Khmer Rouge Genocide Debate Moves to Trial

As Khmer Rouge tanks approached Phnom Penh in April 1975, Mam Savan, a Cham Muslim who served as a military commander under Lon Nol, burned all documents linking him to the U.S.-backed regime.

Despite managing to conceal his military past before being evacuated to Battambang province as the Khmer Rouge began implementing its radical agrarian revolution, Mr. Savan, who was 45 at the time, was soon facing persecution for his religious beliefs.

–News Analysis

Mam Savan stands in Phnom Penh's Russei Keo district last week. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Mam Savan stands in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district last week. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

“They beat me on the back. When they found out we were Muslim, they beat us,” Mr. Savan said last week, lifting his shirt to reveal a large bump on his back during an interview on a roadside in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district.

“They then made me look after pigs because they knew we disliked pigs,” he said.

The discrimination intensified and by 1978, killings began as paranoia spread among officials in the Northwest Zone, Mr. Savan said.

“They took more than 20 Cham people and shot them in front of me. Before they shot them, the Khmer Rouge said, ‘You support the Americans, you want democracy,’” he said. “They tied them in a line and three Khmer Rouge soldiers sprayed them with AK-47 bullets.”

More than forty years after the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, ushering in a nearly four-year reign during which an estimated 1.7 million people died, hearings at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on Monday turned to the charge of genocide for the first time.

After being found guilty of crimes against humanity—mainly for the forced movement of people—in the first phase of their trial last year, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are facing many of the most serious charges against them in the second phase.

The alleged genocide of Cham Muslims and Vietnamese under Democratic Kampuchea is perhaps the most controversial charge faced by the last surviving leaders of the regime.

At the center of the debate is whether the brutalities carried out by the Khmer Rouge specifically targeted ethnic groups with the intent to destroy them, or whether members of ethnic groups died in large numbers for the same reason that so many others perished during the Pol Pot era.

With the U.N.’s Genocide Convention defining genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” scholars have argued that political and economic—not ethnic—motivations were the main drivers of the regime’s policies.

In his book “The Pol Pot Regime,” historian Ben Kiernan states there is “no question” that a genocidal campaign was waged against ethnic Vietnamese, stating that by 1979, every single one of the roughly 10,000 Vietnamese remaining in Cambodia after 1975—when about 150,000 were expelled from the country—were dead.

Similarly, Mr. Kiernan argues there is “no doubt” that the Khmer Rouge intended to destroy the Cham through massacres and the dispersion of the group among ethnic Khmer.

The Cham population of Cambodia was reduced from roughly a quarter of a million to about 173,000 during the regime, Mr. Kiernan states, including a vast majority of Cham community leaders. In total, about 36 percent of Cham people in Cambodia died during the regime, compared to about 19 percent of Khmer people.

Historian Michael Vickery, however, argues in the preface to the 1999 edition of his book “Cambodia: 1975-1982” that “genocide” has been incorrectly applied to the Khmer Rouge.

“I did not, and still do not, consider ‘genocide’ to be an accurate term for the radical social and economic experiments in which Cambodia’s first generation of revolutionaries indulged, and because the effects of those radical policies differed widely over time and in different regions,” Mr. Vickery wrote.

“Genocide, if the term is at all accurate, was also clearest with respect to Vietnamese in 1975-1979, but by 1975 there were too few Vietnamese left in Cambodia to give quantitative support to a genocide argument.”

David Chandler, another historian of Cambodia who has been skeptical of the notion that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide, said the crime would be particularly difficult to prove in relation to treatment of the Cham.

“Intent is impossible to prove in the Cambodian case. It is also hard to prove in cases like the collectivization of the Ukraine under Stalin [and] Mao’s Great Leap Forward,” Mr. Chandler said in an email.

“It is clear that the Vietnamese in Cambodia in 1978 were killed because they were Vietnamese, and thus a charge of genocide would fit. It’s unclear if this was the case with the Chams, or that killing of Chams as Chams was ever directed from the top.”

Five young Khmer Rouge cadre stand in front of a mosque near Phnom Penh in 1977. (DC-Cam)
Five young Khmer Rouge cadre stand in front of a mosque near Phnom Penh in 1977. (DC-Cam)

According to John Ciorciari, an American scholar who has written extensively about the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the propaganda spread by Pol Pot’s regime leaves no question as to the racial motivation behind some of their crimes.

In the essay “‘Auto-Genocide’ and the Cambodian Reign of Terror,” Mr. Ciorciari writes that Khmer Rouge officials publicly voiced plans to destroy ethnic Vietnamese, including in a radio broadcast on May 10, 1978, in which each Cambodian was called upon “to kill 30 Vietnamese people.”

“The message voices a clear intent to destroy the Vietnamese people in their entirety. No security imperative or Communist ideological quest could require the annihilation of every Vietnamese person,” he writes.

Despite his belief that there is evidence of genocide under the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), Mr. Ciorciari also highlighted the dilemma the tribunal would face in trying the defendants charged with genocide.

“To many observers, a finding that CPK leaders were guilty of anything short of ‘genocide’ would seem to trivialize their agony,” he wrote in 2004, before the tribunal was established.

“That poses a dilemma for the prospective Khmer Rouge tribunal and any other courts faced with borderline cases of genocide.”

“Part of the tribunal’s role is to achieve justice for the victims of the CPK, but part is also to encourage the development of a sustainable rule of law in Cambodia,” he wrote. “Loose colloquial and rhetorical usage of the term ‘genocide’ for decades has created a situation in which an honest verdict may fail to quench the entire Cambodian thirst for justice.”

Sitting outside his home in Russei Keo district last week, Simmatt Ly, 81, said he had never fully understood why Cham people, including 20 members of his own family, were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

“In 1978, they took my whole family and hit them over the head with hoes. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I saw the corpses lying in the pond,” said Mr. Ly, who was a fisherman on the Tonle Sap river before being sent to Prey Veng province.

“We don’t know the reason why they killed us. We think it was because they didn’t want us to gather together to rise against them,” he said. “They told us, ‘Do not go beyond what the organization sets up: If you align yourself with two things, you will be killed.’”

Mr. Savan, the former Lon Nol commander, said he still found ways to express his faith while living under the Khmer Rouge.

“We were not allowed to worship, if they saw us, they would kill us, so we never did it. But sometimes I would hold my hands together behind a tree and pray to God to free me from this regime and set me free,” he said.

“I think Allah helped—they didn’t kill me.”

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