The world has just heard closing arguments in the last active litigation of the series of great human atrocities of the 20th century, this time the Cambodian genocide of 1975 to 1979.
Rarely have such trials passed to broad local or international satisfaction, and the much maligned U.N.-sponsored Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is no exception. Four decades after the horrific death toll of at least 1.5 million during the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the nine-year tribunal can boast of three convictions of men at the end of their lives at a cost of $300 million.
June 23 will be a day Cambodia remembers; the final two accused, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, made final statements ahead of later sentencing. They grabbed their last chance to set the historical record their compatriots choose for their future. Khieu Samphan took the stand, probably the last-ever public address by a Khmer Rouge official. Nuon Chea’s lawyer did his talking.
Only part of the day was easily predictable. The former communist leaders spoke of victor’s justice and a trial discredited by prosecutors’ and victims’ theatrics. Ninety-year-old Nuon Chea, in the words of his clearly disgusted lawyer, didn’t want to speak for this very reason. “Nuon Chea couldn’t care less if you convict him again for a life sentence. Rightfully so…he doesn’t take this institution seriously.”
Far more interesting was the day’s departure from legal complaints toward justifications for the regime’s actions at the time. The accused regard themselves in a morally righteous light—as defenders of Cambodian independence. Their regret isn’t with genocide, but rather with Vietnam’s successful myth of a “self-genocide,” which has allowed this foreign rival to gain influence over Cambodia’s government and economy.
Both men insisted that appreciating what the Khmer Rouge was attempting to do, and the immense challenges they faced, demands sensitivity to conditions in the country in that period. Cambodia, already the “sick man of Asia” before April 1975, was in existential crisis—suffering widespread hunger, constant U.S. bombing in the east, and—they claim—prospective subjugation by Vietnamese forces.
Policies central to genocide claims at the Tribunal, like forced labor and mass displacement to agricultural communes, were characterized as desperate necessities far from having any evil intent. “To achieve the best output and feed everyone…is this criminal? Of course not.”
Khieu Samphan freely admitted life was hard, that farming under bombing and irrigation construction was a backbreaking task demanding discipline and collectivization. Nuon Chea, the only Khmer Rouge defendant to accept “moral responsibility,” insisted the leadership had no intent to kill its people but only to harness a group dynamic in the midst of existential crisis to maintain national independence.
In Khieu Samphan’s words, as he responded to the accusation of an enslavement policy, “In order to rebuild and defend our country, the only force we had was the strength of our people.” The regime, he continued, will someday be honored for resisting an “Indo-Communist Federation” imposed by Vietnam.
The second line of defense referred to any government’s right to deal with political chaos and enemy intrigue by eliminating foreign collaborators at home. The defense teams spoke of Cambodian efforts no different than Soeharto’s killings of communist sympathizers or the ongoing U.S. attacks against untried terror suspects in the Middle East. Naturally, Vietnamese collaborators were also blamed for the deaths attributed to the accused.
The third set of excuses spoke to inadequate evidence of mass killings necessary to the definition of genocide. The defense disputed the prosecution’s casualty lists, accepted by the tribunal, and highlighted the mismatch of forensic evidence at the killing fields. “There are 5,000 pictures of prisoners and 6,000 skulls at Choeung Ek,” Nuon Chea’s lawyer reported. “Where’s the forensic evidence of the other alleged 11,000 or so?”
This was not a day of contrition. Khieu Samphan’s closing words expressed his hope that his regime’s love for Cambodian independence, not a false genocide, is what history—at least in this country—will remember: “To all those who perished by believing in a better ideal of a brighter future during the five year war under the American bombardments and the conflict with the Vietnamese, their memory will never be honored by an international tribunal.”