The disarmament of the Khmer Rouge was an ambitious, internationally driven mission. The xenophobic communist regime, which rose to power in 1975 and implemented radical policies that led to the death of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population, was ousted by a Vietnamese-backed group of defectors in 1979.
Back in 1992, for The Phnom Penh Post’s first issue, government soldiers told journalists how they had surrendered their arms at cantonments in accordance with the peace accord. They articulated their fears that the Khmer Rouge would not follow suit and they, the government soldiers, would be left vulnerable to attack. Their fears rang true. The Khmer Rouge reneged on the deal, refused to give up their weapons and persisted as a spectre of terror in the Cambodian countryside.
From their stronghold in Cambodia’s northwest, funded by illicit smuggling and gemstone mining, the Khmer Rouge continued to exert influence and carry out sporadic attacks until the late 1990s, often against ethnic Vietnamese people.
It was not until 1999 that the group officially surrendered, and the attempt to disarm the Khmer Rouge almost a decade prior was ultimately deemed a colossal failure. So too, some observers argue, is the body designed to hold its former leaders to account, the tribunal known as the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) – where trials are still ongoing today, and where, some 40 years after the atrocities occurred, only three people have been convicted.
A few years after the Kingdom’s UN-administered elections, the Khmer Rouge leadership began to splinter.
Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge’s influential foreign minister, and his wife, the regime’s Minister for Social Affairs Ieng Thirith, broke away from the guerrilla group in exchange for a government amnesty in 1996.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot – arrested by his own forces in 1997 – died in 1998, just after the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal, leading to some speculation that he committed suicide in order to avoid justice.
Just months later, at the end of December, the guerrilla movement’s chief ideologue and Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea, and Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state, defected to the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
That left only military commander Ta Mok and his followers as the fading remnants of the Khmer Rouge. He was arrested in 1999 and died in 2006, just as the ECCC was in its nascent stages.
Indeed, since the last Khmer Rouge defections, it was almost a decade before the war crimes tribunal – a joint project between the UN and Cambodia – was established.
Countless criticisms have plagued the court, from the insinuations of government influence, to the astronomical costs, and to the efficacy of such justice some 40 years after the fact.
French priest Francois Ponchaud, who exposed the evacuation of Phnom Penh in Cambodia: Year Zero, described the trials as “a monumental mistake”.
“The Cambodians don’t need this trial, invented by Westerners, that causes more pain than it heals. It just rehashes all this suffering that the Khmer people have begun to forget,” he said.
A scathing International Bar Association report from 2012 said government interference, coupled with a “history of corruption within the Cambodian justice system”, had led to a “failure of credibility”.
But for Ambassador David Scheffer, the UN secretary-general’s special expert on United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials, the trials “have recast the historical record of Cambodia’s darkest period”.
“We don’t get the opportunity very often in the course of human events to hold accountable under law the masterminds of atrocity crimes against millions of victims who deserved to live in peace and security. But that opportunity arose in Cambodia,” he said.
“The cost of the ECCC over the last 12 years – borne in large part by the international community – is an investment of only about $116 for each Cambodian who died unjustly during the Pol Pot regime. In my view, the long arc of justice in Cambodia has been worth building despite the years of toil and occasional controversy.”
In the 10 years of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, some $300 million dollars has been poured into convicting just three people. The first was comrade Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, who ran the notorious S-21 prison, where at least 12,000 were tortured and later trucked to their deaths at the infamous Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.
The second case initially involved Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith. Sary died in 2013, before his trial had ended, while Thirith was found unfit to stand trial due to progressive dementia in 2011. She later died in 2015. Many victims grew frustrated at the process, which they argued had come too late.
The court then severed the case against the aged Chea and Samphan into two segments. The two were convicted in 2014 in the first segment, largely connected to the mass evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975. They appealed, but their conviction was upheld last year. The second segment of their case, which includes the crime of genocide, just wrapped up closing statements, with a verdict expected next year.
But the fate of other cases involving lesser-known Khmer Rouge cadre, among them Meas Muth, the alleged naval commander, remains unknown, with the government publicly threatening that civil war would ensure if those cases came to trial. After years of government opposition to those cases, a recently leaked document from the court’s co-investigating judges floated the idea of a “permanent stay” of proceedings, which would effectively snuff out the cases quietly.
And yet, for all the talk of failure, the court has succeeded in trying some of the most horrific crimes since Nuremberg. Thousands of civil parties have shared stories of the abuse they suffered. It may not be perfect – and the court’s mandate excludes former Khmer Rouge soldiers like Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly president Heng Samrin from prosecution – but 25 years on, the Khmer Rouge’s most senior leaders are unarmed and behind bars.