Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Looking back at the 1979 People's Revolutionary Tribunal

Looking back at the 1979 People's Revolutionary Tribunal

Looking back at the 1979 People's Revolutionary Tribunal

As the present Khmer Rouge trial staggers to wards an uncertain future, its interesting

to discuss the divergent opinions surrounding its polemic predecessor - the People's

Revolutionary Tribunal to Try the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary Clique for the Crime of Genocide

held from August 15 to 19, 1979.

Phnom Penh's Chaktomuk Theatre was transformed into a adhoc courtroom for the 1979 PRT. The trial is generally dismissed by Cambodia scholars as a "political show trial," but others defend it as important and emotional.

An ignominious failure chock full of campy communist rhetoric to some, an essential

outpouring of emotion to others, the PRT rarely inspires neutrality. Both camps agree

it was a political, propagandistic tool crafted by the Hanoi-backed government. Both

groups concede that the some of the evidence and testimony collected just days after

the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea regime is important.

But agreement ends there. There is no consensus on how the trial should be remembered,

or if its alleged evidentiary accomplishments are overshadowed by its motives. Experts

say how the PRT may impact the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia,

and the exact role it played in shaping the present ruling government are uncertain.

Once described as "part historical truth, part political strategy" the

PRT remains a divisive benchmark in modern Cambodian history.

"It was partially successful as both. Good testimony came out, and it was an

excellent strategy for a tainted invading power, and its previously DK figures to

wipe the slate clean by shouting mantras: genocide! Pol Pot! Ieng Sary!" said

David Chandler, author of Brother No 1. "It stopped any legal questions being

asked about how widespread the Khmer Rouge had been. This suited people at the time

and has suited Cambodians at the top [of government] ever since."

Author Evan Gottesman wrote in Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge that the decision to

sentence only Pol Pot and Ieng Sary "concealed a debate within the Party over

the role of former Khmer Rouge cadres in the new regime.... The failure to mention

other top Khmer Rouge leaders (Nuon Chea for instance) suggested that they, too,

might at some point, be co-opted. "

Foreign journalists and court officials generally from communist or pro-communist countries were invited by the Vietnamese-backed government to witness the 1979 PRT. They were allowed closely monitored access to some Khmer Rouge victims, above.

French scholar Henri Locard believes it was because the government was still trying

to strike a deal with former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea due to his stronger ties

to Hanoi.

"The urgency in 1979 stemmed from the need of the new government to demonstrate

itself at once as an opponent of all the Khmer Rouge represented. For example, as

a protector of Buddhist heritage, the traditional Cambodian family, a defender of

national minorities, etc," said Howard De Nike, co-editor of Genocide in Cambodia,

a compilation of essays and PRT courts records.

The witness called to testify to the systematic destruction of Buddhist culture,

and the murder of monks was Tep Vong, now the Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia's


"The 1979 trial obviously lacked some essential ingredients of due process,

but this should not prevent an appreciation of what it accomplished: public exposure

of the Khmer Rouge brutality when most were still unaware."

But Philip Short, a strident critic of the PRT, questions the impact of the trial

outside Cambodia. In 1979 the US at the time was opposing the PRK regime..

"Some argue that it showed the world for the first time the iniquities of the

Khmer Rouge regime. Were that true, [Quigley] might have a point. But it didn't,"

Short said. "The only coverage of the tribunal was by communist or pro-communist

journalists, who were at the time the only correspondents allowed to report from

Cambodia. I think it failed even as propaganda. Those so-called jurists who took

part in it, seeking to lend a simulacrum of credibility, should be ashamed of themselves."

Despite it's dearth of defendants, the PRT did bring up two names that won't be mentioned

by the ECCC: the US and, more vigorously, China.

Three court-called witnesses testify to suffering at the hands of the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary Clique." Other Cambodian witnesses include the present Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong and civil society leaders Thun Saray and Kem Sokha.

"At the time people in general weren't satisfied that just two people were being

tried. As witnesses we were asked to describe our suffering under the Khmer Rouge,"

said Thun Saray, a witness to the court and now executive director of ADHOC. "

As for the attack on China, that came from the political people in charge. As witnesses,

we didn't know about that. We knew they would try two people and the Chinese. The

regime dictated all the statements of the trial."

As Gottesman wrote "...the propaganda thus described the Khmer Rouge as Maoist

rather than Communist - sparing Marxism-Leninism the taint of genocidal association."

American John Quigley remembers driving through Phnom Penh to the adhoc courtroom

set up, appropriately, at Chaktomuk Theatre. He recalls a "ghost town"

of abandoned urban villas, rusted Renaults and smashed storefronts. Along with other

foreign experts invited by the government, Quigley was escorted from his hotel to

the court by armed convoy. The capital, he said, was unstable and bristling with

automatic weapons.

"My most lasting impression of the trial was the emotion visibly felt by those

in the audience about what had occurred. As witnesses of would testify about atrocities

against them and their families, it was obvious that those in attendance were recalling

atrocities of which they and their families had been victim," said Quigley,

author of the just published "The Genocide Convention: An International Law

Analysis. "

Quigley was one of two American attorneys present at the PRT as part of an international

junket comprised mostly of jurists from "sympathetic" countries.

"I was asked to make a statement, in the capacity of an expert witness, about

the legal definition of genocide, and whether it applied to the charges being laid

under the Genocide Convention. I examined the definition and decided that it did

apply in the situation," said Quigley in an e-mail. "Many in the international

community did not consider that genocide could be committed when the perpetrators

and the victims are from the same racial, national or religious group. That issue

has continued to be contentious."

Quigley believes the PRT had unprecedented elements. He claims the PRT was the first

time the charge of genocide, as it was defined in the Genocide Convention, had been

used. Also, while the trial was designed to link Khmer Rouge atrocities with the

policies of Maoist China-Quigley's own testimony pointed elsewhere.

"I think I was the only one at the trial to mention the United States, and the

extensive bombing of Cambodia, as a factor that may have facilitated the emergence

of the Khmer Rouge's policies," he said. "I don't recall anyone at the

trial objecting to the analysis at the time, but the point may have been viewed as

of minor importance."

"Unimpressive" is how Milton Osborne described the international participants

at the PRT.

In fact, the other American attorney, the late Hope Stevens, was condemned as an

apologist and ridiculed for telling the court "It is now clear to all that Pol

Pot and Ieng Sary are criminally insane monsters." After all, he was one of

their defense lawyers.

The head of the defense team, Dith Munty who was then working in the Ministry of

Propaganda, recommended the death penalty verdict be given in absentia. Munty is

currently the President of the Supreme Court. The head of the PRT was Kev Chenda,

at the time Minister of Propaganda.

"Kev Chenda was not a judge and Dith Munty didn't defend at all," said

Saray. "This trial was a product of socialist times. Everyone knew it was political."

Still, Saray's recollections of the PRT are emotional.

"At the time, a lot people were angry because the killing from the regime was

so fresh. There were a lot of people at the court. There were horrible, horrible

stories. A lot of people cried during the court when they heard the terrible things

that happened to other people," said Saray, who was imprisoned by the Khmer

Rouge and "brainwashed" for nearly a year. "I felt that I was maltreated

by the Khmer Rouge, but compared to what I heard... I was shocked by the violations

of the Khmer Rouge."


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