In Pol Pot Time

Joshua Kurlantzick

  • Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia Special Reports 1-15
  • BuyThe Lost Executioner: The Story of Comrade Duch and the Khmer Rouge by Nic Dunlop
    Bloomsbury, 352 pp, £8.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 1 4088 0401 8

Cambodia, now 15 years removed from civil war, remains a shattered country. Poverty is on a par with many failed African states, there is widespread malnourishment, and at night packs of beggars, many maimed from the war, gather outside restaurants and bars to plead for small change. These things don’t happen in neighbouring Vietnam or Thailand.

Not that you’d ever know about the desperation from the buffet at Le Méridien, a flash hotel near the tourist site of Angkor, where I attended a conference on Cambodian development. After one session I had an espresso with a senior official from the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Fluent in all the buzzwords of development and briefed on the latest economic reports in the Financial Times, he wore a well-tailored suit and a pink tie. Yet for all his education and style, he seemed to think himself almost as powerless as the crowds of beggars outside the hotel gates. ‘What can we do?’ he asked. ‘We don’t have any chance.’

Last winter, in a converted military barracks outside Phnom Penh, the first real trial began of those who masterminded the genocide of 1975-79. Coming 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the trial may seem a bit late. The five Khmer Rouge suspects facing charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes – the former president, Khieu Samphan; the deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Nuon Chea; the prison camp commander Kaing Guek Eav; and the deputy prime minister, Ieng Sary, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, the minister for social affairs and action – are old and frail. Even if found guilty, they might not live long enough to serve any sentence.

And yet the tribunal, presided over by an unwieldy hybrid of Cambodian and United Nations judges, has real resonance in Cambodia today. It won’t produce the kind of catharsis predicted by most of the Western media: it’s far too late for that. Cambodia hasn’t attempted either a programme akin to denazification or the kind of village-level reconciliation process which has helped bring about a degree of calm and normality in Rwanda. But the tribunal, even if potentially compromised by its links to the current Cambodian government, might be able to show a younger generation of Cambodians, who know little about what they call ‘Pol Pot time’, exactly how the Khmer Rouge dominated and destroyed a society. (At the time, its leadership maintained such strict secrecy that most Cambodians had no idea who was running the country or ordering the massacres.) And it might at least produce clues to Cambodia’s future, and help explain why this traumatised nation, surrounded by the tiger economies, continues to struggle, with even its own senior officials convinced they are powerless to control their own destiny.

The Khmer Rouge held power for only four years, but during that time they killed as many as 1.7 million Cambodians, more than a fifth of the country’s population. The usual method was simple and effective – cadres bashed in their victims’ skulls and then pushed the bodies into mass graves – yet because the senior leadership maintained an organisational structure more secretive than that of the Nazis, scholars still struggle to explain who Pol Pot was, what drove him to this madness, and how Cambodian society allowed itself to be consumed. Even the best biography of the Khmer Rouge’s Brother Number One, Philip Short’s Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (2005), leaves one unsure of the leader’s motivations. Pol Pot, who died in the jungle in 1998 and was quickly cremated, left few writings of substance, no clues as to how he developed the most hardline Maoist ideology in history, or came up with the mechanics of nationwide purges.

Sadly, it’s unlikely the tribunal will provide much of an answer, so narrow is its scope. Though the five individuals are accused of monstrous crimes, hundreds if not thousands of other senior Khmer Rouge figures are still free. And the trial focuses only on the years 1975-79 themselves; the American bombing of Cambodia, beginning in 1969, which devastated the countryside and created the instability that helped the Khmer Rouge seize power, is not mentioned. When the foreign co-prosecutor, Robert Petit, a Canadian, suggested bringing more individuals to trial, his Cambodian co-prosecutor reportedly blocked him. In June Petit announced that he was resigning for ‘personal reasons’, but officials who follow the proceedings closely believe he was enormously frustrated by his limited mandate.

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