Reconciliation in Cambodia

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This was published in the Sri Lankan newspaper, The Nation, on May 20 2012


From 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge established Democratic Kampuchea, they attempted to transform all aspects of Cambodian society. Out of a population of eight million, some five million were displaced. According to Ben Kiernan, Director of the Genocide Studies Programme at Yale, 1.7 million perished.

Foreign interference was a strong contributory factor to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The suffering caused by the US bombings orchestrated by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Henry Kissinger drove thousands of Cambodians to oppose Lon Nol’s American-backed government.

Paranoid absolutism

The Khmer Rouge leaders identified as ‘class enemies’ Cambodians who were even slightly better- off. Angkar, the ruling body of the regime, executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments. The wearing of spectacles was enough to classify one as a subversive intellectual.
To save ammunition, executions were brutal and personal. The children of adult victims had their heads dashed against tree trunks. The soldiers who carried out the executions were mostly young men or women from peasant families.

Although genocide is generally defined as the attempt to wipe out one race or religious group by another, the Cambodian horror qualifies, although it took place within a homogeneous grouping. Pol Pot and his followers sought to replace the existing culture with an invented one. Although 90% of Cambodians were Buddhist, out of 60,000 monks only 800 survived. All the institutions of state were destroyed.

Overthrow of Khmer Rouge by Vietnam

At the end of 1978, Vietnam overthrew its former Khmer Rouge allies and installed a client government, dominated by Khmer Rouge defectors, including Hun Sen, who became foreign minister and then prime minister, a post he still holds today, despite allegations of corruption. The Vietnamese singled out just two Khmer Rouge leaders as responsible for the genocide and in August 1979, staged a show trial, in absentia, of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, who were quickly found guilty and were sentenced to death. Ieng Sary was later pardoned.
Hun Sen’s government has been consistently criticized by Western human rights groups for arresting and torturing dissidents, and starving them to death. Hundreds of thousands of anti-Vietnamese Cambodians fled to the refugee camps on the Thai border.

Foreign complicity

Any attempt at reconciliation had to wait until the end of the cold war when international support for warring factions dried up. The psychotically insular nature of the regime did not mean that the outside world was not implicated in the horror. China was Kampuchea’s main supporter. Later the USSR financed the Vietnamese invasion, while China, the USA and other Western and ASEAN nations provided support to the Khmer Rouge rump and two royalist anti- Vietnamese factions.

By the time of the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991, all parties accepted the need for a political settlement because of the exhaustion of years of conflict. For the international actors ‘reconciliation’ was tied to the factions participating in elections. For the Cambodian people, reconciliation was equated with more complex questions of justice and reintegration.
Extraordinary chambers in the courts of Cambodia

In 1997, the Cambodian government asked for the UN’s assistance in setting up a genocide tribunal. It took nine years to agree the shape and structure of the extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which started work in July 2006 and became fully operational in June 2007. The first trial did not begin until  February 17, 2009.

The ECCC is a hybrid court applying Cambodian and international law and employs a mix of Cambodian and international judges. A decision was made to limit prosecutions to five of the senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea, namely those who gave orders and those primarily responsible for the most serious crimes.

The Cambodian judiciary is widely considered to be corrupt. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Dith Munthy, remains a member of the ruling party’s (CCP) highest decision-making body. Some in Cambodia would prefer that no trial be conducted at all rather than having the country undergoes a substandard judicial process.  However, a majority of Cambodians expect the ECCC to have a positive impact for victims and to promote national reconciliation. One third of Cambodians identify punishment of the Khmer Rouge’s top leaders as an important precondition for forgiveness.  Even though the genocide happened over 30 years ago, 98% of Cambodians interviewed in August 2004, wanted to have a tribunal, and 61.3% expected that it would bring justice for them.

These hopes will probably be thwarted. Even in recent months, the ECCC has been mired in controversy. The Cambodian government is strongly opposed to potential new cases involving five mid-level members of the regime. Swiss reserve judge Kasper-Ansermet has left after arriving as recently as December 2011 as the UN’s choice to replace a German judge who quit citing government interference at the court. Throughout his brief tenure, Kasper-Ansermet said he was stymied by his Cambodian counterpart You Bunleng. The perpetually cash-strapped tribunal has so far completed just one trial, sentencing a former prison chief to life in jail for overseeing the deaths of some 15,000 people.
Recording truth

A public truth commission has been blocked by members of the current government, who were previously Khmer Rouge officials themselves. In the absence of a public truth commission, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), an independent research institute, has been collecting, archiving , and publishing data on the Khmer Rouge and provides objective information about the genocide to the public. Its two main objectives are to preserve the history and crimes of the Khmer Rouge as a foundation for reconciliation.

Buddhism and reconciliation
The Dhammayietra, or annual ‘Pilgrimage of Truth’ marches, began in 1992. The spiritual leader of the pilgrimages, Maha Ghosananda, nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, made explicit the idea that the adoption of a Buddhist process does not mean that justice will not be served. He argues that reconciliation “does not mean that we surrender our rights and conditions,” but instead that “we use love” to address these questions.
Human rights in Cambodia today

The lack of punishment for Khmer Rouge leaders has set a precedent for a culture of impunity.  As of January 2012, Human Rights Watch was not impressed with Cambodia’s progress. The government of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) continues to use the judiciary, penal code, and threats of arrest or legal action to restrict free speech, jail government critics, disperse peaceful protests by workers and farmers, and silence opposition party members. Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy remains in exile rather than face long prison sentences as a result of politically motivated unfair trials.


In Cambodia, 35% of the population is under the age of 15. Many children find the horrors recounted by their parents hard to believe. The perpetual revising history texts add to the confusion for youth about what they should believe.

In 1984, when the Khmer Rouge was still active, May 20 was set up as a National Day of Hatred. The original objective was to mobilize international public opinion against the Khmer Rouge and their foreign backers. The crimes of the regime are remembered in public meetings and ceremonies at village cemeteries and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
In 2001 the Day of Hatred was renamed the Day of Commemoration. Progress?