Munich. 1963. A beautiful spring day in the English Gardens. The sun sets behind
your children as they play in the trees. The lager hits that sweet spot at the back
of your throat.
It is now 18 years since you were liberated from Auschwitz. While you have never
been able to forget, the memories have finally started to fade. The nightmares are
Could that really have happened? It took a while, but life returned to normality.
Marriage, family, job, debts, a few vacations here and there.
As you walk home from the park you turn a corner and spot an old, but instantly recognizable
face. You stop in your tracks, but he doesn't seem to notice you and walks on.
Your heart begins to race. You begin to sweat. In panic, you start running home,
the children trailing behind, crying, bewildered.
Could it be him? It's not possible. The man who tortured you for three consecutive
days? The man who threatened to rape and kill you for the raw pleasure of it - when
you weighed less than 40 kilograms?
But the Allies stopped him. They stopped all of them. He was arrested and given a
life sentence. At Nuremberg. He was old then. He must have died by now.
Back at home, you begin to doubt your eyes. It wasn't him. It must have been someone
else. But those eyes. You'll never forget those eyes.
The television is blaring the news. The Chancellor is at a meeting. He's speaking
to a familiar face, a face you haven't seen in years. You can't believe your eyes.
This must be old footage.
Sure that you are dreaming, you look at the TV again. There they are. Martin Boormann.
He's supposed to be in Paraguay, in hiding. And Rudolf Hess. Isn't he supposed to
be in Spandau prison? And Mengele! Dr. Death. You remember the day you arrived at
Auschwitz. He stood there impassively, instructing people to go left or right. Life
or death. Left or right. Life or death.
You hear the Chancellor say that enough time has passed. "Old wounds have to
be allowed to heal. The nation must reunite and all Germans must come together to
face the challenges ahead. The Soviets are knocking on the door to the east. The
country cannot afford to dwell on the past. Now is the time for true national reconciliation,
and all true patriots are welcome to join. Even Nazis."
The commentator announces that the Chancellor will soon sign an amnesty for all Nazi
war criminals. The Chancellor is behind in the polls and the Nazis are believed to
be sympathetic to his policies, claiming that they now support democratic values.
Pandemonium has broken out at the press conference. You scream. Now the children
are screaming, too. Everyone in the house is terrified, but for different reasons.
Those events never happened.
At least not in Germany. Nazi war criminals remained war criminals. There has been
no rehabilitation of the perpetrators of genocide. The world would not have allowed
it. Any politician who suggested it would have seen his career end immediately.
Not in Cambodia. Since last August, Cambodia's worst nightmare has been realized.
The Khmer Rouge are back, politically cleansed. Consider the words of a smiling Prince
Norodom Ranariddh last month at the first conference of the National United Front:
"The Khmer Rouge are with us... I think that they cannot do more than this until
they have a real political movement. I'm very satisfied that a large part of the
Khmer Rouge - my compatriots - are now clearly and publicly supporting us."
The people the First Prime Minister was proudly referring to are killers, torturers,
sadists, destroyers of Cambodia's natural resources. Pick your crime. They have committed
it. Over and over again. In power and in the forest. And now they are staring their
victims in the face, smiling. Free men. As if nothing ever happened.
Eighteen years after Cambodians were liberated from the open prison that was the
Khmer Rouge regime, FUNCINPEC and CPP are engaging in a grotesque competition to
seduce the largest number of war criminals to join forces with them. And hardly anyone
has uttered a word in protest.
Consider who these people are. Ieng Sary, the cold, calculating accomplice to genocide,
is now a statesman, knelt down to by Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Ta Mok, the chief
of staff of the Khmer Rouge army - the "butcher" - is someone to negotiate
with, to consider as a possible political partner. Ta Bith, Ta Mok's former deputy
in the southwest responsible for carrying out the murderous purges of the eastern
zones in 1977-78, is now a General in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Prum Sou,
the former Khmer Rouge general whose troops were murdering Cambodian villagers as
recently as last year, is being considered by FUNCINPEC for the position of Governor
of Banteay Meanchey province. Ee Chhean, the chief warlord and new Mayor of Pailin,
is a wise visionary, whose words should be carefully considered. Sok Pheap, the strongman
of Malai, is a player, huddling with his new friends at the National United Front
conference last month, sporting a fancy new hairdo. He's "modern."
The list could go on and on. It's a virtual "Who's Who" of war criminals.
The only price for the rehabilitation of these men has been the changing of a shirt
and the swearing of allegiance to a new
political party. "Step right up and choose your party. On the right we have
your former friends from the long border war against the 'Vietnamese puppet' regime.
On your left are your former comrades from the long struggle in the marquis against
the monarchy and the 'CIA lackeys.' Try them both on for size. Wear whichever one
fits better. It's your choice."
That's it. No war crimes tribunals like in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. No confessions
in front of Truth Commissions, as in South Africa and Argentina. No apologies. No
public outcry. This is a guilt-free national reconciliation.
How can this have happened? Some of the credit must go to the Khmer Rouge. They are
the ultimate survivors, unrivaled at crawling out of their death beds and living
to fight another day.
Defeated in 1979, they soon manipulated the fear of the Vietnamese in Beijing, Washington
and ASEAN into arms and money. And just when their soldiers were tired of fighting,
just when private
property became irresistible among the "masses," just when the "hard-liners"
(isn't the term redundant?) attempted to enforce political orthodoxy and central
control one too many times, and just when the warlords in Pailin and Malai decided
that they didn't want to share their logging and gem proceeds with Brother Number
One anymore, Ieng Sary offered the government a deal.
A cease-fire in exchange for amnesia. A good deal by a shrewd negotiator, who effectively
said "We'll give you nothing and we'll keep our guns, soldiers, land and money
so long as you promise to protect us from Pol Pot."
Without taking a breath or appearing to consider the moral or even security implications
the co-Prime Ministers agreed. In rapid fire they granted amnesty to Ieng Sary and
absolution to all around him, made pilgrimages to the great man's home and cut deals
with any Khmer Rouge warlord they could find. As King Sihanouk put it, the government
is responsible for "saving the dying Khmer Rouge from a certain death"
- and Sihanouk should know, since he signed the amnesty for Ieng Sary himself.
It has been a stunning process of political rehabilitation for one of the most murderous
groups of this or any era. In a century in which the slogan "Never Again"
became the standard phrase to emphasize the world's determination to take action
at the first sight of repeat of Nazi-style atrocities (if you are thinking of Rwanda
or Bosnia please suspend your disbelief for a moment), the Khmer Rouge are being
waved to the head table to sit with the Samdechs.
Not one Khmer Rouge leader has ever been arrested and put on trial. And if recent
developments continue, not one ever will be. They have now insinuated themselves
so deeply into FUNCINPEC and CPP that neither party will want to address this - ever.
To do so will risk losing the support of the Khmer Rouge factions inside their parties,
weakening their own parties and thereby strengthening the people they see as their
real enemies - their governing partners.
It's as if Goebbels, Goerring, Eichmann and the rest had been pardoned for their
crimes without ever being formally accused or punished, without admitting any guilt,
without ever telling where the bodies are buried. Without even saying they were "Sorry."
Who's next in line for rehabilitation? The Cambodian Hitler? This is not facetious.
It was only last year that the familiar catechism of "the murderous clique of
Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Son Sen..." was drilled into the head
of every Cambodian child at school and on national radio and television. Now politicians
in Phnom Penh speak without a hint of embarrassment about "the murderous clique
of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Son Sen..." And if a deal is cut with Ta Mok,
it soon will be "the murderous clique of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Son Sen ..."
So why not pardon Pol Pot? He didn't kill everyone by himself, after all. He may
never have even pulled a trigger. Maybe he's not such a bad guy after all.
But, you ask, aren't national reconciliation and peace more important than justice?
Isn't the end of the war more important than putting a bunch of old men - who have
never been captured and probably never will be - on trial?
The simple moral answer is "no." Genocide and crimes against humanity -
the mass slaughter and starvation of a whole nation - simply cannot be forgotten
Would it have been acceptable for the Nazis to have received pardons? The answer
is obvious. Why is Cambodia different?
It has been suggested that Cambodians (some say Asians) value national reconciliation
and peace more than justice, and more than their western brethren.
How would we know if this was true? Who has asked the Cambodian people? Were they
consulted in even the most superficial manner before the amnesty decision? Have they
been consulted since? Will they be consulted in the future? Do the co-Prime Ministers
speak for average Cambodians on this issue any more than the President of the United
States or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would in a similar situation in
Some people claim that Cambodians are so tired of war that they are willing to trade
peace for justice. There are two problems with this argument.
First, where's the peace? The current arrangement with the "Khmer Rouge moderates"
(an oxymoron) is only a cease-fire, not a peace agreement - and certainly not surrender
- and could unravel at anytime. Not one square inch of land has been ceded by the
Khmer Rouge, not one gun, not even one bullet. Even tithing is not necessary, as
the Khmer Rouge have been allowed to keep all of their logging and gem revenues.
Many Khmers believe that the defectors are no more than a "Trojan Horse,"
pursuing a policy of divide (very successful so far, as the CPP and FUNCINPEC are
on the verge of civil war) and rule, waiting for the right time to show their true
colors. This is not peace, this is more like secession, except with a near certainty
of future conflict when the government or the Khmer Rouge decide that this arrangement
is not acceptable.
Second, it must not be forgotten that Cambodians have never fully escaped the Khmer
Rouge. Many Cambodians are still afraid to speak openly against the Khmer Rouge.
And why not? From the perspective of an average Cambodian the Khmer Rouge have always
remained in power. From 1975-79 the Khmer Rouge ruled. From 1979-93 the "former
Khmer Rouge who escaped to avoid being killed by the Khmer Rouge" ruled. In
1993 the "party which fought alongside the Khmer Rouge for 12 years against
the former Khmer Rouge who escaped to avoid being killed by the Khmer Rouge"
won the election. And now both FUNCINPEC and CPP are turning handstands to seduce
the Khmer Rouge. So why should an average Cambodian speak out against the Khmer Rouge?
What would he or she have to gain?
The problem with this thinking is that to not speak out is even more dangerous. If
no one speaks about the Khmer Rouge, particularly those who have now joined the government,
how will this generation know the truth? Without the truth, what will prevent the
Khmer Rouge from challenging for power (perhaps even through "legal" means
a la Hitler in 1933)?
By cutting a deal with the Khmer Rouge, the government's already difficult task of
preparing a history textbook covering the past 30 years has become even more politically
sensitive and complicated. To write a truthful account of the Khmer Rouge period
will mean angering the government's new Khmer Rouge allies and may make it impossible
to write an accurate history of this period. Already, recent Cambodian history is
being revised by word of mouth. Many Cambodians, searching for answers, solemnly
say that the Khmer Rouge were not "real Khmer." Some even come out and
say what they mean: that the Khmer Rouge were Vietnamese masquerading as Cambodians
("remember, Ieng Sary was born in southern Vietnam"). Others blame the
This is a serious risk for the future of this country. It is virtually a cliché,
but "a nation which fails to confront its past is destined to repeat it."
Justice creates accountability, and accountability creates future justice. By bringing
the Khmer Rouge to justice, by holding them accountable in the face of Cambodian
and international law, Cambodia can begin to establish the cruel facts of its recent
history, and it can learn from the experience. Whether this results in punishment
of the guilty, or amnesty in exchange for the truth, is not the point.
The Khmer Rouge realize the importance of accountability - which is why they oppose
it. In late February Ieng Sary's Democratic National Union Movement issued a statement
opposing genocide or war crimes tribunals for the Khmer Rouge, stating that "Cambodians
and the international community should not welcome the opening of old cases which
are the remains of history." But with crimes of this nature there are no old
cases, which is why under international law there is no statute of limitations on
crimes against humanity. Klaus Barbie (the "Butcher of Lyon") and Paul
Touvier were prosecuted for their Nazi-era crimes more than 40 years after the fact.
It is never too late for justice.
Think for a second about the horrors of the Nazi regime. The wanton destruction.
The starvation. The death camps. The human experiments. At least Nuremberg closed
a chapter. Now it's in the hands of historians.
Now think about Cambodia. "Never again"? The silence is deafening.
* Pseudonym. The author, a close observer of Cambodian politics resident in the Kingdom,
wishes to remain anonymous.