Human rights advocates and legal experts have expressed dismay at the growing likelihood that no one will ever be brought to justice for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
Allowing the key figures of the horrific Democratic Kampuchea era to escape trial would have far-reaching negative consequences for Cambodian society, many said.
Millions who suffered under the regime and lost friends and family would be deprived of justice and a sense of closure. Plus, many said bringing no one to account for the estimated 1.7 million deaths during the Khmer Rouge rule would further cement the “culture of impunity” that still pervades Cambodian society.
“I welcome the defections and the end of war, but the people responsible for the bad things during that time should be tried,” said Chhay Yiheang, dean of philosophy at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
“People have been waiting for this since 1979,” Chhay Yiheang said, recalling the Jan 7, 1979 liberation of Phnom Penh. “If we do not hold a trial, it will make Jan 7 lose its meaning.”
A government spokesman said Monday that the government would consider handing the senior rebel leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea over to an international tribunal. However, Cambodia scholar David Chandler said that without Prime Minister Hun Sen’s support, a tribunal is unlikely to be formed because of the expense and hassle involved.
“I’d say that an international tribunal is no longer a realistic possibility,” Chandler said by e-mail Monday.
That would leave any trial up to Cambodia—and Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday that he opposes a trial for the defecting leaders. With Pol Pot dead and former Democratic Kampuchea foreign minister Ieng Sary now enjoying a royal amnesty, the list of Khmer Rouge leaders eligible for trial is dwindling.
Kao Kim Hourn, head of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, agreed that the nation must find unity after decades of devastating civil war. But he said Cambodians also need justice and so he supports a trial for the top Khmer Rouge leaders.
“National reconciliation should not be at any cost,” he said.
“This is the best opportunity for Cambodia to really find the truth, to find justice and to close the chapter of Cambodian history,” he said.
“If we don’t go through this process, I think we are continuing to build a culture of impunity. It will be a blow to the rule of law and the concept of justice.”
Chhay Yiheang agreed that some Cambodians already are disillusioned with the country’s haphazard justice system.
“People have lost confidence, not only with Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, but with other powerful officers who commit crimes and are never sent to court,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian chapter of the International Human Rights Law Group, said he was “a little surprised” to hear Hun Sen had embraced Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.
“I don’t know what his reason is,” Sok Sam Oeun said. “For me, I still support the international tribunal….I want to know why and how, what they did, why a million people died like this.”
Although Hun Sen said Monday that most Cambodians support his policy of “pacification” and reconciliation with the former rebels, Sok Sam Oeun said his impression is that many have mixed feelings about letting accused mass murderers go free.
“The people still think about justice,” he said. “Maybe they keep quiet because they think about national reconciliation, but it does not mean that they are happy with this decision.”
Hun Sen said Monday that a trial would only reopen old wounds. But attorney Brad Adams, until recently the top legal adviser to the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh, said Monday that in the five years he spent in Cambodia, everyone he met supported an international tribunal for top Khmer Rouge leaders.
“You cannot meet a Cambodian whose family was not torn apart by what happened in the ’70s. It’s a very open wound, and people want justice,” Adams told the BBC in London.
And there is more at stake than personal justice and closure. Adams said that without a trial, the truth of what happened during the Khmer Rouge’s rule may never come out.
“A lot of myths have sprung up. Cambodians don’t like to admit that they did this to themselves,” he said. “A popular excuse in Cambodia right now is that the Vietnamese actually authored this. This is very dangerous. This is one reason that there should be a trial because a trial would allow for a complete accounting of what happened, and then history cannot be played with, history can’t be misused for political reasons.”