40 years on, Khmer Rouge leaders face genocide verdict

Tribunal to decide Friday whether Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are guilty of genocide against Cham Muslims, Vietnamese.

Cambodia Khmer Rouge
Cham Muslims arrive at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia in August 2016 [File: Pring Samrang/Reuters]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Vang Tam, 65, is in little doubt over what he would do if he ever encountered the Khmer Rouge responsible for the death of his parents and four siblings in the 1970s.

“Even if I died, I would take his head off. I’d do whatever,” he shouts, dragging on a cigarette inside his floating home on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river.

“Our ancestors were executed near the mountains, I was the only one not killed.”

Tam is an ethnic Vietnamese fisherman who was born in Cambodia. Like hundreds of thousands of others, he was evacuated to Vietnam soon after the Maoists under Pol Pot took control of Cambodia, but many of his family stayed behind.

When he returned home in 1980, after the Vietnamese had overthrown the Khmer Rouge, he discovered about 40 members of his family were dead.

Those who hadn’t been executed had died from overwork or starvation.

On Friday, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), better known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, will hand down its verdict on whether the regime’s “Brother Number Two”, Nuon Chea, 92, and its head of state, Khieu Samphan, 87, committed genocide against ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims, another minority.

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan on screen in the media centre at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal [Pring Samrang/Reuters] 
Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan on screen in the media centre at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal [Pring Samrang/Reuters] 

Judges will also rule on whether the two men are guilty of crimes against humanity related to prisons, worksites, forced marriages and sexual violence.

The court sentenced both men to life terms in 2014 for crimes against humanity for their role in the forced evacuation of cities soon after the Khmer Rouge took power.


Friday’s decision comes with the tribunal facing widespread criticism for lengthy delays, government interference, and corruption.

While some argue the court has delivered long-awaited justice for victims, others have labelled the process a waste of time and money with convictions against only three people in 12 years.

The opinion was split among Cham and ethnic Vietnamese survivors of the regime interviewed by Al Jazeera. Many know nothing about the tribunal.

Sa Rom Ly, 62, a Cham who managed to survive mass purges in Kampong Cham by pretending he was ethnically Khmer, said he was sure the Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe out his people – something prosecutors have been attempting to prove.

“The Khmer Rouge wanted to get rid of Cham because of our religion,” he said, adding he supported the tribunal.

“We are happy that the ECCC held a trial of the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge because it can help hold them accountable for their actions,” he said.

“They deserve to be punished because they were the ones who ordered the regional chiefs to execute people and they followed their orders. If not, they would be killed too.”

Talking after prayers at a mosque in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district, Kop Math, 64, recounted similar brutality meted out to Chams in Battambang after they had been evacuated from the capital.

“My father sneaked away to pray but they spotted him and took him away to be killed,” said Math, who lost 16 of his 20 close family members.

Math, who visited the tribunal twice during the genocide segment, said he believed the court was delivering true justice to the victims, but he wanted to see more people in the dock.

“I think they should bring regional commanders to justice … but we don’t want the lower levels. If we demand [the lower levels] to be brought to justice this could result in confrontation,” he said.

Kop Math, outside a mosque in Phnom Penh [George Wright/Al Jazeera]
Kop Math, outside a mosque in Phnom Penh [George Wright/Al Jazeera]

Looking for justice

Down a winding alley that runs alongside the Mekong River, El Los, 72, explained how he lost all his parents and siblings after being told they had been taken away on a boat and executed in Kampong Cham.

Los said he knew nothing of the tribunal but that all Khmer Rouge, from top to bottom, should be made to pay for their crimes.

“We really want to find justice but where are they? We are suffering but what can we do?” he said. “The lower levels point and say they were following orders – but all should be held accountable.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who helped overthrow Pol Pot after defecting to Vietnam, has been vocal in his opposition to further trials, claiming it could plunge Cambodia back into civil war.

Cambodia’s court upholds Khmer Rouge life sentences

Both Cambodian and international judges sit in the court and both sides have to agree on decisions. Local judges and prosecutors have been accused of being under the influence of the government, especially in ongoing investigations of mid-ranking former Khmer Rouge.

The fact such a small number from the regime have been brought to justice is a common frustration among many Cham survivors, explained Farina So, principal deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and author of The Hijab of Cambodia.

The Cham researcher said although the tribunal – particularly the genocide case – was important to many Cham, creating public forums for dialogue between victims and perpetrators and their children was vital in helping communities reconcile.

“It’s also effective because you need to get things out of the court and into the community. Then they can discuss openly without fear,” So said.

‘Just a show’

Back on the Tonle Sap river, barely any of the 15 ethnic Vietnamese interviewed said they knew about the tribunal.

“Nobody talks about it. I have no idea what this court is,” said Chroeng Yan, whose father was clubbed to death by a Khmer Rouge soldier.

Vang Tam, one of the few who was aware of the court, was scathing in his analysis.

“It’s just a show, it’s meaningless,” he said.

His friend sitting next to him, Veeng Thhan Yoeng, 65, interjected.

“About 40 of my relatives were killed… I don’t think we can get justice,” he said. “We want to see more on trial.”

Source: Al Jazeera