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Calling for a government mea culpa for the KR


Dear Editor,

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Cambodia’s Extraordinary Chambers will see its first trial early this year, but some observers are calling for the government to do more than support the trial - by apologising for the injustices of the KR regime.

The fall of the Khmer Rouge regime left 1.7 million killed, all infrastructure destroyed and many widows and orphans.

The new government after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and the current government tried to provide restorative justice for Cambodians, but the scale of the crimes committed was so big and a genuine political will to seek redress remained so fragile that today Cambodia is still struggling to obtain reparations for the victims of past human rights violations.

In (the book) An Introduction to the Khmer Rouge Trials, Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen said: "Not a single one of our people has been spared from the ravages brought upon our country during the three years, eight months and twenty days" of Democratic Kampuchea.  

The present operation of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is an illustration of the government's good will to deal with past human rights violations by providing some sort of justice for Cambodians who were victimised during the period of the KR regime. This court allows victims to participate as civil parties and to make claims for reparations, though in symbolic ways. As of the end of October 2008, there were 28 civil parties in case 001 (S21-Kaing Guk Eav aka Duch) and 24 civil parties in case 002 (Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, and Kaing Guk Eav) and there are more than 2,500 applications pending. These figures show that the court is relevant and important for Cambodians.  

Soon the court will conduct its first trial. Due to the number of victims, neither the court nor the state can compensate each individual. Individual compensation, if it were to be selective, may also affect existing reconciliation in communities. 

In any case, the internal rules of the ECCC only allow the court to provide collective and symbolic reparations. There is no money in the court's current budget and the ECCC has not established a Trust Fund to provide and implement reparations. The accused also claim to be indigent. In the minds of the judges, collective and symbolic reparation may be limited to forcing the convicted person(s) to pay for publication of the court decision or forcing him/them to publicly apologise.

This is not enough for the victims to move forward.

Reparations uphold the status of victims as bearers of rights and convey a sense that they are owed some compensation. Reparations should serve as a vehicle for acknowledging past violations and state responsibility for crimes committed in its name, as well as a public commitment to address their enduring impact. We can't change the past, but how can victims move forward?

What victims have asked for is not necessarily money. Public apology is often referred to by victims as a key element of the reparations they seek. Up to now, such  an apology has never come from the state.

Many victims say that they cannot reconcile when the state has never apologised for the crimes of its predecessor. Yet, state agent(s) continue to get political benefit from the sufferings of the victims.

The country established May 21 as "Hatred Day" to commemorate the death of the victims and, in most public speeches, our prime minister acknowledges the crimes and sufferings of Cambodians during the KR regime. However, he has never issued or planned to come up with any state policy to apologise for the wrongdoings of the prior regime.

Such a state apology has been made in many parts of the world. Hungarian authorities apologised for the role of the state in the genocide of the Jews; Canada apologised and provided compensation for historical abuses against native nations; former French president Jacques Chirac apologized for the crimes committed in the name of the state during the Second World War; the US president as well as the secretary general of the United Nations apologised publicly for their failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda; and other heads of state apologised for past abuse in Australia, Chile, Serbia, etc.

Why not Cambodia?

The government's issuance of a public apology in the name of the state would not disturb social peace, nor would it upset any former Khmer Rouge members who are now in the government, at the parliament or in the Cambodian People's Party.

It would not create political instability. Instead, it would bring more legitimacy to the current government, as it would show its consciousness of the enormous price paid by Cambodians to previous human rights abuses, and assure that they won't be repeated again.

The apology will help the victims to heal and move forward.  The state apology could be issued in parallel with the first judgment issued by the ECCC in order to make the symbolic reparations offered more meaningful.

But it could also be made on the 30th anniversary of the end of the KR regime, on January 7, 2009, the day on which the CPP's current leaders put an end to Democratic Kampuchea.

Long Panhavuth

Cambodia Justice Initiative



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