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Beyond the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

In the Western philosophical tradition, the ancient Greeks taught that justice is giving to each person what she or he is due. But what is due to a woman whose husband and children were executed before her eyes 25 years ago, and who has lived in abject misery ever since? There is no possible way society can make that woman "whole" again. Her life and dignity have been irretrievably diminished.

What is a just and appropriate punishment due to perpetrators of the crime of genocide? Chhang Youk, the Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, once facetiously asked, 'Should those convicted of genocide in Cambodia be sentenced to two million years in prison, one year for each person killed? Should they be fined two million dollars?' Chhang's rhetorical question suggests how difficult it is to define what constitutes "justice" in the wake of genocide. Nothing seems to achieve the kind of balance implied by the classical Greek formulation.

Another answer to this question came from an elderly Cambodian woman in 1997. She told a journalist that each of the ten million Cambodians alive today should be given a razor blade, and Pol Pot should be brought before the people, with each Cambodian allowed to make one cut. It is a grizzly image, though one which reveals the depth of retribution many Cambodians still seek for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime. And this also reinforces the simple conclusion that there can be no such thing as perfect justice for crimes on the scale of genocide.

Of course, now Pol Pot is gone, and he is beyond earthly justice. And the proposed Khmer Rouge tribunal has been carefully negotiated so as to bring to "justice" only a handful of Pol Pot's surviving henchmen and henchwomen, probably fewer than a dozen former Khmer Rouge leaders. Even if the tribunal surpasses the expectations of its critics and metes out fair and impartial justice to these few individuals, the legal proceedings will inevitably leave many Cambodians unsatisfied.

In villages all across the country, Cambodians live amid those who were responsible for their torment during the Khmer Rouge regime. Many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of former Khmer Rouge cadre who ordered and carried out the execution of loved ones still live freely everywhere. In many cases, these former killers are still in positions of political power.

There is a woman in Kandal province's Trea Commune, for instance, whose husband was sentenced to death by a Khmer Rouge village chief for no particular reason. When this woman hears that "the Khmer Rouge leaders" have been "brought to justice", she will wonder why that Khmer Rouge village chief continues to live unmolested just down the road from her house. For this woman, that man is the embodiment of a "Khmer Rouge leader", and the source of her on-going torment. The tribunal will bring little sense of justice to her. In fact, it may do little more than intensify her already-powerful sense of injustice.

When the Khmer Rouge tribunal finally gets under way, this scene will recur everywhere in the country. It is something for which we must prepare, because no matter how successful the tribunal turns out to be on its own merits, it will raise questions that must be answered, and for which there currently are no good answers.

For some of these questions, there may never be any good answers. For example, there is no good answer to the ubiquitous existential question on the lips of every survivor of the Cambodian genocide: Why? Why did we have to suffer so much? Even so, we must actively seek answers to those questions that potentially can be answered, such as, How can Cambodians live together in peace?

But the problem is much more complicated than how Khmer Rouge and non-Khmer Rouge can learn to live together. Thirty years of war and genocide have hacked many cleavages into Cambodian society, and though the Khmer-Rouge-non-Khmer-Rouge cleavage may be the mother of all the cleavages, it is hardly the only one that has to be addressed.

As Ok Serei Sopheak of the Cambodian Development Research Institute has pointed out, there are also many serious cleavages within the Khmer Rouge itself. There are cleavages between the Diaspora Khmer, and the Khmer who still live in Cambodia. There are cleavages between those who spent the 1980s in the Thai border camps, and those who stayed inside Cambodia. There are cleavages between those who still see value in the monarchy, and those who see it as an anachronistic institution. There are cleavages between those who survived the Khmer Rouge regime, and those who have been born since. There are cleavages between those who were drawn to socialist and communist ideologies, and those who always regarded communism as evil. There are cleavages between those who see Vietnam and the Vietnamese as the greatest threat to Cambodia's future, and those who see an antagonistic attitude toward Vietnam as the greater threat. There are serious cleavages between urban and rural Cambodians.

The list of cleavages goes on and on. Cambodia is a deeply divided, deeply fractured society. These multiple, crosscutting cleavages in Cambodian society and politics imply that there is a huge challenge for reconciliation in Cambodia today. The challenge is for us to figure out how to bridge all these chasms that divide the Cambodian people one from another.

These considerations suggest to me that perhaps the question I posed at the outset might be the wrong question. As we have seen, there appears to be no good answer to that question anyway. Perhaps the real problem here is not so much what is a just punishment for genocide. Instead, maybe we should focus on the problem of how to heal the damage done to Cambodia's society, polity and people by a Thirty Years War.

It is my personal belief that the Khmer Rouge tribunal is a necessary step in healing this damage. But the tribunal will be far from sufficient to deal with the underlying problems facing Cambodia. If Cambodia is to one day become a stable, peaceful and progressive society, much more needs to be done than simply bringing war criminals to account.

What is needed, in a word, is national reconciliation. When we look at the techniques and methods of promoting reconciliation, it turns out that there is quite a long list of things that can be done.

A short-list of these techniques would include Retributive Justice (criminal tribunals, of the international, domestic, and mixed types), Restorative Justice (truth commissions and other truth-telling bodies), Other Legal Measures (banning, pardons, amnesty, and prohibiting perpetrators from holding public office), Economic Measures (confiscation, redistribution, reparations, restitution, and development), Apologies (by perpetrators, the state, and/or other states involved in the conflict), Symbolic Measures (memorials and museums), Artistic Methods (performing and plastic arts, literature, and architecture), Days of Commemoration, Educational Measures (primary, secondary, tertiary, and continuing), Consecration of Human Remains (exhumation and reburial or cremation, plus religious, secular and legal or forensic approaches), Rituals (both religious and secular), Coercive Methods (such as extrajudicial and vigilante murder, or re-education camps), Mediation Approaches (both external and internal), and Social and Psychotherapeutic Methods (group and individual intervention, applying social, medical and/or public health models).

Interestingly, almost all of these different approaches to reconciliation have been implemented, in one form or another, and at one time or another, in Cambodia over the last quarter century. In most cases, however, these efforts have failed to do much to achieve national reconciliation because they have most often been applied in order to advance partisan political objectives, rather than to achieve real reconciliation. Examples abound.

In 1979 and the early 1980s, the ruling party provided amnesty even to former Khmer Rouge who were judged to owe "blood debts", in order to gather forces for the struggle against Pol Pot. The political imperative of strengthening the new regime against the still-dangerous forces of Pol Pot trumped the moral imperative that those who owe debts to society should be required to pay those debts. This kind of amnesty does not promote real national reconciliation.

The Killing Fields memorial sites which dot Cambodia's landscape were not originally erected to provide a place for memory and grieving. Rather, these genocide memorials were specifically conceived to provide a physical locus for the annual "Day of Hatred" ceremonies. Those ceremonies, in turn, were designed to demonize the Khmer Rouge as an "Other". This is precisely the opposite of reconciliation.

Efforts to transform these explicitly political uses of reconciliation mechanisms have been slow and difficult. Since the final collapse of Khmer Rouge political and military organizations in 1999, however, halting efforts in this direction have emerged. Many-though not all-of these efforts have emanated from leaders of civil society.

For example, a group of forward-leaning thinkers inside the Cambodian People's Party has attempted to transform the "Day of Hatred" into a "Day of Remembrance". This would represent a subtle but extremely significant metamorphosis. Among survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide, the political connotations associated with the May 20 observance are probably so deeply ingrained that such a change may have little effect on their thinking. But such a change would be a precious opportunity for younger generations, providing a day each year to contemplate the ineffable grief of Cambodia's modern history, and to ponder what Cambodia's citizens must do to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

Lao Mong Hay has proposed erecting a monument to "The Triumph of Liberty over Tyranny" in some public place of Cambodia's leading city. Such an artistic achievement would provide a positive and non-partisan symbol of the hopes and dreams of the Cambodian people. It would bring light to all Cambodians who have suffered during the country's long years of darkness. But Mong Hay's idea still awaits realization.

Chhang Youk has been working with the Tuol Sleng Museum to imagine new exhibits that embody a pedagogical message of the shared suffering among the Cambodian people. A good example of this is the daily showings at Tuol Sleng of Rithy Panh's film, "Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy". This film tells the story of two young Khmer Rouge cadres who were executed for falling in love without permission from the Angkar. For some Cambodian viewers, it comes as a revelation that even the Khmer Rouge suffered under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Chea Vannath has organized town meetings that bring together Khmer Rouge and non-Khmer Rouge to discuss their common future together. At one such meeting in Battambang, a survey distributed to participants at the end of the meeting revealed that at least half of the Khmer Rouge cadres at the meeting were in favor of a criminal tribunal for their former leaders. This suggested to some non-Khmer Rouge Cambodians that perhaps many former Khmer Rouge are not that much different from other Cambodians-indeed, maybe they are not "different" at all.

Kao Kim Hourn has organized meetings that bring together leaders from Funcinpec and the Cambodian People's Party to discuss such concepts as the "national interest". In Cambodia's political system, the idea of a "loyal opposition" has never really taken root. Moreover, the distinction between partisan political interests and the interests of the state has not yet completely transcended Cambodia's ancient traditions of the divine right of leaders. In this environment, these kinds of discussions among political leaders of different persuasions can be invaluable in helping to move Cambodian political culture out of its archaic condition and into the modern era.

These and similar efforts must be encouraged, given strategic direction, and supported by those of us who wish to see a better Cambodia emerge.

While the Khmer Rouge tribunal is a necessary step for Cambodia to move forward from the Thirty Years War, much, much more will need to be done to heal the country's deep and festering wounds. We need to approach these tasks strategically, and with creativity and flexibility. And, quite frankly, the international donor community needs to pay more attention to these kinds of small-scale but crucial efforts.

The Khmer Rouge tribunal will not be the culmination of Cambodia's struggle for national reconciliation, but it will be a pivotal moment in that struggle. By joining together in this struggle, and doing what must be done to capitalize on and then move beyond the achievements of the tribunal, we can assist the Cambodian people in securing what is due to each and every Cambodian: a peaceful future.

Yet this peaceful future will not emerge without a broad-based national reconciliation. Approached with right-mindfulness and compassion, reconciliation should not be difficult to achieve in Cambodia. In contrast to Western philosophical traditions, the concept of reconciliation is very much in harmony with Cambodia's Buddhist philosophical tradition.

The Buddha taught that revenge leads only to more revenge. But we must not confuse revenge with the need for justice. And at the same time, we must act on the knowledge that more than retributive justice alone will be required to achieve true national reconciliation.

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