By Sarah Palmer
“Genocide.” Most of us think of The Holocaust or Rwanda when we hear that word. Most people are not aware of the massive genocide that happened in Cambodia only 30 years ago.
This genocide, instigated by the Khmer Rouge, a Communist group that ruled Cambodia from 1975–79, killed an estimated 1.7 to 3 million people. Yet many people have never heard of it, or even if they have, know next-to-nothing about it. However, in recent months, media attention has been drawn to this horrible tragedy because of the trials of five Khmer Rogue commandants by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, an international tribunal backed by the United Nations and Cambodian government.
The Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot, also known as “Brother No. 1,” who wanted to turn Cambodia into a communist agrarian utopia following the chaos of the Vietnam War — North Vietnamese troops hid in Cambodian jungles during the conflict and the United States bombed them, trying to drive the soldiers out, but destroying hundreds of Cambodian villages in the process.
Pol Pot sought to “bring order” back to the country by eradicating all Western influences, herding people out of cities to become farmers and eliminating those who were educated, such as Buddhist monks, teachers, lawyers and even people who wore glasses.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Comrade Duch,” is the first of the KR officials to be tried. Duch was the commandant of S-21, which was a school in the capital of Phnom Pehn that was converted into a prison and torture house.
Duch was indicted in 2007, and his trial was named “Case One.” In July, the ECCC convicted him of carrying out the killing and torturing of at least 12,000 people; other estimates say 16,000. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but the sentence was reduced to 19 years as compensation for being held in illegal detention in a military court since 1999.
Although Duch has been brought to justice, the question on many people’s minds is if his punishment is sufficient for the crimes he committed. Does 19 years in prison suffice for aiding in the genocide of an estimated one-fourth to one-third of the Cambodian population?
“Case Two,” which will try four other main Khmer Rouge leaders on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, murder, torture and religious persecution, was indicted Sept. 16. The trial is set to begin next year.
Other main leaders of the Khmer Rouge evaded justice by dying before they could be tried. Pol Pot died in the jungles of Cambodia in 1988; he was under house arrest and died alone of a heart attack. Ta Mok, known as “The Butcher” and a key Khmer Rouge leader in deciding execution policies, died of natural causes in 2006 while awaiting trial.
In addition, hundreds of Khmer Rouge cadres still live freely in Cambodia, and some even hold positions of power in the government. My question is: How will justice be served in Cambodia when these people are still free, and how do you accurately judge the Khmer Rouge collaborators?
Some were only teenagers when they were a part of the Khmer Rouge, and many were coerced into being a part of the rebellion.
I was in Cambodia in the summer of 2009 on a Communication Arts trip and was able to visit S-21, which is now a genocide museum. We also visited The Killing Fields, where thousands of bodies were dumped into mass graves after being murdered by the Khmer Rouge. I will never forget what I saw there. I also had the opportunity to talk with Cambodians and Christian workers serving there, and hear their stories about how life is today. It is so sad to see the generation gap in the Cambodian people. There is a distinct lack of middle-aged people in the country because of the genocide. The country itself is also scarred by what has happened. Once a thriving, advanced country, it is now considered third-world, backward in comparison to neighboring countries like Thailand.
I do not have an answer for how to fairly serve justice to the Cambodian people, but I do know the Cambodian people need closure in moving past this terrible time in their history. They do need justice. Do not overlook this genocide, and do not forget Cambodia.