Cambodia Section Home Mekong Network Home
About this site...

The Khmer Rouge Trials: On Justice and Accountability

by Socheat Som

In 1997, as the Khmer Rouge movement was on the verge of a total collapse, Cambodia requested United Nations assistance in setting up a tribunal to prosecute prominent Khmer Rouge figures responsible for the deaths and suffering of millions of Cambodians during the late 1970s. That request marked the beginning of a long and protracted negotiation process between the UN and the Cambodian government on how the tribunal should be established. Now - nine long years later - there are credible signs that the trials are likely to commence in the foreseeable future.

Setting aside the legal, political and financial issues that have delayed the start of the tribunal, like other survivors of the Khmer Rouge rule, I welcome the plan to try the Khmer Rouge leaders with cautious optimism. Since the demise of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, not a single person has ever been prosecuted by any competent judicial body for the mass, systematic killings and gross human rights violations occurring in Cambodia between April 1975 and January 1979. Now for the first time there is a real prospect that the key perpetrators of the Cambodian tragedy would be required to answer for their actions before a competent court of law. This prospect in and of itself is sufficient to rekindle the sense of hope that at long last accountability would prevail.

My only regret is that it has taken over twenty long years to arrive at this juncture. So much precious time has elapsed without any meaningful actions to address the issue. During that period, certain prominent Khmer Rouge figures have died without ever having to answer for their actions. Unlike their victims whose lives were cut short senselessly and only after having suffered unimaginable pain at the hands of their Khmer Rouge killers, these Khmer Rouge leaders died rather peacefully. One of the deceased worthy of further discussion was none other than this communist movement's paramount leader: Pol Pot.

The first time I heard the name "Pol Pot" was in 1979 as I emerged from the nightmarish servitude of Pol Pot's Killing Fields orphaned, traumatized and emaciated. While struggling to survive under their reign, we ordinary Cambodians knew only "Angkar" as the omnipotent ruler of Cambodia. The identities of the individuals wielding power behind "Angkar" were well hidden from their subjects. We were left to wonder who or what Angkar was. Like a dark, deep secret that was revealed for the first time, the moment I learned the identity of the person hidden behind the mask called Angkar was quite a dramatic moment indeed. For the first time, I had the name of the person presiding over the system of terrors and oppression that destroyed our way of life, killed millions of innocent people, and forever changed the course of our lives. Back then I did not know what Pol Pot looked like as his pictures were not yet available. I tried to conjure up the face to go along with the name Pol Pot. In my mind, the face I kept envisioning over and over again was that of "evil."

As the world has since discovered, Pol Pot was in fact a revolutionary pseudonym of a man whose real name was "Saloth Sar." (I will refer to Pol Pot hereinafter by his real name Saloth Sar.) In the early period of his revolutionary life, Sar identified himself as the "Original Khmer" who espoused equality for every Khmer. How ironic that the self-proclaimed "Original Khmer" carried out his revolution to create an egalitarian society using ideals and methods previously conceived and put into practice with disastrous results in other parts of the world well outside the boundaries of his native Khmer land. This "Original Khmer" turned out to be nothing more than a fervent believer of foreign ideology. How ironic that the path toward achieving equality for all at the end turned out to be that of achieving despotic power for the select few on the one hand and deaths and suffering for the masses on the other hand.

Of course, Sar could not have orchestrated the killings and destruction of historic proportions without the help from individuals loyal to him as well as from many foot soldiers who served obediently and blindly as the instruments of terrors. As pictures and biographies of Sar and his top lieutenants - the so-called Khmer Rouge leaders - became accessible, I spent time studying their pictures and biographies. I studied about Sar and his comrades, including Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and others, seeking to understand what it was that motivated these individuals to hurt and destroy so many innocent lives. I observed the pictures of the chief architects of the Killing Fields. I examined their faces - their eyes, their smiles - closely, looking for clues, for any hints of inhumanity and monstrosity in them to validate my view of them as the evil. To my regret and disappointment, such examinations revealed not a single trace of meanness, savagery or inhumanity. On the contrary, they looked as ordinary and human as any person. Nothing in their appearances gave away any hints at the magnitude of their evil deeds.

In the 1997 interview with The Far Eastern Economic Reviews, Sar responded to the question about the death tolls during his despotic rule with an emphatic declaration: "I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people. Even now…look at me, am I a savage person? My conscience is clear... I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country." (1) While it would be unrealistic to expect this evil-doer to see the evil of his own work, it was nonetheless appalling to see the display of arrogance even at the twilight of his life. Instead of showing any remorse for the carnage he created, this man had the arrogance to refer to Cambodia as if the country belonged to him alone and no one else. Sar apparently had high regards for his "country." The killings and suffering of millions of Cambodians under his rule, on the other hand, spoke volume about Sar's feelings toward the people living in the country Sar referred to as his country. True to his evil nature, Sar remained defiantly unrepentant until his death in April 1998.

Six years after his death, in November 2004, I came across an audio recording of Saloth Sar. Listening to the way Sar expressed himself with his rasp voice, not only was I impressed by Sar's refined oratory skills, I was also struck particularly by the gentility of his voice and the polite manner with which he expressed himself. All of these characteristics did not seem to fit neatly with the perception that I have formed over all these years of the evil person responsible for one of history's worst crimes against humanity. It seemed unfathomable to imagine this seemingly gentle and articulate man was culpable of committing such evil deeds.

The simple truth is that evil can never be detected through an observation of one's physical features nor discerned through listening to one's voice. Evil is an abstract that resides deep within the human heart and mind, making its early detection very difficult. It is through the actions of a person and the impacts of such deeds on humanity that the true nature of that person manifests itself. In Cambodia, evil existed in the form of charming, polite, seemingly ordinary men. Evil manifested itself in the forms of human destructions and carnage at a scale well beyond the scope of any ordinary human comprehension. The manifestation of evil required us to act and make the evil-doers - the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders - accountable for the evil deeds they did to their victims. Failures to act against evil encourage the recurrence of evil. In other words, I support the Khmer Rouge trials because I believe the trials will serve as a powerful deterrent. My respects for the victims and for the meaning of justice compel me to make it clear that my support for the trials is not because I believe the trials will bring "justice" for the victims.

After all, if any groups of people that understand and appreciate the meaning of justice, we the victims of the Khmer Rouge are undoubtedly one of those groups. During the Khmer Rouge's rule, we endured cruelly excessive and undeserved suffering. Many of us watched in fear as the Khmer Rouge executioners took our family members away never to return. Images of our family members dying slowly and excruciatingly from starvation and disease are embedded in our mind. For many years now, we have had to live with the emotional trauma of having experienced immense suffering and having witnessed the deaths of our loved ones as well as of so many of our compatriots. I doubt that any one of us will recover completely from such deep emotional wounds. Adding more insult to injury, today we watch with intense bitterness and deep anger at gross injustice as some surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are living freely and well with their families in certain parts of Cambodia. They still have their spouses, children and grandchildren to cherish while they turned Cambodia into a nation of orphans, widows and widowers.

Given the magnitude and ubiquity of the victims' suffering and personal losses, I am of the opinion that it would be disrespectful to the victims, some of whose remains are still scattered across Cambodia's lush landscapes, to think that "justice" can be found simply by putting a few aging individuals on trial. I, for one, believe that the millions of deaths and the profound, unimaginable human suffering perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge are too far beyond our poor power to find an equitable form of justice. I believe that we add to and uphold the meaning of justice and thus provide dignity to the victims by acknowledging the inherent inequity between the nature and scope of the crimes and the realistic form of justice that can be obtained. The enormity of the Khmer Rouge's crimes renders the Khmer Rouge trials insufficient to provide justice for the victims. To think otherwise would be to risk trivializing the meaning of justice and inflicting even more indignities on the victims. An acknowledgement of our limited ability to find justice does not obviate the necessity and importance of putting those responsible for turning Cambodia into the Killing Fields on trial. Such an acknowledgement does not mean that the perpetrators should be allowed to continue to live freely among and, in many cases, much better than their victims. The trials are absolutely necessary, as they will send a powerful message to all evil-doers in Cambodia and across the world that the international community would not tolerate their evil deeds against innocent people.

Ordinary Cambodians have been relegated to the role of victims, and have suffered so much for so long with no end in sight. The tribunal provides the Cambodian government and the international community with the opportunity to demonstrate that they empathize with the victims. This is the time for all of us who love and respect peace, liberty and the rule of law to rally on the side of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims through active participation in the judicial process to address the question of accountability concerning perhaps the darkest period of Cambodia's contemporary history. This window of opportunity diminishes with each precious moment that elapses without the fruition of the trials.

-- May 12, 2006



End Notes

(1)   Thayer, Nate. "Day of Reckoning." Far Eastern Economic Review, 30 October 1997, pp. 14-20.

W3C Validation