October 10, 2007: In September, Cambodian justice twitched the tip of its little piggy and finally indicted Nuon Chea, former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea-- aka the Khmer Rouge. Nuon Chea is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes in breach of the Geneva Conventions. Between 1975 and 1979, under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge rocked Cambodia back to the stone age with their Bizarro left vision of a totally self-sufficient agrarian society created by totalitarian force in cut time. Illiterate peasants were declared the revolutionary vanguard, any technology more modern than the wheel was banned, and wheels only rolled if pulled by human beings or draft animals. Both died in droves from starvation, disease and exhaustion. Though animals were spared death by ideology.
Roughly 2 million people, in a population of 7.5 million, died in what was then called Democratic Kampuchea. From the causes listed above, brought on by forced population displacements and slave labor. Many were directly executed. The Khmer Rouge did what those in mad ideological love always do. Crush anyone who seems to diss their beloved. Victims included urban dwellers and intellectuals (identified by their glasses) and eventually, the politically impure from within the Khmer Rouge itself. Between 14,000 to 16,000 of the impure died in Tuol Sleng prison, also called S-21, in the capital city of Phnom Penh. An imagined whiff of unorthodoxy was all it took to consign a person to torture and execution. Under prolonged torture and with interrogators prompting their words, prisoners signed off on fictions that ran for hundreds of pages-- describing their part in fantastic plots orchestrated by the CIA, the KGB, or the Vietnamese. When prisoners were illiterate (common in low level Khmer Rouge) interrogators wrote for them. Meanwhile, back in the cadres, the comrades shuddered. Since suspicion inevitably spread to those surrounding betrayers of The Revolution.
Party policy dictated that all S-21 prisoners be executed. Only a handful survived. But the prison's commandant still lives. In the late 1990's, Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch or Deuch, was discovered by photo journalist Nic Dunlop in a remote Cambodian village. Duch was indicted this August after years in military detention. To date, Comrade Duch and Nuon Chea are the only Khmer Rouge big dogs indicted. Nuon Chea, who surrendered to the current Cambodia government 9 years ago and until recently wasn't in detention, is the far bigger dog. Duch was merely an ideologically committed torturer-- albeit one charged with the crucial task of rooting out the enemy within. A job he performed at Khmer Rouge jungle bases before being promoted to Tuol Sleng. Whereas Nuon Chea was a member of the Central and Standing Committees of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Second only to Pol Pot in the inner circle that conceived and implemented policy. As Deputy Secretary, Nuon Chea was responsible for state and party security and was Comrade Duch's ultimate boss. Duch did the hands on but Nuon Chea called the shots, shocks and bludgeoning. Among the evidence expected to be presented at Nuon Chea's trial are torture and execution reports by Comrade Duch, intended for the eyes of Nuon Chea.
Why so little justice so late?
In 1979, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh. Though the communist Vietnamese were former Khmer Rouge allies, the relationship was always uneasy: Cambodia has traditionally viewed Vietnam as an overbearing neighbor intent on expansion. Eventually CPK policy turned openly hostile. (Pol Pot's awareness that some CPK members were Vietnam-friendly helped fill Tuol Sleng.) Territory disputes led to war. When the Vietnamese invaded, the Khmer Rouge were forced to withdraw to the jungles of Cambodia, primarily along the border with Thailand. They battled the Vietnamese for 10 years, in a civil war supported by various forces, internal and external. The latter included the USA, China, and Thailand, who sought to scotch Vietnam's influence in the region, as well as the influence of Vietnam's patron, the Soviet Union.
While vastly better than the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese ruled Cambodia in classic Stalinist style. Severe political repression was the norm: human rights abuses abounded. Under diplomatic pressure the Vietnamese withdrew troops from Cambodia in 1989. The Khmer Rouge continued to wage war on the government centered in Phnom Penh, deeming it a Vietnamese puppet. But by the late 90's the Khmer Rouge no longer existed as a cohesive entity. UN brokered elections and a series of bloody political convulsions had produced a relatively stable government headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge who defected to the Vietnamese in 1979 and was influential in the occupation government. Prime Minister Hun Sen governs in nouvelle Stalinist style, with a nod to the market. Severe political repression is frequent, human rights abuses common, and public corruption rampant. Still, he does sit atop a coalition government-- albeit a weak one. And he certainly beats his one-time leader Pol Pot.
In 1998, Pol Pot apparently died of natural causes while under not-so onerous house arrest. Time is on the side of the surviving members of the CPK inner circle. Like 82 year old Nuon Chea, most are so elderly that prosecuting them looks downright mean. And the elderly people who were left to die by the side of the road when the Khmer Rouge marched the entire population of Phnom Penh out of the city to serve as slave labor, seem less and less real as time passes. Three-quarters of Cambodia's current population are too young to have any memory of the Khmer Rouge period and schools aren't required to teach the subject. A good thing too. Many former Khmer Rouge, some of whom were only teenagers in the 70s, are in the current government and military. Why subject them to embarrassment re the excesses of youth?
The prosecution of Comrade Duch and Nuon Chea are taking place under the aegis of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea. Quite a mouthful. The short form is Extraordinary Chambers or ECCC. In 1997, largely in response to an international drumbeat, the Cambodian government asked the UN for assistance in prosecuting senior CPK members. The result was the creation of the Extraordinary Chambers in 2001. Located in Phnom Penh, the court is a combo of Cambodian and international jurists. The ECCC website, defines it as “a Cambodian court with international participation that will apply international standards”. Tens of millions of international dollars, from numerous individual countries and the European Union, have flowed into the effort to hold someone accountable for the Khmer Rouge. The result to date is the indictment of two men, only one of whom can be called a prime mover. Four other CPK inner circle members are being investigated. But more money from foreign donors is needed and a major fund raising push is set to be launched.
In late 2006 an audit by the the UN's development agency, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) declared the Cambodian section of the Extraordinary Chambers to be riddled with corruption. The audit, which the UNDP only released in October 2007, alleges court personnel are appointed via political connection and routinely pay kickbacks. And that the court is “rife with unqualified staff, bloated salaries, and the creation of dozens of unnecessary jobs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars”**. In other words, the most directly concerned section of the court charged with meting out justice to the leaders of one of the most extreme totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century, is being run like the municipal government of some stateside political machine burg.
Former CPK Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea seems to be reading from the same script. Talk about banality of evil-- his response to his indictment, as quoted in the ECCC's Provisional Detention Order, smacks of a hack hit with graft charges. Crimes against humanity? According to Nuon Chea the CPK inner circle “did not have any direct contact with the bases and we were not aware of what was happening there”. As in, underlings-acted-without-their-knowledge. The hoariest dodge going. Also check Nuon Chea's chutzpa (cheap pols never leave home without it) in claiming that since 40 members of his own family were killed by the Khmer Rouge, he couldn't possibly have been a master planner of mass murder. Like nobody remembers that an ideological imperative of the Khmer Rouge, as elucidated by the inner circle of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, et al, was the destruction of the family. The Khmer Rouge routinely betrayed their nearest and dearest in the name of The Revolution.
Most appalling-- and a true two bit classic-- is Nuon Chea's attempt to obfuscate his own deeds by implying he's being singled out by partisan hypocrites. Complaining “people speak incessantly about the 1.7 million victims of Democratic Kampuchea, without ever mentioning the deaths caused by others, before 1975 or after 1979.”
Nuon Chea's trial will supposedly start next year. When it does, a large scorecard should be posted on the courtroom wall. So the judges can see that the systematic eradication of 1.7 million human beings was merely a drop in a big bucket and other people did bad things too. Furthermore, a mugshot of Democratic Kampuchea should be posted, so that the villain who claimed so many victims can be recognized.
The Khmer Rouge/Democratic Kampuchea years were bracketed by decades of violence. A series of repressive and corrupt internal regimes contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The USA, Soviet Union and China treated Cambodia as a Cold War football. Vietnam saw it as an acquisition for a regional communist bloc headed by Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, in an effort to destroy supply lines to the Vietnamese, the USA dropped more bombs (in terms of explosive power) on Cambodia than it did on Japan in WW2. Countless villages were turned into craters and their peasant populations decimated. Survivors hated the USA with a passion. Many turned Khmer Rouge. The latter were financed and armed by China. The USA backed Lon Nol, a brutal military dictator, then dropped him like a hot spud when the Vietnam War ended, leaving the way open for Pol Pot. After Pol Pot was ousted, the Soviet-supported Vietnamese were harsh masters. Civil war raged for years. Atrocities were committed by all.
None of this means bupkiss when it comes to the personal responsibility of Nuon Chea and other CPK inner circle members for creating the hell that was Democratic Kampuchea. Hey-- did the Treaty of Versailles, or the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, let Hitler's boys off the hook?
While being questioning by the judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in a preliminary hearing in September, Nuon Chea suddenly felt dizzy. According to his attorney, Nuon Chea's blood pressure shot up and he was unable to hear the judges clearly. Hence, he couldn't reply correctly. A routine medical check done before Nuon Chea entered prison showed him to be in relatively good health. But his son is concerned. He fears his father won't receive proper medical care while in detention and he wants the court to grant bail. So far, no bail. But the Extraordinary Chambers has five doctors and four nurses keeping an eye on Nuon Chea, and more fish and vegetables will be added to his diet. Plus, a European style toilet will be installed in his cell so he won't have to strain his old bones by squatting low.
Given his age and the sluggish nature of Cambodian justice, Nuon Chea may not be tried for his crimes against humanity this side of the grave. Those who believe in divine justice will find comfort in their belief. Those who don't share that belief will have to make do with the vague apology given by Nuon Chea when he and several other CPK inner circle members surrendered to the Hun Sen government in 1998: “Actually, we are very sorry not only for the lives of the people of Cambodia, but even for the lives of all the animals that suffered because of the war.”**
Nice to know Nuon Chea cares about critters...
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
*Audit finds flaws in Khmer Rouge Tribunal hiring, 10/02/07 channelnewsasia.com
**Khmer Rouge ideologue arrested for abuses, 3 decades later, Seth Mydans, International Herald Tribune, 09/19/07
Sources include but are not limited to:
"Cambodia tribunal to hold first public hearing on detained Khmer Rouge leader's appeal," Associated Press/International Herald Tribune, 10/10/07
"Detained Khmer Rouge's chief's family demand bail," channelnewsasia.com, 09/25/09
"Former Khmer Rouge leader arrested," Bangkok Post, 09/20/07
Provisional Detention Order, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, , 09/19/07
The Lost Executioner, A Journey to the Heart of the Killing Fields, Nic Dunlop, Walker & Company, 2005
A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival, John Tully, Allen & Unwin, 2005
Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, Philip Short, Henry Holt Publishers, 2004
The Gate, Francois Bizot, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
Send comments or confidential tips to: