Rough Justice

March 30, 2012

One of the big issues in Cambodia is what’s known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the UN-backed court seeking justice for the crimes of the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. In trying to get justice for the execution, torture, starvation and forced labour which saw the deaths of some 2 million Cambodians, the KRT has been welcomed by many in the country. But not by all.

Last week, one of the foreign judges on the KRT resigned: Laurent Kaspar-Ansermet from Switzerland. He quit, he said, because of continuing interference in the tribunal by his Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, whom he claims is apparently trying to block the tribunal from investigating and possibly prosecuting any more KR suspects beyond the tiny handful of top leaders already charged.

Another foreign judge, Siegfried Blunt, quit last year, after making the same accusations of Cambodian judges interfering to stop any new investigations and possible prosecutions of former KR leaders.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has long been opposed to any more investigations, or really to the concept of the tribunal at all — he has said that he wants to bury the KR period and not look back. And that’s perhaps a valid and realistic attitude. It is conceivable that it might be motivated in part by the fact that Hun Sen was a member of the Khmer Rouge himself. While no one is suggesting that Hun Sen was guilty of anything for which he could find himself on trial, he has allies who conceivably could.

It’s worth noting that in 1998 Hun Sen invited Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan to his home and announced over a champagne toast that they would “bury the past.” Along with Ieng Sary, these three formed the leadership of the KR under Pol Pot, who evaded justice by dying that same year.

It has been suggested that Hun Sen probably just does not like the concept of the tribunal pushing harder into the past of important figures in Cambodia. It could certainly set a precedent he does not want to see for his own government.

The Cambodian government has said that prosecuting more senior KR figures would lead to civil war again in Cambodia, which is almost certainly nonsense: after years of destructive war, no Cambodians are interested in more large-scale conflict. And Hun Sen’s control of the security forces make such a scenario effectively impossible.

Cambodia’s opposition leader has criticized the government, accusing it of blatantly interfering with attempts to prosecute the KR leadership. Sam Rainsy says officials in Hun Sen’s government “fear a serious investigation …  any serious and in-depth investigation would show that several members of the current government were involved in the Khmer Rouge crimes.” It should be noted that Sam lives in Paris because of fears of arrest after suggesting that there was corruption in the Cambodian government. That’s how politics is here.

Whatever the political infighting surrounding the KRT, the basic argument remains: should those responsible for the horrific deaths of 2 million people be prosecuted? Many people in Cambodia think so, and the West certainly believes so. But should the country move on, put the past behind it, forgive and forget? The country’s Buddhist beliefs argue so. And the government thinks so.

For me, I believe fervently in the importance of justice being seen to be done. I believe, fiercely, that those responsible for the appalling horrors of the Khmer Rouge era should be given a chance to stand up in court and defend themselves against the charges, and, if found guilty, be punished. But I rather suspect that the KRT is descending into farce, a farce that suits no one, not the UN, not the business interests who want to get their feet under Cambodia’s table, and not the government. So the KRT will probably be killed off.  Some justice…


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