The Spectre of the Khmer Rouge over Cambodia

After 27 years of international amnesia over bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice, and following six years of intense negotiations between the United Nations and the Government of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), was established in 2006. The tribunal is a UN-assisted national court, with international participation of prosecutors and judges.

On 4 February 2008, the Khmer Rouge's second in command, Nuon Chea, now 81 years old, made his first appearance in court. He is being held at the Khmer Rouge tribunal's facility outside Phnom Penh, along with four other senior leaders, including former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and then Head of State Khieu Samphan. For many of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, the court appearance of Nuon Chea, though 29 years delayed, was highly significant -- the best proof that justice, denied for so long, would at last be achieved. Everyone hoped that the spectre of the Khmer Rouge, which had haunted Cambodia since the 1960s, would finally disappear. However, many of them and those in the international community are still puzzled why it took so long for the tribunal to begin the proceedings.

To be able to grasp this mystery, we have to go back to history. The Khmer Rouge started as a small communist insurgency against Prince Norodom Sihanouk's neutralist Government in the cold war, and grew into a terror regime during its rule from April 1975 to January 1979. This resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians through execution, exhaustion and starvation. Massive bombings of eastern Cambodia by the United States (1969-1973) and the overthrow of Sihanouk by a pro-American right-wing general in March 1970 radicalized the rural youth, turning many of them into the arms of the regime. The enraged Prince embraced Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge in Beijing , thereby opening the flood gates of Chinese arms to the Khmer Rouge and contributing to its meteoric rise.

On 7 January 1979, the Vietnamese army, together with a small group of Cambodian rebels, overthrew the genocidal regime, ending the 3 ½ year-long nightmare of the Cambodian people. Suddenly, the Khmer Rouge's unspeakable atrocities were revealed and had generated an outcry echoed throughout the world. Demands for justice were voiced everywhere by journalists and civil society. However, the liberation of the country from these horrors did not end the suffering of the people. Instead, the international outcry against the Khmer Rouge in the United Nations corridors in New York was muffled by diplomatic manoeuvrings. Incredibly, big power machinations awarded Cambodia's contested seat in the United Nations to the regime of Pol Pot, now exiled on the Thai border, rather than to the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), which later gained de facto control of the country. This travesty continued until 1991, long after a regime change in Phnom Penh had been accomplished. PRK was isolated politically and economically, although the former Soviet Union and its allies, including a number of non-aligned countries, notably India, continued to support and recognize it, but were outvoted in the General Assembly.

To make a UN resolution more palatable to the world, the Khmer Rouge united with FUNCINPEC, the royalist political party, and the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), a pro-American faction, into the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge flag continued to flutter over the skyline of New York City throughout the 1980s. The Cambodian people, who were not consulted on this ultimate affront, were puzzled and cried for justice. In Phnom Penh , the PRK Government tried Pol Pot and Ieng Sary in absentia, but these trials were ignored by the international community. The stalemate continued until the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements on 23 October 1991, which established the United Nations Transitional Authority on Cambodia (UNTAC) to implement the accords. However, because of the strange decisions of the United Nations in the 1980s, the Peace Agreements and UNTAC were already damaged at the initial stage by conflicting mandates, exaggerated hopes and UN inexperience. The major flaw, pressed by the United States and China in the Security Council, was that the Khmer Rouge faction was to play a legitimate role in the UNTAC process! Consequently, an emboldened Khmer Rouge refused to be disarmed by UNTAC, leading to a total failure in demobilization and an escalation of security problems during and after the UNTAC mandate. The timid attitude towards the regime allowed it to violate the stipulations of the Peace Agreements, including refusing to let UNTAC enter its territory and taking its personnel hostage.

The Khmer Rouge also refused to participate in the elections, which was deplored by senior UNTAC officials, but should actually be seen as a blessing in disguise. To allow the Khmer Rouge leaders to participate in the elections and occupy cabinet posts, as a "comprehensive solution", would have been the ultimate insult to the Cambodian people.

No one could deny that the Paris Agreements were the best achievement at the time to end the protracted Cambodia stalemate. After all, it would allow the big powers to extricate themselves from a never ending proxy war. While this may be true, one could equally argue that, in 1979, if an amendment to the UN resolution proposed by India, calling for the Cambodian seat to remain vacant, was adopted, the dilemma would most probably have ended sooner and with less lopsided provisions. India pointed out that the amendment would be in accordance with the decisions of the non-aligned countries summit in Havana, Cuba, which as usual were ignored.

The major successes of UNTAC were the conduct of the elections, in which 90 per cent of eligible voters participated, and the return of 370,000 refugees from the Thai border camps. However, when UNTAC left Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge was firmly perched in their jungle redoubts, fully armed and occupied more territories than when UNTAC arrived. It vowed to overthrow the new and uneasy coalition government, headed by Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen, and soon launched attacks.

A major breakthrough came in 1996 when Ieng Sary defected with the bulk of the forces to the Pailin area. The remaining Khmer Rouge forces, situated in the Sn Long Veng area, continued to oppose the Royal Government. Finally, in 2003, with the death of Pol Pot and the surrender of its remaining leaders, the Khmer Rouge movement was finally dissolved. While its rise to power and significance were very much the result of foreign intervention, the regime's final demise was basically accomplished by Cambodians themselves.

Throughout this tumultuous period, naturally no one thought of bringing the Khmer Rouge criminals to court. However, in June 1997, co-Prime Ministers Ranariddh and Hun Sen requested United Nations assistance to bring them to trial. The negotiations that followed were marked by a divergence of interpretations on the notion of justice and Cambodia's insistence on ownership of the trials. The ECCC trials, while flawed, will hopefully bury the Khmer Rouge spectre forever, thereby putting to an end a dark chapter in Cambodian history. This will also allow the Government and its people to go on with their battle against poverty, disease, injustice and ignorance.