Ung You Teckhor could barely fathom the idea of coming back to Phnom Penh in 1979.
One of the “April 17 people” who were expelled from the city by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, he returned four years later to find a capitol abandoned and overgrown with weeds. As he entered his family home—a French colonial building near the Royal Palace—all he saw were empty rooms with remnants of broken furniture. The family photos he so desperately searched for were gone.
“Whatever pictures we had with us when we left, we threw away. You had to throw away anything that identified yourself,” says Ung You Teckhor, now 49.
It was the first and the last time he would ever go inside that house. Instead, Ung You Teckhor was on a mission in Phnom Penh, to tell the world what the Khmer Rouge did to him and his family.
“I did not want to come back, but they picked me,” he recalls of the Vietnamese-installed communist government that overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. “And at that time, everyone wanted to testify about what we suffered. So I knew I had to come back.”
A key witness in the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal of 1979, he told Cambodia how the Khmer Rouge killed his father in the night, how his mother died of dysentery and overwork, how he survived by concealing his college education.
A somber, five-day ordeal, the tribunal honed in on just two Khmer Rouge leaders, “Brother No 1” Pol Pot and his third in command, Ieng Sary. Although not present at the trial, both were sentenced to death, but they never were apprehended and their sentences never enforced.
Largely unrecognized by a Western world that characterized the proceedings as a “show trial,” the tribunal was considered by most countries a weak attempt to provide justice for millions of Cambodian victims and survivors.
Now, however, the Cold War is over, and things dramatically have changed for Cambodia—and for Ung You Teckhor.
Since 1979, he’s watched as his family home was transformed from an empty shell to the renovated Unesco headquarters. He’s changed his name and no longer goes by Ung You Teckhor. Now known as Cham Prasidh, he is a key member of the Cambodian People’s Party and has served as the Minister of Commerce since 1994.
Despite his new role in society, one thing hasn’t changed in Cham Prasidh’s mind. And that’s his faith in the 1979 tribunal—a faith that highlights the growing conflict over how to again try the Khmer Rouge leadership, this time with the likely support of the international community.
“In 1979, we needed a trial. Now, we do not. The first one, it was enough. Now, it’s not useful at all…I am a politician now, and I have a responsibility to the people. What the people need now is peace. Just peace.”
His argument echoes those frequently made by government officials when asked if surviving figures from Democratic Kampuchea like Ieng Sary should be tried. In recent interviews, Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested that bringing Ieng Sary to trial could lead to renewed fighting by former Khmer Rouge soldiers. Moreover, he suggested that Ieng Sary should not be tried twice for the same crime (even though the King later pardoned him for the 1979 conviction).
Yet making this leap assumes the 1979 trial was “enough,” as Cham Prasidh says, that it was a fair and just proceeding. And that’s something most legal experts will never accept.
Craig Etcheson, a noted scholar of the Khmer Rouge says the largely Vietnamese-inspired event was based on “revolutionary decrees by a regime not widely accepted in the international community as legitimate.”
“The outcome was predetermined by policy,” he says, “rather than decided in a clash of law and fact…It was fundamentally a political event, rather than a legal one.”
Sunlight peeks into the dusty Chaktomuk Theater on a recent afternoon, revealing little evidence that this cultural center once hosted the country’s most emotional trial to date.
Cham Prasidh, however, well remembers the August day he was driven to the riverside auditorium, given an identification badge and told when to testify.
“But they didn’t tell us what to say,” Cham Prasidh recalls. “They told me, ‘You represent the people,’ and that is what I did. I cried a few times during the testimony….Everyone in the room was crying. The story for one person was the same story for every person who was watching.”
Headed by Vietnamese-appointed Keo Chenda, a Cambodian Communist-party stalwart who later became Phnom Penh governor and who died in the mid-1980s, the 11-judge tribunal was attended by roughly 700 Cambodians and a handful of foreign legal experts, journalists and diplomats, trial records show.
While testimonies like Cham Prasidh’s apparently were spontaneous answers to prepared questions, documents housed in the National Archive show that the event was scripted in nearly every other sense, right up to the precise time when the jury would deliver its verdict.
Peppered with cocktail parties, visits by “foreign guests” to mass grave sites and the Tuol Sleng prison and film presentations by various ministries, the tribunal’s agenda set the verdict for the afternoon of Aug 19—just four days after the proceedings began.
Each session of the trial even came equipped with a theme, the agenda reads, such as “hard life in the so-called communes,” and the evidence gathered focused only on certain alleged massacres and individual hardships rather than the entire four-year period.
And although investigators spent several months interviewing witnesses before the trial began, at least one of them, Thun Saray, believes the groundwork was not sufficient.
“It was all so political…all I did was sit quietly with a lot of other witnesses.” But he never testified.
“They only chose certain people to testify. They chose monks, Chams, Chinese people—representatives from each,” says Thun Saray, now the director of Adhoc human rights group.
The testimonies lasted just a few days, which was “not enough time,” he says. “They selected their witnesses carefully. They selected everything carefully.”
Right down to the language the witnesses used.
When referring to the agents of their torture, witness accounts—now scattered throughout 14 boxes of court documents—almost always fingered Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, and rarely mentioned any other member of the Khmer Rouge.
“They would say, ‘Pol Pot killed my mother,’ even though they had never seen Pol Pot,” says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, adding that this crucial omission has rendered many of the testimonies useless for a future trial.
Throughout the 1979 trial, any Khmer Rouge soldier is referred to as a member of the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique” or a “polpotist.”
“While working in the fields, I often thought that the Pol Pot clique was even more atrocious than Hitler,” recalled one witness in a written statement.
Legal experts assembling the next trial agree that even if only the top leaders are tried, more of them than Pol Pot, who died in 1998, and Ieng Sary, who defected to the government in 1996 and resides in northwest Cambodia, would face prosecution.
Etcheson, a genocide researcher who has helped assemble potential evidence against a number of Khmer Rouge leaders, says the 1979 trial clearly had little to do with revealing the truth about the movement as a whole.
Considering the Cambodian officials who organized the trial allied themselves with the Vietnamese only after they split with Pol Pot’s regime, they had no interest in exposing the larger Khmer Rouge network. “Their goal was to de-legitimize the previous regime by discrediting its two most publicly prominent agents,” Craig Etcheson argues.
Not only did the testimonies single out Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, but they also placed much of the blame for the rise of the Khmer Rouge on one nation: China.
“The Pol Pot clique had a plan for the extermination of all the Khmer race on the Kampuchean territory, according to the order of the masters in Peking,” another witness postured.
While few historians dispute Chinese support of the Khmer Rouge during and after the 1975-79 regime—Ieng Sary, for example, was in Beijing negotiating military support just days before the fall of Phnom Penh—most agree the trial’s pointed references to a Chinese master elimination plan were steeped in Cold War politics.
Just as China was instituting its own communist experiment of repression during the 1960s, relations went cold between it and Vietnam when the Soviet Union grew close to Vietnam.
By the 1970s, the two world powers competed for influence in Southeast Asia, pushing the Soviet Union to support Vietnam and China to back the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. By 1979, Vietnam saw its overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent occupation of Cambodia as a victory over China.
As for the resulting trial, replete with pro-Vietnamese sentiments and frequent use of the Vietnamese language, “Much of the material is transparent political propaganda,” Etcheson says.
The anti-Chinese sentiment was so high at the time that Ung You Teckhor, of ethnic Chinese origin, said he felt it imperative to change his name to the more Cambodian Cham Prasidh after the trial.
“They wanted to put me up at the trial as a representative of the Chinese. I said I was a Cambodian…and I wanted to testify what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodians. It had nothing to do with people of Chinese origin,” he remembers.
Political propaganda aside, the legal proceedings of the 1979 trial—such as the arbitrary selection of witnesses—pose their own problems among international legal experts.
“The procedural conduct of the trial lacked significant aspects of judicial independence, due process and respect for the rights of defendants,” Etcheson says.
Dressed in casual clothing and seated in his sparsely furnished office, the man chosen to defend Pol Pot, however, upholds his role in the trial as difficult but necessary.
Dith Munty, now chief of the Supreme Court and a member of the CPP’s elite permanent committee, also lost dozens of relatives during Pot Pot’s regime. But he says he was committed to upholding the law.
“It is a criminal’s right to have a lawyer,” he says during the recent interview. “There were so few lawyers left at that time. And I was qualified to do it.”
According to trial documents, Dith Munty and another government-appointed defense lawyer were advised by a handful of foreign jurists—from Syria, Cuba, the US and others.
Yet they operated on a presumption of guilt rather than innocence.
During his speech to the tribunal, Dith Munty argued that Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were coerced by “expansionist-hegemonist Beijing reactionaries…who wanted to use our country as a base of expansion in Southeast Asia.”
“Our goal,” remembers Dith Munty, “was to work for a lighter sentence rather than a not-guilty verdict.”
Dith Munty’s partner, Yous Por, even attempted an apparent insanity plea and argued that his clients fell “under the strong influence of Maoism, and through a blind, virtually mad, obedience to the dogmas of Maoism, [they] perpetrated acts which any person having a conscience and a normal state of mind would never commit.”
While Dith Munty maintains that the mere presence of foreign jurists was enough to secure a fair and unbiased trial, Craig Etcheson argues that the approach constituted a disdain for the due process of law.
Despite his criticism, Craig Etcheson does note that some of the individual pieces of evidence from 1979 could be useful in the future trial.
And if researchers dig deep enough, they might “find some gems scattered here and there in the garbage heap.”
Say Ny’s testimony reads like the deadpan account of one too shell-shocked to react.
A 17-year-old who was taken by the Khmer Rouge to a camp in Pursat province, she tells tribunal investigators in short sentences how her brother was beheaded in front of her. When her mother went to grieve for him, she was beaten to death, her belly cut open and her liver ripped from her body. After that, Say Ny and another brother ran away from their prison camp, but her brother was caught and bashed to death with the butt of a gun.
The year was 1979, and after a few days of walking through the jungle, Say Ny encountered Vietnamese troops who sang liberation songs.
“I came up to ask for food. I was fed and given some cloth,” her testimony reads. “That’s what happened to my family. I am now being well looked after by the state. Everything I said is true.”
While her tragic testimony reads like countless others, Say Ny’s is one of the rare accounts not populated with rhetoric—the kind Youk Chhang says a diligent researcher just might find useful.
“The Cambodian people, they did not lie about what happened to them,” he says.
In fact, Youk Chhang’s team recently interviewed another woman whose testimony they unearthed in the 1979 files. Interviewers traveled to Kandal province and asked Ham Sokun, without revealing their identity, about how her husband was killed for breaking a farm plow. Her story was exactly the same as it was 20 years earlier.
Yet while her memories today match what she said then and could prove helpful in the upcoming trial, few can deny that Ham Sokun had something in 1979 she’ll never get back again: a fresh memory of who was responsible for her suffering.
Dith Munty says that after 20 years, some of the most crucial details could be lost forever. “That is why we have to finish the Khmer Rouge chapter fast, finish the bitterness in Cambodian people’s hearts and let the memories go away.”
One way to do that, some scholars and human rights workers suggest, would be a truth commission, in which former Khmer Rouge leaders publicly admit their wrongdoing. Widely accepted as necessary to the national healing process since the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they suggest that a commission could sidestep the political wrangling over the new trial and provide Cambodians the closure they need.
Cham Prasidh, however, believes Cambodia already had its truth commission—at the 1979 trial.
“I cannot resurrect my parents and my relatives. Now, 20 years later, they want to provide justice to people who died. I am one of those victims of the Khmer Rouge who is entitled to ask for condemnation. In the end, I will support whatever the government wants to do….But I think there is no need for another tribunal. Just remember what was said in 1979, so no other leader can make these mistakes again. That, I think, is enough.”