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
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
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