Khmer Rouge faces genocide charges

The Khmer Rouge tribunal is set to hear genocide charges for targeting ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims.

A rebellion against the Khmer Rouge took place here in Svay Khleang village [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]

Kompong Cham, Cambodia – On a dark October night in 1975, Sos Min crept along the roads of Svay Khleang village clutching a drum. Min’s task would almost certainly end in his death, but weeks of planning and a growing sense of despair had strengthened his resolve.

For months, the Khmer Rouge had placed increasing pressure on this historic Cham Muslim village. The regime’s cadres shut down mosques, ordered an end to praying and forced villagers to eat pork. Women were made to discard their hijabs and cut their hair, imams and religious teachers were abducted in the dead of night – their screams ringing out across the village.

His death fighting this injustice, thought Min, would be better than continuing life in this vein. And so he began to beat the drum.

“I felt that even though I was not blind, when I opened my eyes everything was dark. So I decided to lead a rebellion against the Khmer Rouge… I drummed and the entire village woke up and came out of their houses,” Min said in an interview last week.

Inside Story – Cambodia: Genocide on trial

“We knew that there were more Khmer Rouge soldiers arriving and we had to fight. But quickly more and more Khmer Rouge came and surrounded the village. They sprayed bullets into the village, killing both women and children. Everywhere in the village, especially around this mosque, was covered with blood,” he said, pausing to point a finger towards the spacious grounds.

The rebellion led by Min and nine other men lasted one night and a day, long enough for the Khmer Rouge to gather sufficient reinforcements to fight the village back into submission. After the revolt was put down, the Khmer Rouge rounded up and imprisoned everyone in the entire village, torturing and killing dozens more. Of the 10 rebellion leaders, only two survived.  

The uprising of Svay Khleang against the Khmer Rouge is an anomaly. Only a handful of communities ever fought back against the brutal regime ahead of and during its time in power. But the uprising is also a key piece of evidence put forward by prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal seeking a genocide conviction for the regime’s top leaders.

“Witnesses state that after the rebellions, the persecution towards the Cham significantly increased. Many people were arrested, whole villages were moved away, dispersed among ethnically Khmer villages and the male heads of many households were killed,” reads the court’s indictment.

“One witness states that in 1972 he had been asked to prepare population statistics of Villages 5 and 6 of Svay Khleang Subdistrict. He explains that in 1972 there were 1,242 families in these villages, but in 1979 only 170 families remained.”

A controversial charge

If the Khmer Rouge hadn't collapsed, things would have gotten worse.

by - Farina So, Documentation Centre of Cambodia

Later this year, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is set to hear genocide charges for the first time. Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan will face charges for what the prosecution says was an aim to target ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims. The charges come as part of Case 002/02, the second part of the trial against the regime’s top living leaders. An initial planning hearing for the trial will be heard on Wednesday.

“[If you look at] the number of Chams killed relative to the general population of people killed – we argue that it shows a specific intent to eradicate religion and the significant group practising that religion,” said William Smith, deputy international co-prosecutor.

The leaders have already been tried in Case 002/01 on charges related to forced evacuations and a verdict is due next week. But the genocide charges, along with crimes such as forced marriage, rape, internal purges, and detention centres that make up Case 002/02 have been eagerly awaited by many.

“If we look at the treatment of the Khmer Rouge towards the Cham from the beginning until the collapse, we could see the policy was more harsh to the Chams,” said Farina So, a researcher with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

So, who did hundreds of interviews with Cham survivors, said it appeared the Khmer Rouge regime did indeed have a policy in place to target Muslims.

“If the Khmer Rouge hadn’t collapsed, things would have gotten worse. A lot of survivors recall widespread killings in Muslim areas … that was the sign of genocide, that the Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate this race, ethnicity, and religion.”

Others, however, are less sure. Some historians have taken umbrage at the court’s decision to press genocide charges, pointing to the same rebellions as proof the Chams were targeted for reasons having nothing to do with their religion.

“As to the Chams, indeed they were victimised more than other groups, but this was not because of their ethnicity, but because they rebelled en masse in Kroch Chhmar district in Kompong Cham province, for instance, and refused to abstain from performing their daily prayers. All religions were banned, except the worship of Angkar,” historian Henri Locard argued in an opinion piece published in the Cambodia Daily earlier this year.

David Chandler, an emeritus professor at Monash University and Cambodia scholar, called the evidence “ambiguous”.

“Too many Chams survived the Khmer Rouge era to prove that the regime had intended to eliminate them all for racist reasons,” he wrote in an email. “Evidence that Chams were not allowed to pray, made to cut their hair and made to eat pork is not evidence of genocide… What is hard to prove against the regime (except as far as the Vietnamese minority are concerned) is genocidal intent.”

Losing patience

For some victims, meanwhile, such questions have already become hollow. In Svay Khleang, a number of people said they had little expectation the court could serve justice to any survivors of the Khmer Rouge. 

“When I first filed my complaint [with the court] to stand as a civil party, I was happy and excited – hopeful that we would see justice for the brutal suffering Cham people faced,” said Min, who today serves as imam at the same mosque where the rebellion took place.

The case was very meaningful in the beginning, but it's very meaningless now.

by - Sman Tava, religious leader

“In recent years, though, I notice that the Khmer Rouge tribunal has done nothing for m … I don’t have any expectations.” 

The intervening years between when Min joined the case and today have not painted a pretty picture of justice. Case 002 – which was meant to be the court’s cornerstone case – has, since its start in November 2011, been beset with allegations of political interference, financial woes, and delays. Half of the original defendants did not even make it to see the first verdict. Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in March 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was declared unfit to stand trial in September 2012 due to dementia.

As Min spoke outside his mosque, a group of men and women took turns stirring a huge pot of soup for that night’s Iftar meal. With a bit of prodding, Min’s neighbour – another religious leader – added his opinion.

“It’s getting weaker because they haven’t issued a final verdict but already many people have died,” said Sman Tava, 52, who is also registered as a civil party.

“The case was very meaningful in the beginning but it’s very meaningless now.”

Source: Al Jazeera