Two days ago the tribunal in charge of processing Cambodia’s genocide sat down to meet for the first time to try to make sense of the 1.7 million deaths that occurred between 1975-1979 under the Khmer Rouge. Delayed thirty years by civil war and conflict, the tribunal seeks to bring justice, understanding, and closure to the horrendous crimes committed so long ago. But how do you measure evil, and who do you blame? Pol Pot, the obvious choice, died in 1998. Then there are his closest advisers, there are those who physically murdered people, and those who just as they say, “ran the trains” (an expression that has come to represent those who followed orders who might not have directly murdered anyone, but participated in the genocide).
Today, Kaing Guek Eav (Duch), the Khmer Rouge’s chief torturer, took the stand. Duch was in charge of one of the prisons that orchestrated as many as 16,000 deaths. The leaders of the prison were systematic- they took a picture of each victim before torturing them to death. The evidence is there. After the tribunal read through gruesome details, Duch was given an opportunity to speak. He took the time to apologize to his nation for the crimes he committed. Hundreds of people watched from behind a glass window. Among them sat victims, and family members of victims who did not survive.
Cambodia has no death penalty, but Duch is facing life in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and murder. After his apology, Duch explained that he carried out his “duty” to protect his family, but that he takes “responsibility for crimes committed at S-21, especially the tortures and executions of the people there.” He also requested the people to “leave an open window for [him] to seek forgiveness.”
Duch’s lawyer argued that Duch is a scapegoat, and the court should turn its attention to those with more blood on their hands.
The Cambodian Prime Minister has been accused of limiting the tribunal because of politics. Hun Sen, the Prime Minister and a former Khmer Rouge officer (yes, really?), said that he does not approve of the court and hopes that it runs of out of money “as soon as possible.”
The Prime Minister’s attitude represents a greater issue facing Cambodia- the entire country’s apparent lack of understanding, knowledge, and justice regarding the genocide. Children growing up in Cambodia do not learn about the tragedy in school although it is vital to their history, and one teenager went so far as to say, “I’m not interested… I’m busy and I don’t want to know.”
What does this do for the survivors, and how will this affect the next generation? This tribunal is monumental, and of the utmost importance, and I will continue to follow it. I urge you to do the same, and to learn about what happened. There are many different kinds of genocide, and the genocide that occurred in Cambodia was unique and led to the term “autogenocide” which means the extermination of country’s citizens by its own people or government. Autogenocide differs from “genocide” in that people are not targeted and killed as the “other” as was the case in Nazi Germany, but as the same.
I wish I had time to share more about Cambodia’s history (after taking a class on Genocide a few months ago I had hoped to write a paper on what I learned, and that’s still in the works) but this is a great website to learn about the history.0