In Pol Pot Time

Joshua Kurlantzick

  • Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia Special Reports 1-15
  • The 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.

In 1979, after the Khmer Rouge launched attacks into southern Vietnam, the battle-hardened Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and drove Pol Pot from power. But because of the intense historical animus felt towards Vietnam, the Cambodians did not greet the invaders as heroes. (Even Sam Rainsy, the most prominent liberal democratic politician in Cambodia, misses few chances to attack the Vietnamese.) The US and China (the Khmer Rouge’s biggest foreign backer) had both fought against Hanoi, in the Vietnam War and in the 1979 Vietnam-China border war, and so the international community, in one of its most shameful acts, kept the remnants of the Khmer Rouge alive long after 1979. Bunkered, after 1979, along the Thai border, the KR was part of an opposition coalition against the government installed in Phnom Penh by Vietnam, and had a seat at the UN as the recognised government of Cambodia. There was another decade of civil war before a UN-brokered peace deal. Pol Pot had ostensibly vanished, but for years up until his death he shuttled back and forth to Thailand. The Thai army, meanwhile, allegedly made a fortune buying up Cambodian gemstones and logs. Today, the border towns where the KR holed up are scruffy, with little industry or farming, visited by small groups of European travellers overlanding in the country.

How much did Chinese and American support for the Khmer Rouge contribute to the delay in instigating a tribunal? After the civil war ended in the early 1990s, Cambodia and the UN went on discussing the matter for more than a decade before finally setting up the court. According to American officials I spoke with who had negotiated with Cambodia and the UN, Chinese diplomats put pressure on the Phnom Penh government to stall. An American negotiator told me that the Chinese would always get to know when meetings to discuss the trial were taking place and would pre-empt them by immediately going to talk to the Cambodians themselves. China wields vast influence in Cambodia: it has become the country’s largest investor and aid donor. Chinese construction workers, working through the soggy summer heat, are erecting the high-rise scaffolding that now towers over the squat, concrete shopfronts of Phnom Penh. But it’s also the case that Washington invested far less political capital in creating a Khmer Rouge tribunal than it did, say, in ensuring that Slobodan Milosevic and other Serb leaders faced trial in The Hague.

The Cambodian government, which has been run for nearly two decades by Hun Sen, a former KR cadre who eventually defected to the Vietnamese, does little to discourage ignorance of the past. Hun Sen has surrounded himself with other former KR officials, and promised amnesties to most of its surviving members. Several of them live in lavish style in Phnom Penh – until he was arrested, Ieng Sary reportedly lived in a sprawling villa surrounded by security guards. For years, Hun Sen, who once said that his country should ‘dig a hole and bury the past’, fought the idea of a trial, and then fought the idea of the UN overseeing it – Cambodia’s judiciary is one of the most corrupt in the region. His government has also authorised the publication of school textbooks that make virtually no mention of the killing fields. Cambodian children, if they learn anything at all about the Khmer Rouge, must hear it from their relatives, many of whom are so traumatised that they too simply bury the past.

When I drove out to Tuol Sleng, the former school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered more than 14,000 people, I saw no Cambodians at the prison memorial, other than guards and motorcycle taxi drivers waiting for a fare from Western backpackers. There were no local school groups staring at the dried blood that still flecks the walls or the prison regulations posted in plain view. ‘You must not cry out,’ prisoners were told, ‘while getting lashes or electric shocks.’ There is no official commemoration of the dead, whose faces stare out from the walls, their photos taken shortly before they were tortured and killed.

Hun Sen has another, more urgent reason to keep the Pol Pot time buried. Allowing a fair trial to be held in public might set a dangerous precedent in a country which, though nominally a democracy, has become an elected autocracy. A ruthless political survivor, whose menacing half-smile makes him look like a gang leader, Hun Sen returned to the country with the Vietnamese invaders, and then, at the end of the civil war, built a political party around himself. When he lost the first election to be held after the war, in 1993, to the party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, he threatened to unleash his troops, and was promptly made ‘co-prime minister’; in 1997, he used his troops to force Ranariddh to flee the country. Since then, he and his allies have either co-opted or physically bludgeoned the political opposition – in one attack, someone tossed a grenade into an opposition party rally, killing 16 people. That way Hun Sen’s party has no trouble winning every election.

The courts, too, have become Hun Sen’s supplicants. There is no redress for anyone who challenges the environmental abuses or land-grabbing of businessmen with political connections, who simply push villagers off their own property. ‘If they come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken,’ Hun Sen’s brother, a powerful politician in his own right, announced after one NGO, Global Witness, exposed the massive deforestation brought about by illegal logging.

Even if the government wanted to erase the past, the scars of the Khmer Rouge era remain obvious. Not just the beggars congregating around the Himawari serviced apartments, where rich Cambodians run on treadmills overlooking the Mekong River. Every person I’ve ever met in the country has a story of loss and exile dating back to the 1970s; like a cult, the KR often used children to identify their parents’ ‘crimes’ before killing them. This legacy has proved an enormous obstacle to development. Vietnam attracts multi-million-dollar Intel plants and Thailand opens one Starbucks after another, but despite high economic growth in the last three years, Cambodia still relies on aid for roughly half its government budget, and ranks alongside the poorest nations in Africa for rates of nutritional deficiency (according to a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute). The Khmer Rouge killed or exiled an entire generation of educated people, while Hun Sen’s personal control of huge sectors of the economy – his aides are likely to control the assets from as yet untapped offshore oil deposits – makes many foreign companies wary. Other than oil companies, few Western firms even consider Cambodia. ‘No one has any idea what will happen with the oil money, it could be Lagos on the Mekong,’ one prominent oil executive said to me.

Investors are also nervous about the high crime rate, the product of years of bloodshed that regularised violence and decades of war that made it simple to get hold of a gun. Phnom Penh is one of the only cities in South-East Asia that feels unsafe at night; one US ambassador was mugged walking the streets, and I once visited a shooting range in the city where, for a few dollars, anyone could blast away with heavy machineguns. The crime pages of the Phnom Penh Post read like a horror novel. A population that does not trust the legal system, and that watched people’s skulls being bashed in often responds to minor slights with a violence that is out of all proportion: jilted lovers throw acid on their former partners; mobs lynch a suspected petty thief.

The former Khmer Rouge leaders facing charges in the old army barracks express little compunction. ‘Do I have remorse? No,’ Ieng Sary once said. Though he was attacked in the streets of Phnom Penh by a mob screaming ‘murderer’, Khieu Samphan doesn’t seem too reflective, either. ‘He has no remorse in his life, because he believes he has done everything for the nation,’ his wife told reporters.

There is one exception, however. In 1999, the journalist Nic Dunlop started investigating a man living in a small town near the Thai-Cambodia border. Calling himself Hang Pin, the man had become a born-again Christian, working with relief organisations to help the refugees who’d poured across the frontier. But Hang Pin, apparently so gentle and kind, seemed to feel overwhelming guilt about events in his past: ‘I have sinned, really sinned, a big sin,’ he told his pastor. ‘I don’t think my brothers and sisters can forgive me.’ When the pastor told Hang Pin he could be forgiven, Dunlop writes, Hang Pin changed. He obsessively took notes in church and dedicated himself to being a better Christian. ‘The word of God hit him very hard,’ the pastor remembered.

Dunlop realised he’d seen the man’s sallow face and oversized ears before, in an old, grainy photo of ‘Duch’ (pronounced ‘Doik’), the commandant at Tuol Sleng (his real name was Kaing Guek Eav). There, Duch, a doctrinaire believer, became infamous for his skill and dedication in inflicting torture. He read and signed every coerced confession himself, knowing his signature meant almost certain death.

Dunlop and another journalist met Hang Pin, claiming they wanted to hear about his life. But their real intentions became clear when Dunlop’s colleague said to Hang Pin: ‘I believe you also worked with the security services under the Khmer Rouge.’ ‘It is God’s will that you are here,’ Duch said after a long sigh. ‘Now my future is in God’s hands. It is time for the consequences of my actions.’ And in front of the two journalists, Hang Pin admitted he had indeed been the commandant of Tuol Sleng.

Hauled before the tribunal, Duch has continued to try to purge his sins in public. The judges decided to hold his trial first, even though, as a mere jailer, he was not involved in high-level decision-making. But he clearly plans to lay out his crimes in detail, to explain what the senior officials on trial ordered him to do, and to express remorse, a valuable commodity in Cambodia. In the run-up to the tribunal, Duch was taken back to Tuol Sleng, where he reportedly broke down. ‘I ask for your forgiveness,’ he said. ‘I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might.’

Duch’s confessions fit neatly into every international observer’s idea of the tribunal’s significance. ‘Testimony like Duch’s is cathartic for the country,’ one typical report on Voice of America announced. This is too optimistic. Most Cambodians know as little about the tribunal as they do about the genocide itself. The physical isolation of the court, far from the centre of Phnom Penh, makes it hard for the average Cambodian to find. The packs of police patrolling the court, in a country known for shakedowns by the security services, further puts off visitors, and many Cambodians distrust the tribunal in any case, because, unlike other such bodies, it has a majority of local judges, known for their fealty to Hun Sen. One poll conducted by the University of California, Berkeley found that a third of Cambodians doubt the tribunal’s neutrality. Worse, Cambodian state television shows only snippets from the proceedings. The tribunal has allocated a mere $50,000 a year, out of more than $100 million in total costs, to publicise its actions to the Cambodian people. As a result, Cambodians probably won’t see big men like Ieng Sary face questioning, a novelty in a country where the powerful normally do whatever they like, avoiding any possible sanction. Many Cambodians have grown so cynical about the tribunal that they hope for a different kind of punishment for men like Ieng Sary – that they will be reincarnated as bugs.

Even Cambodians who’d always wanted to see the Khmer Rouge on trial now wonder whether the tribunal is worth the cost. Foreign donors have already given more than $170 million towards it, while Cambodia’s own judiciary operates on less than $4 million a year. One UNDP audit blasted the tribunal for paying its Cambodian staff more than $5000 a month, in a country where most officials and bureaucrats get less than $200. The country still needs vast sums for primary healthcare, basic education and infrastructure. But in a time of global financial crisis, donors who’ve already given generously to the tribunal may become stingier on other fronts. In retrospect, the country might have been better served by a village-level truth and reconciliation process, as in Rwanda, where a process called gacaca forces killers to give their confessions in their own communities, and ask their victims for forgiveness; community courts then decide punishment. Many Rwandans credit these courts with at least beginning to heal the wounds of the early 1990s, and Rwanda has become one of the best performing economies in Africa. Lacking a similar process, Cambodians continue to live alongside their former torturers. Though the crime rate is high in Phnom Penh, some of the worst mob beatings and killings take place in the countryside, where there have been savage attacks on former KR cadres. In the Berkeley survey, 40 per cent of Cambodians said they would personally take revenge on former KR members if they had the chance.

On another visit to Cambodia, I visited the parliamentary offices of the Sam Rainsy Party, the most prominent liberal opposition group. The cramped room contained a few ageing computers and some worn sofas; young aides scrambled around trying to write a press release and then feed it into a decrepit fax machine. It’s not an easy life, being an opposition politician in Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Many of Rainsy’s associates have been beaten, arrested, even killed by shadowy armed gangs, and have suffered at the hands of the servile courts and corrupt police. Cambodia’s monarchy, which once stood up to Hun Sen, has all but given up on politics. Yet Rainsy’s party fights on, using its few seats in parliament to highlight the most blatant human rights abuses. And a small but tough – and young – core of activists has emerged: human rights monitors, politicians, journalists, environmentalists, many backed by aid money from foreign organisations. These people offer some minimal hope for Cambodia, and they stand to benefit most from the tribunal. Duch’s confession, and the possible convictions of other KR leaders, will dent the impunity felt by Cambodian political leaders. More fundamentally, the tribunal is helping to train a new generation of Cambodian lawyers and, if Ieng Sary or Khieu Samphan cannot escape, it might demonstrate to Cambodians that the legal system does not have to hand big men a pass. Perhaps one day its courts will prove strong enough, and free enough, to call Hun Sen and his circle to account.