian civil war that brought the nation into the Killing Fields. The Cambodian tragedy is not the same as stories of other nations.

    It is also shameful for the US government to offer refuge to a lot of Khmer Rouge soldiers. The first wave of Cambodian refugees who came to the United States included some Khmer Rouge soldiers and commanders. They were actually the ones who killed people. What does the United States government want to do with them?

    Cambodians have suffered so much pain and suffering. They need healing. They need reconciliation and forgiveness. What I would like to see for the sake of the whole nation, is that Cambodians, as individuals and as a nation, learn to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation. I long to see the Khmer Rouge leaders stand up to admit that they made a mistake and ask for forgiveness. This could bring healing to the whole nation.

    There is no way the trial will bring justice to the victims. Justice will never bring healing. It might make the anger subside, but cannot provide healing. Only forgiveness and reconciliation will bring national healing. As a Christian, I strongly believe in forgiveness and reconciliation. I am convinced that only the message of hope, love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ will make the victims of the Killing Fields become whole again. It would be wise if the UN tribunal committee would invest all the money used for the trial to facilitate national reconciliation. It would set a good example for the rest of the world too.

    I do not object to bringing the former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial. Thirteen members of my family were among the victims of the Killing Fields. But I do not see that the trial of only the Khmer Rouge leaders can bring justice to the victims of the Killing Fields. Unless the UN tribunal committee has power to bring the former American and Chinese governments to be tried too, I do not see this will ever happen. My intention is to bring a positive solution for the nation. We need to start again by learning to embrace each other as Cambodians. This is a road less traveled by the whole world. But it is the road that will bring healing.

  • As a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, I can’t say I’m too enthusiastic about the current tribunal. Trying a handful of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders is unlikely to deliver neither justice nor closure for Cambodians. After all, Pot Pol and many top leaders have already died peacefully in their sleeps. Not on trial are the countless lower level KR cadres who were “just following orders”.

  • Watching the Khmer Rouge Trial on television makes me think that the dialogues in the KR courtroom, through translators, between different languages, Khmer, French and English, has the same result as the game called the “Telephone” or in some parts of Europe as “the Chinese whispers.” It also reminds me about a Khmer folktale known as “K’ Aek muoy chea K’aek dobb” (one crow =10 crows) where the errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last person differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the one uttered by the first.

    Different Khmer Rouge’s terminology, Khmer slang and expressions used by Kaing K. Iev or Duch didn’t just make it very difficult for Cambodian translators to communicate with foreign judges but they also bewildered some younger generation’s Khmer judges and the people in the courtroom and made them feel and look stupid.

    Duch’s Command in Cambodian language, especially KR’s terminology and Khmer expressions also makes Duch, a Khmer Rouge killer, feel and looks far superior to his interrogators.
    Is this trial is worth $170 million dollars?

    New York
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  • […] corruption charges were discussed in a prior GV post. The Cambodian government has denied interfering with the Tribunal, including preventing judges of […]

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