Justice in Cambodia

by Ruth Montiel:

More than 30 years have passed since the Khmer Rouge lost power in Cambodia, but the formal processing of the five most notorious criminals, responsible for the deaths of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians only began in July. Although there are many more criminals at large, Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that the trials will not go beyond these five. Duch, the commandant of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, received a 19-year sentence in a trial that many found infuriating and insufficient for the severity of his crimes.

The delays, great financial costs, and emotional duress of the trials have posed questions for Cambodia and any state recovering from historical mistakes—how does a state move forward from the horrors of its past? Is it productive and necessary to spend the money and time processing such atrocities or it is more beneficial to leave the past behind? I believe that, although the trial process is difficult, should Cambodia wish to move forward culturally, economically, and socially, it must confront the history that nearly destroyed and continues to deeply affect its society.

A survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison in his old cell. (Montiel, TYG)

The first reason for these trials is very direct: punishment for the criminals and satisfaction for the victims and their families. There is no question that the acts of these criminals more than deserve harsh penalties. Although no penalty can be proportionate to the crimes, were Cambodia to let the progenitors of a 1.7 million person genocide (especially horrifying in a country with a population at that time of 7 million) walk free, it would be impossible, I believe, for it to become a country that take seriously as a guardian and proponent of human rights.

The number of Cambodians who came to watch the trial in search of some explanation and retribution demonstrates that Cambodians are still invested in the history. To ignore the atrocities would be to deny every victim and family justice, which could not but foster ill feelings and impede democratic progress. Even those not directly impacted by the violence have a stake in seeing justice served. The Khmer Rouge not only murdered and enslaved, but also destroyed the economy and infrastructure. The ramifications of these actions continue to be felt in the high poverty rates and relatively low level of development. Thus each Cambodian, regardless of family history, has been deeply affected by the actions of these 5 men and women.

Most importantly, Cambodia must continue to prosecute these criminals in order to set a precedent for the future. The country has developed significantly since the establishment of the democracy, but it still has a long way to go in many human rights issues, such as the establishment of universal, compulsory education. The high rates of poverty necessitate external assistance from developed countries in order to achieve these needs. But it is impractical to expect wealthy states to support a state that has ignored some of the most notorious criminals in its history. This would be a blemish on Cambodia’s record from which it may be impossible to recover. By meting out appropriate penalties the state will send a message to its own citizens and the rest of the world that times have changed and the atrocities of the past will not be tolerated.

I believe that this is a vital step that Cambodia must take. Undoubtedly the situation would be remarkably improved had these trials occurred in the 80s when the crimes were in the immediate memory of all citizens. Let this be a lesson to other states dealing with similar war crime issues—a hasty trial makes justice easier and more effective. However, it is never too late to establish a precedent that acknowledges the past but looks forward to a future in which mistakes will not be repeated.