This week, a 90-year-old man is up before a UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Khieu Samphan’s appeal against his genocide conviction should in theory shine a light upon one of the most terrible periods of Cambodian history. The defendant was head of state during the years the country was ruled by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79. In that time, over a quarter of the population died during a murderous, Maoist failed attempt to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia.
Khieu’s trial is in some ways symbolic; he is already serving a life sentence after being found guilty in 2014 of crimes against humanity. But it is also important, not least because it may be the last of the cases to be heard by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) set up in 2006 to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to account for the horrors they inflicted upon their country all those decades ago.
It is also an impressive exception to the climate of impunity in the region. While no other South-East Asian leader stands accused of being responsible for the deaths of millions, justice was denied to the more than 500,000 victims of the anti-communist purge perpetrated in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966, while it seems entirely possible that none of Myanmar’s past and present leadership will ever have to answer for their persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. The trials in Cambodia came far too late for many – not least the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, known as "Brother Number One", who died before the court was established – but they do represent the country delivering a real reckoning with its past.
Well, some of its past, anyway. One criticism of the tribunal is that although it has cost $300 million so far, it has resulted in only three convictions. The age of some defendants partially explains this. The regime’s foreign minister, Ieng Sary, died mid-trial in 2013, and his wife, the former social affairs minister, Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit for trial because of her dementia.
“Comrade Duch”, the head of the notorious Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp which is now a genocide museum, was sentenced to life imprisonment, as was Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two” to Pol Pot. But those verdicts, along with those on Khieu Samphan – assuming his second is upheld – constitute a paltry number considering the hellish nightmare the Khmer Rouge unleashed upon Cambodia.
Prime Minister Hun Sen – himself a one-time Khmer Rouge commander until he defected to the Vietnamese-backed opposition forces – is strongly opposed to any further trials, warning that bringing back the ghosts of the past risks instability or even civil war.
But the truth is that it suits many not to delve too deeply into the history of the Khmer Rouge, who continued to exist well into the 1990s. Despite being forced out of Cambodia after Vietnam invaded in 1979, the international community allowed the organisation to continue holding the country’s seat at the UN until 1993, first on its own and then as part of a coalition government-in-exile opposed to the administration Hanoi had installed.
This was not least due to support for the Khmer Rouge from the US and China, because both were fiercely aligned against Vietnam. China actively propped up the group, with military advisers and money. America’s involvement was more shadowy, with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger saying: “I don't believe we did anything for Pol Pot. But I suspect we closed our eyes when some others did something for Pol Pot." Many have accused the US of giving covert aid.
On occasion, the assistance was out in the open. The veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan recalled that when the UN held an international conference on Cambodia in 1981, the Association of South-East Asian Nations proposed that there should be elections as and when the Vietnamese withdrew, but that China and the US wanted the Khmer Rouge to come back to government. “The US supported the return of a genocidal regime. Did any of you imagine that the US once had in effect supported genocide?” he asked an audience at a lecture in 2016.
Little of this is remembered today, which is convenient. The communist government backed by Vietnam – through which Hun Sen first became prime minister – may have been repressive and cruel, but it would surely be incomprehensible to younger Americans to learn that successive US administrations preferred a group that killed possibly up to three million of their fellow countrymen. These are facts that should be better known.
Will the UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia succeed in increasing understanding about those years of “the killing fields”? Sebastian Strangio, whose book Cambodia: From Pol Pot to Hun Sen and Beyond is an authoritative history of the country’s modern times, thinks so – partly.
“The ECCC has left behind an archive of testimony that will be a rich resource for a future generation of historians,” he tells me. “It has also helped to initiate a public discussion about the Khmer Rouge and the horrific acts committed during its three years, eight months, and 20 days in power. For some there has also been power in seeing once-untouchable people put on trial.”
It has been no equivalent to the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted the chief Nazi leaders after the Second World War. “Given how tightly circumscribed the ECCC has been by politics – both domestic and international – it’s hard to say that the tribunal has fulfilled the heavy expectations that were heaped upon it,” says Mr Strangio.
Maybe so. But it still provides an example for the region as to how a painful history can be re-examined and at least some justice be seen to be done. “In the West, you remember everything,” Fadli Zon, the former deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, once said to me. “Here, we forget very easily.” In Cambodia, and hopefully the world, perhaps not so easily now.