“In 1975, when I was 10 years of age, the Khmer Rouge came to power. They forced my family, my parents and 7 children, to move away from the village where we lived. As happened usually, they separated the family. My parents were brought to one place, the children were dispersed over other locations. In 1979, when the regime of the Khmer Rouge ended in most parts of Cambodia, I returned to the place where I was born. My youngest sister was the only other survivor.”
This is the story of Cambodians my age or older, quietly, almost detached, told by one of them. Others have similar stories, which they might or might not be willing to tell. All survived the rule of the Khmer Rouge and lost part of their family, have seen and lived through horrors unimaginable for us. There are no reliable figures, but it’s estimated that around 2 million people died from hunger, forced labour, abuse or execution, around a quarter of the population.
Last week, after almost 35 years, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, responsible for the trial of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, finally gave a verdict again. Both suspects in this case have been sentenced to life imprisonment in the second verdict since the court has been established. Considering the horrors the Cambodians have been through, you would think they’re happy about it. And yes, for a large part they are, but that doesn’t include everyone, reactions are more mixed. One of the reasons is that the Khmer Rouge haven’t fully disappeared from Cambodia.
The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, which ended the regime of Pol Pot, was not the end of the Khmer Rouge. The fighters of the Khmer Rouge went into the jungle, in the north and west of Cambodia. With the support of the US and China, they survived and performed guerilla-attacks. Until 1989 (not by coincidence the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall), the representative of Cambodia in the United Nations was the representative of the Khmer Rouge. Only in 1999 the civil war really ended with the incorporation of the last fighters in the regular army. Pol Pot had died a year before under unexplained circumstances. That it took such a long time for the Khmer Rouge to finally disappear, was not just because of international support for the movement. It’s also because local support for the Khmer Rouge lasted until that time, or maybe even until now, within a part of the population.
The people that support or supported the Khmer Rouge now see the people they admired, that fought with them for their country, being convicted. Even if the Tribunal only has the task to prosecute the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, a lot of people are afraid it will have consequences for themselves when the Tribunal continues its work. Moreover, and just as important, many of the current political leaders have a history within the Khmer Rouge. The prime minister has been a member of the Khmer Rouge before defecting and join the Vietnamese to conquer the country, and he certainly is not the only one.
Many people see obstruction by the Cambodian government as an important cause why the institution of the Tribunal was so late and why it proceeds so slowly. Possibly the current verdict will be the last one. There are more cases investigated, but the suspects are old, usually not in good health and proceedings take a lot of time. In western view, and looking at all the efforts to judge the last surviving Nazis, one would expect that this is reason the more to make haste with the prosecution of the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders, before it becomes impossible. But the Cambodians also have a culturally difficult relation to the Tribunal. It doesn’t fit the Buddhist way they handle conflicts. Reconciliation is important, before retaliation, and that has led to a “peaceful integration” of the former Khmer Rouge members into Cambodian society. To many Cambodians, this judgment was good, justice has been done, the Tribunal has seved its purpose, and now it’s enough.
The convicted have the right of appeal within 30 days. According to their, partly Dutch, lawyers, they will do that.