‘Even their remains should be in handcuffs’: Khmer Rouge vilified

Cambodians reflect on crime and punishment after the UN-backed war crimes tribunal issued its final judgement on the regime’s brutal rule.

A portrait of of Khmer Rouge leader and "Brother Number One" Pol Pot is seen in front of pictures of his victims at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge under leader Pol Pot (right) ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979 and its brutal policies led to the deaths of about a quarter of the population [File: Damir Sagolj/Reuters]

Yath Run was just nine years old when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975.

The victory of Pol Pot’s forces saw Yath Run separated from his parents and sent to a children’s labour camp in Cambodia’s rural northwestern Battambang province.

Decades later, Yath Run’s anger has not dissipated for the regime that separated him from his family, and whose policies and purges led to the deaths of two million people in fewer than four years.

A life spent in prison was not enough, he said, speaking ahead of Thursday’s final ruling by the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, which affirmed the life sentence of former regime head of state Khieu Samphan for genocide and crimes against humanity.

“They deserved a sentence of 200 or 300 years in jail and even their remains should be in handcuffs until their jail terms have been served,” 56-year-old Yath Run said.

Punishment for Khmer Rouge leaders should continue in death too; none of their relatives — not even children — should be allowed to attend their funerals, he said, proposing that the government designate a specific burial site just for the remains of the regime’s leadership.

Group photo of Khmer Rouge Minister of National Defence Son Sen, Head of State Khieu Samphan, "Brother No. 2" Nuon Chea, "Brother No. 1. Pol Pot, Yon Yat, the regime's minister of culture, education and propaganda, Meas Sophy, Pol Pot's first wife, Sar Phacheta, Pol Pot's daughter.
(Left to right) Khmer Rouge Minister of National Defence Son Sen; Head of State Khieu Samphan; ‘Brother No 2’ Nuon Chea; ‘Brother No. 1’ Pol Pot; the regime’s Minister of Culture, Education and Propaganda Yon Yat, and Meas Sophy, Pol Pot’s first wife with a young Sar Phacheta, Pol Pot’s daughter. The identities of others in the photograph are unknown [Courtesy of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia]

“They should not be allowed to have a funeral ceremony because during their regime innocent people were massacred and their bodies had no coffins to lie in,” he said.

The rejection of Khieu Samphan’s appeal by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) — the official name of the war crimes tribunal — marked the final ruling in the UN-backed court’s 16 years of work.

The court said that it had upheld his conviction and life sentence “in light of all the circumstances, including the tragic nature of the underlying events and the extent of the harm caused by Khieu Samphan”.

Some have criticised the tribunal for taking more than a decade and a half and spending more than $330m to charge five senior Khmer Rouge leaders and successfully sentence just three. Others say the work of healing from the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge will continue in Cambodia long after the court’s now completed legal work.

Khieu Samphan, the 91-year-old former head of state of Pol Pot’s regime, is the sole surviving senior leader of the regime behind bars.

The regime’s self-styled ‘Brother No 1’, Pol Pot, died in 1998 before he could be brought to justice.

A photo of Pol Pot taken by a visiting Vietnamese delegation to Cambodia on July 27, 1975.
A photo of Pol Pot taken by a visiting Vietnamese delegation to Cambodia on July 27, 1975. The Khmer Rouge had swept to power a little over three months earlier [Courtesy of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia]

Nuon Chea, known as ‘Brother No 2’ and the regime’s chief ideologue, was sentenced to two life terms in prison by the tribunal for crimes against humanity and genocide. He died in 2019.

Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, Ieng Sary, was charged with crimes against humanity but died of ill health before the completion of his trial in 2013.

His wife, Ieng Thirith, the regime’s former minister of social action and sister-in-law of Pol Pot, was also charged but was later ruled unfit to stand trial on the grounds of mental health. She died in 2015.

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as ‘Duch’, was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2010 for atrocities perpetrated at the S-21 prison and torture centre in Phnom Penh. Duch died in 2020.

In this classroom setting sit "Brother No.2" Nuon Chea; Vorn Vet, the regime's minister of commerce; Head of State Khieu Samphan; Ta Mok, brutal military commander and secretary of the regime's Southwest Zone; Ke Pauk, secretary of the Northern Zone; Chou Chet, secretary of the Western Zone, and Ieng Sary, the regime's minister of foreign affairs.
‘Brother No 2’ Nuon Chea (seated on the left) gives a lecture to senior Khmer Rouge officials, including Head of State Khieu Samphan, Foreign Affairs Minister Ieng Sary and brutal military commander Ta Mok [Courtesy of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia]

Troubling memories

More than 40 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, survivors are still troubled by their memories of that period, according to new research conducted by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia [DC-CAM], the country’s leading research institution archiving the events of the Khmer Rouge era.

Based on a survey of more than 31,000 survivors conducted between August 2021 and August 2022, 87 percent of respondents reported that they still had troubling memories of the past.

Those memories “resonated” with survivors, and “25 percent of respondents reported still suffering nightmares of this period, despite the fact that it occurred over forty years ago”, DC-CAM’s Director Youk Chhang wrote.

Reflecting on the conclusion of the war crimes tribunal, Youk Chhang said the process was personal to each survivor, but the legal process had allowed Cambodians to be more open about what had occurred.

That openness had allowed them to look more deeply into their own personal and collective past. Cumulatively, that had resulted in people being willing to address issues more openly, which would help Cambodia in the future, he said.

DC-CAM also found that 47 percent of those surveyed had followed the work of the tribunal compared with 51 percent who had not. A staggering 81 percent answered “good/satisfied” when asked what they thought of the tribunal, compared with 8 percent who answered “not good/not satisfied”.

When asked what the tribunal’s contribution to the individual and wider society had been, the overwhelming response was “justice”.

Education was also considered the most important way to “help the younger generation remember the history of the Khmer Rouge and prevent” the return of such a brutal regime.


“For me, the most important thing that came out was the effect that the court had on national reconciliation,” said Craig Etcheson, author of Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals.

Etcheson, who was also an investigator with the tribunal’s office of the co-prosecutor from 2006 to 2012, said the court process had started new conversations in Cambodian society.

Parents could finally speak to their children about the events of the late 1970s, Etcheson said. They could explain why, previously, they may not have been able to talk about what had happened, and also why they may have behaved in certain ways, he said.

The tribunal had “reached into every nook and cranny of the country” and “across social divides”, he told Al Jazeera.

There was outreach to explain the court’s purpose through TV coverage, road shows, art exhibitions, and performances.

Important modules on Cambodian history during the period of the regime had been added to the school curriculum, and about 100,000 Cambodians had visited the tribunal’s proceedings, he said.

As chief of the tribunal’s public affairs office from 2006-2009, Helen Jarvis remembered a feeling of slight trepidation when first travelling to Cambodia’s rural areas to distribute information about the war crimes court, nervous about how people might react.

Former rank and file members of the Khmer Rouge had lived quietly in cities, towns and villages since the movement spluttered to its end in the late 1990s, as fighters were given a choice to defect to the government or face arrest, and as their military strongholds accepted Phnom Penh’s authority.

“I was so hesitant at the beginning, wondering how would we be received,” Jarvis recounted, adding that to her surprise, her team never once encountered hostility or negativity during those trips.

“It was enthusiasm I think, especially in rural communities right from the start. But we didn’t have sufficient funding, in my view, to do it really well,” she said.

The tribunal — the first hybrid war crimes court where national staff collaborated with international UN staff in a country where mass crimes were perpetrated — will be remembered for its public outreach and the participation of victims in the legal proceeding, she said, although she felt neither area had been adequately provided with funding or staff in the initial planning.

“It really is ironic – those were two big gaps. But they turned out to be the most important legacy, in my view.”

Moving forward

Asked if he felt the tribunal had been successful, DC-CAM’s Youk Chhang cautioned that “success” was never a word to use when dealing with genocide and discussing the deaths of two million people.

The most important part of the court process was its inclusion of survivors in the proceedings, he said, adding that the tribunal “allowed people to participate and to agree and disagree” and to “bring about closure to him or her personally”.

“Despite that some people did not like the court, it allowed people to express [their criticism] – that makes the court more healthy,” he said.

While the tribunal had been significant in terms of justice, prosecutions and convictions, Youk Chhang says there remains a lot more to be done after the genocide.

“The court is not the department of history or the counselling service,” he said. “That is what continues after the court is gone.”

Teenager Khlout Sopoar was born a year after the UN-backed war crimes tribunal began its work in Cambodia.

Sopoar never experienced the suffering or trauma of previous generations that lived through the regime and its aftermath.

Yet, the 15-year-old student was very clear in her judgement of the enormity of the crimes, their punishment, and the need to reconcile.

Khieu Samphan, the last surviving senior leader of the regime, was deserving of life in prison, she said.

And, the survivors of the regime should accept the justice delivered by the court.

“I think the atrocity committed by the Khmer Rouge regime was enormous,” Sopoar said.

“But the victims should accept the sentence,” she said.

For Sopoar and millions of Cambodians, the end of the legal proceedings marks a time to move forward.

Source: Al Jazeera