Having been subjected to one of the cruellest regimes of modern history, as well as the almost complete deletion of its history and traditions, modern-day Cambodia rightly considers itself to be the rightful heir of the great Khmer empire that, from the IX to the XIV century, succeeded in ruling most of continental South East Asia.
Having lost this domination due to pressure from powerful neighbours, such as the Thai, it had to submit to the European colonial power and, in 1863, to become part of French Indo-china. Having received independence and overcome the difficulties of the phase of decolonisation under the capable and impartial guidance of Prince Norodom Sihanuk, the country soon found itself again at war, involved in the Indo-china conflict, a land of conflict between the diverse factions that followed western, Chinese and Vietnamese interests.
After years of power-seeking, mostly by means of armed struggle, having defeated the other factions, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on 17 April, 1975, It was an event destined to inaugurate a new era, according to the Khmer Rouge, who intended to create a society purified of external influences, based on the principles of a communism with peasant and nationalistic roots. After the terrible years of genocide and oblivion, it was the old enemies, the Vietnamese, who intervened to end the experience of Democratic Kampuchea and the regime of Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot. From 1979 to 1990, the Hanoi troops controlled the country, harassed by various Khmer factions who were fighting for political power but also for the deposits of precious stones and the forest resources near the border with Thailand. It was an increasingly limited guerrilla war that was continued even after the withdrawal of the Vietnamese and the arrival in the country of numerous contingents of blue-helmeted UN soldiers.
The elections of May, 1993, saw the victory for the monarchic party led by Norodom Ranaridh, born of the first marriage of Sihanouk. The Khmer Rouge did not recognise the election results and return to the bush, despite a significant number of defections. In 1997, with a single stroke, a Khmer faction led by Hun Sen seized power in Phnom Penh and the following elections of 1998, marked by violence, confirmed their leadership. That same year, the death of Pol Pot symbolically marked the end of the guerrilla war. In a short time, the surrender of the remaining rebels brought to an end an era of Cambodian history and concretely commenced another of reconstruction and reconciliation. The monarchy of the Norodom dynasty which still symbolises the national identity but has very little real power, is today represented by Sihamoni, half-brother of Ranaridh and son of the second wife of Sihanouk who died in October, 2012, in Peking.
Khamer Rouge leaders on trial
Despite years of preparation, the July 2006 start of the international Court for Cambodian genocide seemed something of a gamble. Today, despite interruptions, polemics, interference and the long way still to go, it seems like a challenge that can be met. A double challenge to ensure the just condemnation of those responsible for the genocide who are still alive, and to favour reconciliation.
When, on 17 January, 1979, Vietnamese troops entered Phnom Penh, putting an end to the power of the Khmer Rouge in the country and their delirious adventure, as they occupied the city they found only 30,000 inhabitants out of a previous population of 2.5 million. They had escaped death because they were functionaries of the regime. The rest had been taken away to the countryside where most of them died through ill-treatment and beatings in the killing fields, the rice paddies and the plantations transformed into work camps and death camps; only a few had survived the courses of “re-education” in centres of torture or summary execution.
It was in one of these centres; the most famous if not the largest, the infamous S-21 set up in the former school of Tuol Sleng in the capital, that Kaing Guek Eav, the “Dutch comrade” was in charge. The man who admitted responsibility but only because he received “orders from above”, had on his conscience sixteen thousand victims who were tortured and then killed, including a cross-section of the Communist Party, mostly belonging to the leadership of the Khmer Rouge. Only and executor, even if repentant, he did not deny the substantial goodness of the attempt by the regime to create a new society, purified of all evil due to the decadent European influence or the attempts at hegemony by nearby countries. His trial, ending with a life sentence in March 2013, brought into the open stories that horrified both judges and members of the public in the court, even though there is not much of the wicked Khmer Rouge experience that is not well known.
The eighty-nine-year-old Nuon Chea, second only to Pol Pot in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and former head of state and the eighty-four-year-old Khieu Samphan were given life sentences in 2014. The first minister Hun Sen, who had only a secondary role in the regime, and who was in charge of the country for thirty years, made it clear that he does not want to see investigations and judgements extended to include possibly persons who belong to present-day public life.
In a move that subsequently raised tensions between the court and the political power, at the end of 2015, the judges formally accused Yim Thit of crimes against humanity and war crimes, due to his responsibilities in centres of detention and execution, as well as in the work camps of the regime.
Since starting its work in 2006, however, the Court – which has a mixture of local and foreign personnel – including judges, lawyers and public ministers but is financed entirely from abroad – has come under strong pressure from the government to limit its work to very old survivors of the Khmer Rouge leadership. Instead, the Court feels it is its duty to restore confidence to Cambodians by shedding light on the darkest period of their history and to guarantee justice for both victims and survivors. For this reason, in 2015, besides Yim Thit, it has also brought to judgement the former marine commandant Meas Muth, the former functionary Im Chaem, a former go-between of the Ao An regime. (S.V.)