Will justice heal Cambodia’s grievous wounds?

Those who believe that justice will be done, no matter how late, and that the oppressor will be punished, found this manifest earlier this month. Was it a questionable and incomplete justice? Yes! However, it was a step closer to the truth and righteousness.

We are referring here to two of the main figures of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, who committed one of the greatest massacres of the 20th century. They were sentenced to life imprisonment even though they are already in jail for other crimes.

They are Pol Pot’s deputy, Nuon Chea, 92 years old, and former President, Khieu Samphan, 87 years old. This was the first verdict of a Cambodian court in which the UN participated against Pol Pot’s regime and its massacres in Cambodia.

The official pretext behind curbing re-consideration is to avoid the flaring up of old grudges among the citizens and stresses the need to move forward and not remain a prisoner of the past and its grudges. But can people who have been through such a horrific experience really recover without reviewing their past and reconcile with it?

Hazem Saghieh

Genocide of two million

Who are the Khmer Rouge? What was the regime they established between 1975 and 1979, which only fell due to Vietnamese invasion?

They were extreme nationalists and communists. Their leaders, including Pol Pot whose real name is Saloth Sar, studied in France where they embraced Marxism-Leninism. They then joined the most extreme forms of Chinese Maoism and applied it in a highly repressive and brutal manner. They sought to establish rural communism that eradicates cities and establishes self-sufficiency upon an agricultural basis and eliminates all political or ethnic opposition.

Two minority communities suffered the most from their crimes: The Vietnamese minority (during the bitter Cambodian conflict with Vietnam) and the ethnic Muslim Cham minority. The first one was completely eradicated by killing or forced displacement. The second, whose population is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, lost more than a third of its population.

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The total number of those who died in the Cambodian “killing fields” was estimated to be two million, most of them from the majority of Khmer ethnic groups, who were divided between intellectuals, employees, “urban bourgeoisie” and suspects for one reason or another. These were also eradicated as well as their families.

This ideologically extremist regime eradicated different ethnic groups and different doctrines. In addition to direct killing and deaths via famine which struck the country, the regime also practiced the most brutal kinds of torture in prisons, imposing forced marriage and reproduction, as well as slavery and expulsion.

Wolf in sheep’s clothing

However, the issue has another face. The court was accused of slowing down the process of prosecution and its work raised domestic and international suspicion regarding the current political system in Phnom Penh. Some observers believe that the core of this issue lies with Hun Sen himself, the Cambodian prime minister who has been in power since 1985.

The man who defected from the Khmer Rouge as a young officer and escaped to Vietnam before returning to his country with the Vietnamese army is not very different from the Khmer Rouge in terms of foundation. It is true that he did not commit what Khmer Rouge committed and he also seemed more responsive to the international and regional transformations, however, he established an authoritarian regime behind the guise of holding elections.

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This allowed him to maintain his post for 33 years! In this sense, he wants to limit the trial of the figures of the previous era and not to turn it into a trial for a specific stage and mentality and that may open the eyes of the Cambodians to the crimes of the ideological authoritarian tyranny.

The official pretext behind curbing re-consideration is to avoid the flaring up of old grudges among the citizens and stresses the need to move forward and not remain a prisoner of the past and its grudges. But can people who have been through such a horrific experience really recover without reviewing their past and reconcile with it? The question of course goes beyond the Cambodian experience, although Cambodia does represent one of the most significant and expressive models.

This article is also available in Arabic.

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Hazem Saghieh is a Lebanese political analyst and the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:51 - GMT 06:51
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