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Fears over KR trial

Dear Editor,

This April 17, 2001 marks the 26th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.

In a period of three years, eight months and 20 days, the ultra-radical, chiliastic

Maoist regime succeeded in eradicating two (out of seven) million Cambodians and

all traces of "foreign" elements from society; religious institutions and

educational and physical infrastructures were obliterated. They emptied all the cities.

Darkness descended on this once-tropical paradise and transformed it into the killing

fields. That April 17, 1975 marked the beginning of the year zero.

My youngest brother Daravuth was only a few months old when they executed my father.

My mother joined him two years later. My four brothers and I had been living for

the last five months in a prison compound somewhere in southeastern Cambodia when

guards entered our cabin one night. They looked around, caught my eyes, and quickly

left. "Mom, why were those guards carrying wet ropes?" "My daughter,

go back to sleep". I did. The prison guards returned later that night. Those

words are forever seared in my mind; they were her last words to me and formed my

only memory of her.

I am writing now because I fear another tragedy is about to unfold in the Cambodian

drama, a parody that will ridicule the memories of the living and curdle even the

blood of the dead. I fear the national tribunal for the Khmer Rouge. With an international

stamp of approval. This is unacceptable and should be unacceptable to the United

Nations, the United States, the European Union, Asean, and all lovers of justice.

The international community's confidence in the Hun Sen government is misplaced for

several reasons.

One, the perpetrators are attempting to try themselves. Who is Hun Sen? A former

Khmer Rouge soldier. And Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan? The architects

of the murderous regime, who are enjoying the protection of the Hun Sen government.

Two, the country lacks the necessary infrastructure and legal capacity to conduct

even the most simple evidentiary hearing - again thanks to the Khmer Rouge regime.

Between university and law school, I spent one year working in the Cambodian Ministry

of Justice and half a year interviewing justices in 18 of the 22 provinces. I have

seen first hand the fragility of the country's legal system (or lack thereof).

Three, the court lacks independence. Many of the judges swear allegiance to the ruling

party. It's difficult to blame them when they earn $20 a month and their basic needs

are not met. Maybe there is some truth to the saying, to have principles is a luxury.

Fourth, a culture of impunity prevails inside the country. In a land where might

makes right, the perpetrators (against the pro-democracy movement in particular)

continue to remain faceless to enjoy the fruits of their crime. Whereas, in other

cases, the government is so prescient of crimes to be committed by those in the opposition

that names and faces are known to the government before they are known to the alleged

perpetrators themselves.

So as I write, the Hun Sen government, with the participation of the United Nations,

is working toward creating a semblance of a tribunal, domestically-controlled. The

UN's own report and the FBI finding of the 1997 Easter Massacre, not politics, should

inform the decision-making of the international community. I understand the international

comm-unity's concern about the sovereignty of Cambodia, but where a miscarriage of

justice is certain to occur, human values should trump state values and the international

community is obligated to step in. And not in an ancillary role. If not, the international

community's failure to intervene in a meaningful way will create a moral hazard (a

de facto license) for rogues-in training and other Pol Pot-wannabes to commit genocide

and crimes against humanity at will and with impunity.

It was a crime upon a crime that Pol Pot should pass away three years ago the same

way my saintly grandmother passed away a year ago - in peace. Cambodians need closure

of their past. Justice has been invisible to them 26 years too long. One needs to

forgive in order to laugh again; but one cannot forget. And not at the expense of


So on this most sorrowful day of remembrance, I beseech the United Nations, the United

States, and the rest of the international community to work toward the formation

of an international criminal tribunal for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. A nationally-controlled

trial will be a regrettable sham that should be shunned by the international community.

However, if that be the case, it is then preferable not to have a tribunal at all

than to have one that perverts justice and de-legitimizes the victims.

- Theary Seng, Daughter of the Killing Fields



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