Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Cambodia's horror

Lest we forget!

Bangkok Post News: Cambodians look back in horror
Thirty-one years ago yesterday [April 17], as the communist Vietnamese neared victory in Saigon and the Thai people debated the direction of their still novel democracy, the first stories emerged from Cambodia. They were so shocking that many were inclined to dismiss them on April 17, 1975. The Khmer Rouge, one day into their Cambodian war victory, were emptying cities, forcing everyone to the countryside. Well-known personalities, including royal family members, were shot down in cold blood when they went to welcome the new rulers.

Thus began an extreme experiment, using real people, which resulted in millions of deaths, unimaginable hardship and, to this day, a total lack of justice.

Since the peace treaty of 1989 ended that long and blood-stained conflict, it has become a cliche{aac} to say that war crimes tribunals are expected to begin soon. Lethargy, some apathy and especially the current Khmer government of Prime Minister Hun Sen have conspired to deny such courts and chance of a fair hearing for the survivors, victims and their families. If the always coming, never arriving tribunal weren't bad enough for the hope for justice, the real unfairness is the treatment of the men and women who should have been in the dock years ago. The top Khmer Rouge _ those who have not died like their leader Pol Pot _ live at home, among families and friends, reminiscing about their old days in the war and when they ruled the country.

After 31 years, it is easy to say "enough is enough", but that should have been said more than a decade ago. Premier Hun Sen and his supporters have dragged out the process of appointing a court and setting its rules for well over 10 years. And certainly it is easy to lay the blame on Hun Sen. He himself was a Khmer Rouge soldier, present 31 years ago and prodding the sick from the hospitals, the old from their beds and singling out people wearing glasses as "intellectuals" to be shot, or enslaved until they died of exhaustion. He invited his old leaders, even including top Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, to Phnom Penh where they joked and bantered while the cameras rolled.

But Hun Sen alone would have been unable to delay a tribunal for the top Khmer Rouge. The international community committed some unpleasant actions, even if they were justified at the time. China, Singapore, Thailand and the United States allied to force Vietnam to give up its armed occupation of Cambodia. But they do not brag of their alliance of convenience with the Khmer Rouge for part of that period of resistance. Vietnam seems proud of overthrowing Pol Pot and ending the worst of the horrors in 1979, but does not brag of its early training and support for the Khmer Rouge. The United Nations itself ran the largest international armed intervention in its history, yet left the Khmer Rouge as a viable force, an unworkable and undemocratic government, and introduced Aids to Cambodia.

The victims of all of this are, of course, the people of Cambodia. They also were the victims of the undoubted, heavily documented atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Dictators have killed more citizens than the Pol Pot gang, but Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and their like never visited the horrors to all citizens that the Khmer Rouge brought. Cambodia had no money, no markets, no religion, no institution. Then, with the total control of the country and all citizens, the Khmer Rouge killed all resident foreigners and perhaps half of all Cambodians in the country, in a period of just 44 months.

Perhaps Cambodians would not find closure with a war crimes tribunal that probed and laid the correct responsibility for the atrocities. But they might avoid the cynicism that affects them today. For 31 years they have suffered _ at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese invaders and a callous government unwilling to represent its own people. The UN and its members, and the Hun Sen government have not helped them. And on the anniversary of the atrocities, that is shameful.

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