Global Policy Forum

Can Cambodia Get Justice?


By Bronwyn Sloan

Deutsche Press Agentur
April 13, 2006

Former Khmer Rouge officer Him Huy says he has never heard of Serbia or Bosnia, much less Slobodan Milosevic. The 50-year-old Cambodian has no idea of the international consternation the death of Milosevic caused last month.

Former Serbian nationalist Milosevic, the first head of state to be tried as a war criminal, was just 64 when he died in prison in March - much younger than those blamed for the Khmer Rouge's deadly regime. Its infamous leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998. After four years of legal wrangling in Milosevic's expensive war-crimes trial at The Hague, also delayed by his ill health, some claimed his death proved it had all been for nothing. Some even said Cambodia should see it as an omen for any trial of the mostly older and frailer former Khmer Rouge leaders.

But Cambodians such as Huy would disagree, even as the nation prepares to mourn the 31st anniversary of the ultra-Maoist regime's April 17, 1975 victory. By the time it was overthrown in 1979, as many as two million Cambodians were dead from starvation, disease, torture, executions and overwork.

Huy says he dreams of a trial of surviving former leaders. He regularly makes the 70-kilometre journey from his small farm in Koh Thom district to Toul Sleng and the killing fields. He says they haunt him still, mainly because he has no answers for them yet. "The smell of the blood and the death come back to me as strong as if it was yesterday," he says in an interview in his wooden house.

To dream of a trial may seem a strange dream for a man who once commanded 100 guards at the Toul Sleng torture centre and personally ferried prisoners between there and the Choeung Ek killing fields. But Huy says that is precisely why a trial is vital: for people like himself to face former masters and let other victims hear the truth. "I want people to understand why I had no choice. I myself want to understand better why I had no choice. I want justice," Huy says.

Huy says he was forcibly recruited by the Khmer Rouge as a 17-year-old boy in 1972. By 21, he was a guard at Toul Sleng, where thousands were tortured or starved to death. He says he begged the regime's leaders to let him leave S-21, but once inside Pol Pot's secret prison, the only way out was death. "I asked to be transferred to the front. If I was going to die, I wanted to die for fighting, not just killing. They said I knew too much. In Toul Sleng, no one could help," he says. "The guards and the prisoners both lived in fear each day would be their last." Both his and his wife's relatives were murdered by the regime, and Huy suffers health problems he blames on what he saw and says he was forced to do in those years. "My head is broken," he says.

For men like Huy, as well as those who suffered at the hands of men like him, a verdict in a Khmer Rouge tribunal is not the issue. They say all they want from the proposed 56-million-dollar, joint U.N.-Cambodian government "Extraordinary Chambers" is the chance to tell their stories. They want to do so before it is too late.

Helen Jarvis, an advisor to the government ministry preparing the trials, says the process will go forward, and soon. She said that although there are concerns the accused may use the kind of legal delaying tactics employed by Milosevic, the pursuit of justice is paramount. "The money is one thing. Putting the cases of the people is more important," she says.

There are doubters. Former Khmer Rouge intellectual Suong Sikoeun, once a senior policy maker at the regime's Foreign Affairs Ministry but who is not expected to stand trial, said in his last public interview in September that he doubted a trial would solve anything. He said the same factors which had once convinced people such as himself to support the Khmer Rouge still existed in Cambodia today. "I support a trial," Sikoeun said at his home in Malai, a remote former Khmer Rouge stronghold on the Thai border. "However, for myself, I think the trial should not be the first priority for Cambodia now. The first priority should be to solve the problems of the people not having enough food to eat, of droughts and floods, of land-grabbing, etcetera."

But many others support the dreams of people such as Huy. "(A trial) is what most Cambodians would like to see happen. Bearing witness, and having the leaders in custody for the duration of the trial, is more important than actually putting the last few leaders in jail any longer," said David Chandler, an Australian history professor emeritus and author of the harrowing book "Voices from S-21."

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia - which has collected thousands of testimonies and documents relating to the Khmer Rouge - is also adamant about the need for a trial of the former regime's leaders. "Whether justice is achieved is difficult to predict," he said in an April 7 address in Canada. "But even the act of holding the trials will help Cambodians put what happened into perspective and let the world know of their suffering. "We need to make sense of our history before we can move heal and on, and documenting and understanding our shared experiences is a small step in that direction," he said.

Recently, Huy visited the courtrooms at a military headquarters just outside Phnom Penh, along with hundreds of other potential witnesses. He asked authorities one question. "I asked them if I could also see Duch," he said, referring to the former head of S-21, also known as Kang Khek leu. Duch was arrested in May 1999 and is one of the few former leaders in jail. "I just wanted to ask him why he gave me the orders that made me do what I did," Huy said. "But they said I'd have to wait until the trial. I hope a trial comes soon. Do you think it will be soon? All I want is to see his face one more time and ask him why."

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Special Tribunal for Cambodia
More Information on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts


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