The questions that always come up when one discusses the Khmer Rouge tribunal are what is the significance of the tribunal to the regime survivors, the people of Cambodia and the nation as a whole, and can justice be served?
Different people have different opinions and no matter what the opinions are, from an historical point of view, what happened and will happen at the tribunal plays a significant role in Cambodia’s contemporary history.
The tribunal serves as a platform for the nation to find the truth, allow victims and perpetrators to come to terms with the past, reconcile and heal. Case 001 ended with a life imprisonment sentence given to Duch, who oversaw the infamous Toul Sleng, or S-21, detention centre.
This led to Case 002 in which the accused were the people who had direct involvement in implementing Democratic Kampuchea policies that led to the disastrous regime that killed approximately 1.7 million people, some say many more.
However, not everyone shares the same opinion. My mother was also a victim of the regime and was a child during the regime. She told me that she does not care about the tribunal.
Although she admits that she does not religiously follow it, her reason was she does not believe the trials will produce any meaningful results. She told me that it has taken too long and cost too much money.
Understanding her reasoning, I asked if she thinks justice can be served from the trials and she gave me a straightforward “no”, without further elaboration.
My great aunt shares a different opinion to my mother. Now in her early 50s, her experience during the Khmer Rouge regime left a deeper impression.
Her story is not much different from the many that have been told – she was relocated to Kratie province and was forced to work in the fields, dig dykes and build dams. Life was horrible for her and it undoubtedly shaped her life today.
She is an incredible woman. She is politically active and a strong advocate for social justice.
Since day one of Case 001 at the tribunal, she has closely followed its development. She believes the tribunal is important to her, as well as to the nation, because it serves a role in finding ways to help the nation come to terms with the past and seek justice.
However, like my mother, she thinks it operates too slowly and the accused are getting too old. She expressed her disappointment at the death of Ieng Sary and the dismissal of Ieng Thirith due to her mental condition, but said the trials could not be rushed because it is part of the legal process.
She was also adamant that the tribunal could not give her and the people of Cambodia “100 per cent justice”, but believes the victims can find some peace and be satisfied if the final ruling reflects the crimes the accused have committed.
She would also like the tribunal to investigate those who had direct involvement in the killing of people at the regional and commune level and also hinted at prosecuting those who are now in positions of power.
For her, this will prevent key perpetrators from getting away with murder as well as serve as a warning sign to future leaders about committing atrocities because there will be various mechanisms to punish them for their crimes.
My grandfather also shares the same opinion as my great aunt. In my opinion, his story is one that should be shared with the public.
He was born in Svay Rieng province and moved to Phnom Penh in the early 1950s to follow his parents, who moved to Phnom Penh to seek work. My grandfather was a well-educated man.
Despite coming from a family with a modest income, he completed all levels of schooling that were offered at the time. Then he worked at the US embassy as an office secretary until Prince Sihanouk ended Cambodia’s relations with the US.
He returned to work at the embassy again when relations were re-established. This time he worked as a military radio operator.
He once told me he had worked and inspected a US arms warehouse in Anlong Veng, which was part of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) operation.
He was smart and lucky at the same time to out-live the Khmer Rouge regime. Given his intellectual capacity and his connection with the US, he should have been one of the first people to be executed.
At one point during the regime, he was imprisoned where he was forced to do hard labour.
Every day, he keeps himself updated on international and national affairs. He told me that the tribunal is just a mechanism for holding the ex-Khmer Rouge leaders accountable and punishing them for their crimes in a legal manner.
Like my great aunt, he thinks the ECCC’s operation is slow and wishes for the process to move quicker. But even in his old age, he still wants to see the ex-Khmer Rouge leaders given life imprisonment, even if they cannot live out a long life imprisonment term.
To him, it is a symbolic gesture which gives him a feeling that justice has been served.
As for me, I am of the generation that was born around the time of the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement. Growing up, I knew next to nothing about the Khmer Rouge.
All I knew was that Pol Pot was bad – I was not sure whether Pol Pot was a person or something else. It was not until I moved to be educated in the US that I learned about Cambodia.
I also believe that the tribunal is important. It helps the nation learn and understand about our past and foster dialogues as a way to reconcile with our history, heal and grow.
However, I am weary. I also think the entire operation is too slow, but it is not really the key point for my weariness.
My wish is for the tribunal to look at the issue from a global perspective and hold external actors accountable. I do not believe that the ex-Khmer Rouge leaders should be the only ones to stand trial.
There are external actors who are as guilty in allowing the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime to happen and must be held accountable, too. Right now the nation is waiting for the final verdict in Case 002 and has various expectations.
As for me, I know my wish cannot be fulfilled in the foreseeable future and this is something I must live with.
Documentation Center of Cambodia.
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