Cambodia’s war crimes trial – where is it going next?

Ieng ThirithFurther depressing news from Cambodia demonstrates how cleverly the government have wrapped up the ‘Extraordinary Courts’, set up to deliver justice by bringing to trial the key figures in the Khmer Rouge, responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity of the last century and whose legacy still taints Cambodia’s present and some of its future.   First Ieng Thirith has been released, as unable to stand trial – thus being accorded a level of humane medical consideration she denied to millions.  Now it looks as though the Courts may run out of money (click here ).

The main argument in favour of moving these courts from the Hague to Cambodia was to avoid their portrayal within Cambodia as being ‘anti-Cambodian’, in the way that the Hague trials of Serbian leaders have been portrayed in Serbia, fuelling some of the extremist Serbian nationalists.  However, the Cambodia government have all along been determined not to turn over too many stones.  After all many of them were themselves, along with many prominent people in contemporary Cambodia, part of the Khmer Rouge at some time.   First they secured UN agreement that the trials would be held in Cambodia, then that the majority of the judges would be Cambodian appointees, then that the number of potential accused would be limited to five (Duch, already tried, and the four currently being prosecuted).   Obstacles and problems have multiplied (leading to some of the UN appointed lawyers losing patience click here), while the public face has still been that ‘justice will be done’.

It is possible to argue in favour of this ‘compromise process’ – see my earlier blog on this, ‘International Justice for Cambodia‘.   However any form of justice looks increasingly unlikely.   Those currently on trial all lived peaceful lives into their 80s and have been able to see their grandchildren.  Many of those who beat, starved and hacked their countrymen to death go about their business, sometimes known and feared in their communities, sometimes hiding in other places.  The North West of the country is still full of former Khmer Rouge cadres, now working in public service as hospital nurses, or teachers, or local government officials.  Had their been a Truth and Reconciliation process, or some other such public civic acknowledgement of wrong, with a chance for victims and their families to express their grief and for those guilty to express their regret, perhaps the country could have moved to a better place.  Deceit still underpins public and private life.  The secret political manoeuvring to protect those in positions of power, to pretend the past did not exist, the darkness behind the eyes of many of those, now in their 50s and 60s, who lived through the Killing Fields – this is the legacy of a failure to find a respectful path to the future.  Meantime those in Cambodia who try to lift the veil are themselves under threat, as exemplified in the brave story of Thet Sambath, whose memorable film, ‘Enemies of the People’, now available on DVD, featured in many of my previous blogs  (see here, here and here ).

Many younger Cambodians just want to move on.  They want a future, not a permanent past.  Everywhere around them, they can see that Cambodia is no North Korea.  While Cambodia’s unaccountable political elite are not too much different to the ‘strong’ governments of many post-conflict states, their continuity in power has brought stability, even a degree of dependability, into economic life.  On the back of this, open borders and free commerce have sustained hope and optimism among the hardworking Cambodian people, while economic growth has pushed along at or around 10% p.a., with a blip in 2008-9.  The many Cambodians who are working hard to create a better future for their country deserve as much support as the international community can give. They have a vision that we can all sign up to – of a future where every individual receives the basic human rights to which they are entitled, rights to education, health care, freedom of expression, rights which are still not fully realised.

In time, the trials will be written into the history books.  The jury is still out on whether or not the malign legacy of the Khmer Rouge, still evident in the Cambodia’s contemporary politics, will end up there as well or whether the generation that lived through the Killing Fields will pass that legacy on to the future.  It could be argued that this is a very familiar historical pattern.  After all, most of the landed, titled aristocracy who continue to enjoy significant privileges in the UK today gained their land and titles through choosing the right side of the previous civil conflicts, fought long ago.  I was reminded of this again on our recent visit to the grounds of Inveraray Castle, historic home of the Dukes of Argyll.

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For a short summary of Cambodia’s recent story, see here.

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One thought on “Cambodia’s war crimes trial – where is it going next?

  1. Pingback: The Trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders – each new delay reduces the credibility of this process of international justice | Danny Murphy's Blog

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