Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Convicted of Genocide
Is this really closure for a country where everyone is a victim?

November 19th 2018

This is Kampong Chhang, Cambodia, a torture and execution ground-cum-monastery where genocide survivors pray before an afternoon meal. The women’s shaved heads symbolize widowhood; their husbands were among nearly two million citizens the Khmer Rouge systematically worked to death, starved and slaughtered from 1975-1979.

On Friday, an international court found two major Khmer Rouge figures guilty of genocide. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), staffed by the world’s most skilled lawyers and jurists, took over a decade to move through myriad charges against the movement’s founders, strategists, and operatives. For their ideal society, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all schools, hospitals, and private industry.  Across the board, they exterminated professionals, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and family life. They tore children from parents, spouses from one another, demanded loyalty to the state, and savagely punished those who resisted. As lead prosecutor Andrew Cayley puts it: “No one, not even those born after the Khmer rouge, escaped its impact.”

Cambodians and court-watchers long feared that aging perpetrators would die before they met justice. The accused mocked and evaded the judicial process, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Survivors like Mam Phaibon gave detailed accounts of seeing her seven-year-old sister clubbed to death for stealing an ear of corn and the rest of her family fatally beaten for similar infractions; she is among thousands of survivors who supplied crystal-clear testimony, with abundant documentation and evidence. But defendants stalled the momentum claiming major memory lapses and poor health. Friday, the ECCC sentenced Khmer Rouge ideologue and executioner Nuon Chea. Sporting his signature oversized sunglasses as he faced the jurists, he remained surly and strident. His co-defendant and chief Khmer Rouge diplomat Khieu Samphan, 87, asked for “sympathy”. Indeed, the Court had a delicate dance prosecuting Cambodians for crimes against humanity when many former Khmer Rouge operatives are part of the current government.  

The Court has brought Cambodians some technical closure on just how the Khmer Rouge perpetrated a countrywide massacre. But 30-plus years later, this is a nation where everyone is a survivor, where victims and perpetrators live side by side. A Tribunal judge contends the ECCC provides a “truthful narrative” that beats back myths: “People thought it was legend…that it couldn’t have really happened. Many parents didn’t ever want to talk about it". In killing fields across the country, the earth is thick with human bones. Here, at the former execution ground turned monastery, the abiding belief is karma.


Curious how Cambodia copes with post-conflict trauma? The government all but ignores massive mental health challenges, manifested in a wide array of anti-social behaviors, gender violence, and substance abuse. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are only embryonic in their work to meet needs, but there is little international engagement. The Transcultural Psychosocial Organization estimates 40 percent of Cambodians suffer depression, mood disorders, and schizophrenia. Sexual violence against women, a Khmer Rouge rite of passage, made an indelible mark on millions of Cambodians. The International Trauma Center partners locally to rehabilitate, post-trauma. 

Read on here and here.