Does the recent mass defection of second-echelon Khmer Rouge cadre, their followers
and dependents mean the "end" of the Khmer Rouge? Does the reported detention
of Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in Thailand mean that they will soon be brought
to justice? Is this horrific era, with its interminable last act, finally drawing
to a close?
Few political movements have gone through as many name changes, breakdowns, deaths
and resurrections as the Khmer Rouge but this time what began as tragedy (for its
victims) and degenerated into farce does indeed appear to be coming to an end.
Or almost: the final bow, by Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, remains to be made
and cannot be far off.
There is widespread speculation that the three men will face a tribunal of some sort,
but the timing, venue, format and sponsorship of such a proceeding are unclear. Abandoned
by their foreign friends and their Cambodian allies, these three old men are face
to face with the same solitude, terror and uncertainty that marked the Khmer Rouge
era for nearly everyone but themselves.
There is rough justice here, but rough justice is not the same as closure.
Moreover, the Khmer Rouge phenomenon cannot be reduced to these three men, to the
last defectors or even to thousands of "reintegrated" people. As a political
movement and a military force, to be sure, the Khmer Rouge no longer exists.
In many other ways, however, the phenomenon is alive and well. To quote a Cab Calloway
song from the l940s, the Khmer Rouge, like the man in the blue serge suit whom Calloway
describes, is "dead but it won't lie down". The Khmer Rouge survive in
several ways. For one thing, they inhabit the memories (and invade the dreams) of
most Cambodians over thirty. Tens of thousands of survivors, and probably tens of
thousands more, have had their lives destroyed as a result.
In addition, the culture of fear, mendacity and distrust that flourished under the
Khmer Rouge still colors many aspects of Cambodian political life. So does the secrecy
that shrouds the CPP's deliberations and so does the contempt of those in power for
the rule of law.
For those in power, impunity remains the rule while at another level, as in the Khmer
Rouge era, little distinction is made between the ruling party and the state or between
politics and war.
With so many legacies of the Pol Pot era working to corrode Cambodian society, it
may be premature to conduct a funeral service for the Khmer Rouge.
Even if a full-scale funeral is inappropriate, many believe that it would be fruitful
if Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan at least were brought to justice. After all,
if we discount the kangaroo court that condemned Pol Pot and Ieng Sary to death in
absentia in l979 , and recall that Pol Pot died in bed and Ieng Sary has received
a royal pardon, no high ranking Khmer Rouge figure has ever been called to account.
None of the cadre who have defected to the government so far has admitted doing anything
Instead, most of them have said that they were ill, or somewhere else, or obeying
Under the mantle of "reconciliation" the only apologies that their victims
and survivors have received so far can be summarized as then was then and now is
now. Reconciliation, in this context, is indistinguishable from amnesia. Would reconciliation
be any deeper, would more wounds heal and would the society be more at ease if Ta
Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were put on trial? Many Cambodians think so and
many Cambodians do not. Could such a trial, even if conducted in another country,
ever be "fair"? In cases like this, would fairness matter? What the newly
established government in Cambodia will decide to do is crucial but unclear. So are
the decisions of foreign powers, notably Thailand and the United States.
In the meantime, before a trial can proceed, several questions need to be resolved,
including who should pay for it, where and when it might be held, what country's
laws would be invoked, what the prisoners' defense would involve and how far down
the Khmer Rouge chain of command any subsequent trials might reach.
At the moment, a trial in Cambodia seems a little more likely than an internationally
sponsored one, but this issue, like many others, is complex and difficult to resolve.
Meanwhile, Cambodia has entered an unprecedented period of peace. For the first time
since l951, as far as the Cambodian Communist movement is concerned, Khmer are not
The legacies of the Khmer Rouge that I have described cry out to be confronted and
overcome. Great risks are involved. Large infusions of political will are needed.
The outcome is in doubt, but the effort is worthwhile. Abandoning these baleful habits
will be more fruitful, for millions of Khmer, than reciting the mantra that the Khmer
Rouge are dead while so many of their practices persist, and will heal more wounds
than bringing three old men to trial would ever manage to do, especially in a political
culture where winners' justice, brutally applied, is still the only kind there is.