Friday, July 28, 2006

Killing fields justice

As Cambodia prepares to try two key Khmer Rouge leaders for war crimes, international ambivalence abounds


Inside the Khmer Pagoda in Côte-des-Neiges, head monk Hok Savann sits wrapped in a saffron robe before a large statue of the Buddha, mulling over the newly inaugurated war crimes tribunal in Cambodia. A monk next to him impassively watches a newscast from a Cambodian satellite television station, occasionally interrupting to help his senior find the right wording for an answer.

Neither of the two had visited Cambodia in three decades. Savann left in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge, a movement inspired by a mixture of nationalism and Maoism, captured the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and plunged the country into four years of terror. Today, in another pagoda a 10 miles south of Phnom Penh, thousands of skulls, shattered by pickaxes and clubs, which spared the frugal Khmer Rouge genocidaires from using bullets, are arranged in a memorial to the victims.

Sunlight pours into the pagoda through the windows, and Savann shifts in his seat when asked whether he’d return to Cambodia. “There is no respect for the law there, there is no security,” he says. “The government does not believe in human rights.”

Bloody legacy

Cambodia has seen little security in the past decades. Before 1975, which Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot declared Year Zero, the country suffered a civil war and a U.S. bombing campaign that killed an estimated 200,000 civilians after emerging from decades of French and Japanese colonial rule. The weakened, traumatized country became a laboratory for the French-educated leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who emptied the cities and forced millions onto rural communes. Between 1.5 million and three million Cambodians were executed or died of starvation before Vietnam invaded the country in late 1978 and routed the Khmer Rouge the next year.

Leaders of the movement now face the possibility of trial for genocide and crimes against humanity after a United Nations and Cambodian war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), convened in Phnom Penh earlier this month. Like most Cambodians, Savann lost relatives in the genocide, and although he’s “satisfied” at the prospect of justice, he says it may have come too late.

Pol Pot died in 1998 under house arrest, his remains burnt on rubber tires and a mattress. Last weekend, Ta Mok, another Khmer Rouge leader known in Cambodia as “The Butcher,” died in a Cambodian military hospital. Ta Mok was one of two Khmer leaders detained by the government for war crimes.

“[Khmer Rouge] leaders are very old, and very sick,” says Savann. Still, “Cambodians are happy” some officials will be held accountable. “[The trials] will help young Cambodians to know their history.”

Concordia professor Frank Chalk, who directs the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies, agrees. “Right now, there is a generation of young people who never learned why their parents wake up with nightmares,” he says. “They don’t understand the trauma of what their parents and grandparents experienced.”

Chalk, who is visiting Cambodia again this summer, has been campaigning for more than a decade to have the genocide taught more thoroughly in Cambodian schools. He says the trials should encourage more discussion between generations on the genocide.

Chalk points to plans by the Documentation Center of Cambodia to bring in elders from the countryside to observe the trials, and then go back to their communities and recount what had happened. The CCD also plans to tape the proceedings and distribute cassettes to Cambodians who couldn’t attend the trials.

Politicized proceedings

Trial proceedings have barely begun—prosecutors will spend this year building cases for indictments—but the arrangements have already come under criticism. The ECCC is the result of a decade of wrangling between the UN and Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, who asked that the tribunal act within Cambodian law, and that 17 of the 27 judges be Cambodian. Critics say the Cambodian judges are employees of the state who might overrule indictments based on politics.

With a budget of $56.3-million (U.S.), the ECCC is the lowest-funded trial of its kind, but Hun Sen, whose country lost hundreds of millions of dollars last year to corruption, says his government cannot afford its share of the costs, while international donors have yet to fully donate their shares.

Montrealer and leading ECCC prosecutor Robert Petit says whatever faults the tribunal might have, it’s better than having no trials.

“Whatever the shortcomings, this is it,” he tells the Mirror. “We have what we have. This is the only chance for accountability for these war crimes.”

Although the Cambodian government needed coaxing to sign the agreement to hold a tribunal, and is refusing to pay its share of the costs, Petit says, “The important thing is that they signed the agreement.”

Pol Pot’s friends

The proceedings, and the choice of Khmer Rouge officials who will be indicted, will be followed closely by several countries that had stakes in Cambodia, says Chalk. “Nobody has clean hands in this,” he says.

The prime minister himself was a member of the Khmer Rouge before he defected to Vietnam in 1977, when the Cambodian government purged members seen as loyal to Vietnam. Following the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the Khmer Rouge became the backbone of opposition forces bases in Thailand, fighting over the next decade to dislodge the Vietnamese-installed government.

The coalition attracted the support of several countries opposed to Vietnamese influence in Cambodia, including China, the U.S. and Britain—which gave training to what then-U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the “more reasonable” Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge finally disbanded in 1998, and some of its officials ended up in Sen’s government. Since defecting, Sen has repeatedly condemned the Khmer Rouge, but has also questioned whether prosecuting them might open rifts in Cambodian society, saying that Cambodia “should dig a hole and bury the past.”

However, a survey conducted by the Khmer Institute for Democracy, a Cambodian non-governmental organization, shows more than 90 per cent of the population favour the prosecution of the movement’s war criminals. Eighty-nine per cent of the poll respondents said they constantly thought of the genocide.

“I think [the tribunal] is late,” says Savann. “But I’d like to see justice.”

Friday, July 21, 2006

Cambodia's former king questions necessity of Khmer Rouge tribunal

Cambodia's former king said a U.N.-backed tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders will cost too much money and questioned whether it was worth it since the aging officials could die before a verdict.

Former King Norodom Sihanouk said some consider the tribunal to be ''necessary, indispensable and beneficial'' because it will bring the surviving leaders to justice and help victims find peace.

But Sihanouk, 83, said he believes the cost of the ''super luxurious life of the judges'' of the tribunal could easily exceed the US$56 million (euro45 million) budgeted for the trials.

Also, by the time a verdict is reached, ''there will probably be only one or two ... living Khmer Rouge leaders,'' he said in a letter dated July 15 posted on his Web site.

The former monarch said last week that he opposed the tribunal because it will target too few of those responsible for the group's extremist policies, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people during its 1975-79 rule.

Earlier this month, judges and prosecutors from Cambodia and abroad were sworn in for the long-awaited U.N.-backed trials of the former Khmer Rouge leaders on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Prosecutors have begun gathering evidence for the trials, expected to begin in 2007.

Sihanouk stepped down as king and was replaced by his son, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004. He is widely respected, but his opinion is unlikely to affect trial preparations.

The Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979 by invading Vietnamese forces. In 1982, Sihanouk became president of a Western-backed coalition government in exile that included the Khmer Rouge and fought the Vietnamese-installed government until a 1991 U.N.-sponsored peace agreement.

Sihanouk also said in his letter that he doesn't think the tribunal would ease the suffering of the regime's victims.

He said he objected to genocide memorials that display victims' skulls and bones, an apparent reference to a site often called the ''Killing Fields'' just outside the capital, Phnom Penh.

At least 14,000 Khmer Rouge victims were buried at the site, which is frequented by foreign tourists.

Sihanouk said that exhibiting the skulls and bones was done ''for the pleasure of tourists,'' and did nothing for the ''wandering souls'' of those killed, and that their bones should be cremated in accordance with Buddhist custom.

Ta Mok, 80; Key Figure in Cambodian Genocide

By David Lamb, Special to The Times
July 21, 2006

Ta Mok, a Khmer Rouge leader who played a key role in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s, died early today in a Phnom Penh military hospital, where he was awaiting trial on genocide charges.

A frail, white-haired man, Ta Mok was believed to be 80. He maintained to the end that he bore no responsibility for Cambodia's "killing fields" and that other Khmer Rouge commanders had been the architects and perpetrators of the genocide.
But for years Ta Mok, a nom de guerre, was a feared name in Cambodia. As the second in command of the Khmer Rouge, he and his followers were linked to the elimination of entire villages, to forced labor camps, to mass executions and to torture chambers. Cambodians called him "The Butcher." The prime minister, Hun Sen, referred to him as the "Hitler of Cambodia."

Although little is known about his personal life, Ta Mok, whose real name was Chhit Choen, was born into a peasant family in the southern province of Takeo.

Like many poor young Cambodians in the 1930s, he became a Buddhist monk, because pagodas offered food and shelter. He left the monkhood at 16 and in the 1940s joined the resistance movement against the French colonialists.

Unlike other senior Khmer Rouge leaders, such as Pol Pot, Ta Mok never studied abroad and had little use for intellectual issues. He was more comfortable in the jungle than in the city.

His sole ideology was Cambodian nationalism, and he only vaguely grasped the concepts of communism that were the foundation of the Khmer Rouge's ultra-Maoist revolution.

"When I joined the Communist Party of Cambodia," he told Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review in a 1997 interview, "I did not know what communism was. They told me the party was a patriotic one. That is why I joined the party."

He also told Thayer that his motivation for becoming a guerrilla was to secure a better life for Cambodian peasants and to free the country from Vietnamese domination.

The Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975 after defeating the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol. During the 44 months it ruled Cambodia — until deposed in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops — the Khmer Rouge killed one in every six Cambodians, including much of the middle class, in the name of creating a pure agrarian society free of foreign influence.

After Vietnam's invasion, Ta Mok, who was Pol Pot's top lieutenant, fled into the jungle to carry on the guerrilla war, first against Vietnam, then against the new Cambodian government.

He conducted ruthless purges of the Khmer Rouge's suspected enemies and set up a fiefdom in the northern town of Anlong Veng. U.N. peacekeepers in 1993 blamed him for the slaughter of ethnic Vietnamese, including many women and babies, in a fishing village on the Great Lake.

In 1997, Ta Mok took control of the Khmer Rouge from Pol Pot in a bloody purge. But by then, the movement was dying. Defectors by the hundreds had surrendered their weapons in exchange for a government offer of amnesty.

Pol Pot died in the northern jungle in April 1998, an apparent suicide.

Ta Mok was arrested in March 1999 crossing into northern Cambodia from Thailand and charged with genocide under a law banning the Khmer Rouge.

Over the last few years, Ta Mok's lawyer said, his client was in declining health after suffering a heart attack.