The tragedy began on April 17th, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, gained control of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. What followed next were years of unspeakable horrors, backed by the regime’s vision for a “socialist, fully independent and socially and ethnically homogeneous Cambodia” (Oxford Transitional Justice Research). Cambodia was left with at least 1.7 million dead—a quarter of the entire population at the time (Mydans).
After over 15 years of trials held in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to seek justice and hold ex Khmer Rouge officials accountable, the final hearing ended with a total of three convictions. But does Cambodia’s mission to achieve justice for its victims end here, or is it just the beginning?
Khmer Rouge: The Cambodian Genocide
The Khmer Rouge came to power during a tumultuous period of civil war and political chaos both domestically and abroad. With neighbouring Vietnam engaged in war between the North and South, the Khmer Rouge sought to aggressively push for their campaign to transform Cambodia into a socialist state of rice-farmers living in harmony. Ethnic minorities and those influenced, or “tainted”, by the capitalist West were all seen as major enemies to the regime; soon enough, the Khmer Rouge began their brutal persecution of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham Muslims in particular, as well as doctors, lawyers, and those who were former members of the military/police (“Cambodian Genocide”). Some were even killed for wearing glasses. The Khmer Rouge led a campaign of destruction against religious artefacts and monuments alongside persecution of Buddhists and Christians.
In an attempt to restructure Cambodian society, the Khmer Rouge established re-education schools, where state propaganda was enforced onto citizens and communal lifestyle was encouraged in order to break the traditional family structure. Those who were not targeted for being ethnic minorities or pro-West intellectuals were sent to do forced labor, through which many died of starvation and overworking. If one resisted against the Khmer Rouge’s re-education program, they were either directly killed in the fields or taken to Tuol Sleng Centre, or S-21, for interrogation, torture, and finally, killing. S-21 was responsible for around 17,000 deaths of Cambodian men, women, and children (“Khmer Rouge: Cambodia’s Years Of Brutality”). Besides starvation, many Cambodians died from disease under the neglect of the Khmer Rouge.
Those who were lucky enough to escape the country are still plagued by the horrors today. Monique Sokhan, survivor and Senior Protection Coordinator of UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, talks about survivor guilt: “It’s difficult because you’re wondering why others have died and you’re alive. And for those who did not survive […] I felt like having a responsibility somehow to do something that would make them proud of me” (Fleming). Memories of the genocide also live on with the Cambodian diaspora in the United States, where many refugees fled to and settled down.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s reign ended after Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in 1979, but it was only in 2007 that the first investigations into the Khmer Rouge’s war crimes and human rights violations took place.
The ECCC Trials
For many, the tribunal signalled hopes for justice. Formed with a panel of Cambodian and international judges under the United Nations, the ECCC called for five former Khmer Rouge officials to stand trial for the atrocities they had committed during the regime. To the frustration of many, Pol Pot—head of the regime—died before the trials, free from repentance and never subjected to face his crimes. His third-in-command, Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister Ieng Sary also died before the trials came to an end.
Despite two key officials escaping accountability, the ECCC was able to convict and sentence the remaining officials. Kaing Guek Eav, or Commander Duch, received a life sentence in 2012 for crimes against humanity while running the S-21; he died at the age of 77 in 2020 (Mydans). Noun Chea, Pol Pot’s second-in-command and known as Brother Number Two, received his life sentence in 2014, followed by his death in prison five years later (Head). During his conviction, Khieu Samphan appealed that he was “not aware of the heinous acts committed by other leaders” (Mydans) against claims that “he had ‘encouraged, incited and legitimised’ policies of the regime” (“Cambodia: UN-Backed Tribunal”) that contributed to the genocide. His appeal was rejected and in 2022, Samphan was sentenced to life in prison for genocide and other war crimes.
The ECCC achieved relative success in bringing justice to victims of the regime, but many view that it was a costly and ineffective effort, dragged on for too long. Overall, the court cost $330 million (Mydans), with only three convicted. The incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cambodian judges objected to further investigations demanded by international judges, as Hun Sen feared the trials would cause problems for his government, especially with his past role in a Khmer Rouge cadre. Many Cambodians are also dissatisfied with the selection of perpetrators brought to trial. While leaders of a regime do bear heavy responsibility, much of Khmer Rouge violence was enacted by lower level officials as well. The slow pace of the trials also posed a problem, as many victims were passing away with time.
Despite its shortcomings, the ECCC trials did bring some justice for Cambodia. Minimal expectations were reached, with key leaders of the regime convicted and sentenced. The ECCC also drew international attention to the Cambodian genocide through UN involvement. A large portion of the Cambodian population is young, and only recently have they begun to teach events of the genocide in school. There are still many victims out there, whose voices have not yet been heard, their stories not yet told. According to Youk Chhang, founder of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, 30,000 survivors had been interviewed and said the ECCC has been meaningful (Head). Following the trials is a three year “legacy period”, in which governments can choose to donate for support for victims, public outreach, archive preservation, etc.
There is still a lack of communication between the generation of survivors and the new generation, who grew up with little to no knowledge or interest in what their parents and grandparents experienced. Another step towards reconciliation and healing would be to bridge this generational gap, to share the experiences as a preservation of memories of the victims, instead of silent denial.
Cambodia has come far in coping with its traumatic past. The notorious S-21 prison has now become the Tuol-Sleng museum, and awareness of the killing fields has been raised significantly after depictions in Hollywood movies. Mass graves are marked by signs, and the arts have been used to reconnect with events of the genocide. More survivor interviews and memoirs are published, and photographs are being collected in archives. Though the process is slow, Cambodia is healing after more than four decades.
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Hyewon Rha is a second year International Relations student at King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.