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The (Empty) Promise of an International Tribunal

From 1975 to 1979, the Communist Party of Kampuchea ruled Cambodia with an iron fist,

perpetrating genocide that killed one-fourth of the country’s population. Roughly 1 million Cambodians were executed as suspected political enemies or due to their ethnicities.

The regime targeted Muslim Cham, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Laotian individuals.

Outside these executions, one million more Cambodians died of starvation, disease,

or exhaustion from overwork. This genocidal regime rose to power amidst decades of political turmoil. Following World War II, Cambodia’s monarch, Prince Norodom Sihanouk,

successfully negotiated the country’s independence after roughly 90 years of French colonial rule.

But Sihanouk’s strict policies provoked friction with many citizens. Especially militant communist rebels, who had long opposed the French and now turned their attention to overthrowing the prince. This unstable situation was further complicated by a war raging outside Cambodia’s borders. In Vietnam, millions of American troops were supporting

the non-communist south against the communist north.

While the US petitioned for Cambodia’s support, Prince Sihanouk tried to stay neutral. But in 1970, he was overthrown by his prime minister who allowed American troops to bomb regions of Cambodia in their efforts to target North Vietnamese fighters. These attacks killed thousands of Cambodian civilians. To regain power after being overthrown, the prince allied with his political enemies. The Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as the Khmer Rouge, was led by Cambodians who dreamed of making their nation a classless society of rice farmers. They opposed capitalist Western imperialism and sought to lead the country to self-sufficiency. But to the public, they mostly represented a force fighting the pro-American government. Angered by destructive American bombing and encouraged by the prince’s call to arms, many Cambodians joined the Khmer Rouge. Eventually, a full-blown civil war erupted. Over five years of fighting, more than half a million Cambodians died in this brutal conflict.

But the violence did not end when the rebels conquered Phnom Penh in April 1975.

Upon taking the capital, the Khmer Rouge executed anyone associated with the previous government. Prince Sihanouk remained stripped of power and was put under house arrest,

and the Khmer Rouge began evacuating city residents to the countryside. Those who could not make the trip by foot were abandoned, separating countless families. In this new regime, every citizen was stripped of their belongings and given the same clothes and haircut. Private property, money, and religion were outlawed. The new agricultural workforce was expected to produce impossible amounts of rice, and local leaders would be killed if they could not fulfill quotas. Many prioritized their orders to the capital above feeding workers.

Underfed, overworked, and suffering from malaria and malnutrition, thousands perished.

The Khmer Rouge members enforcing the system were no safer. When their plan failed to produce rice at the expected rates, Khmer Rouge leadership became paranoid. They believed that internal enemies were trying to sabotage the revolution, and they began arresting and executing anyone perceived as a threat. This brutality continued for almost four years. Finally, in 1979, Vietnamese troops working alongside defected Khmer Rouge members took control of the country. This political upheaval triggered yet another civil war that would not end until the 1990s. In the years that followed, there was no easy path to justice for victims and their families.

A hybrid UN-Cambodian tribunal was established in 2003, but it only tried Khmer Rouge in the topmost leadership positions. Lower-level Khmer Rouge members appeared in court as well, but they weren't placed on trial. Instead, they gave testimony and offered insight into the cruel system that had enabled their superiors’ crimes. Some of these perpetrators were even legally acknowledged as victims because they constantly feared for their lives and committed violence as a means of self-preservation. This perception of low-level Khmer Rouge members as victims rather than perpetrators extended beyond the courtroom. Like other Cambodians, most Khmer Rouge members lost family, suffered hunger, were stripped of their homes and belongings, and were overworked to exhaustion. And the paranoia amongst Khmer Rouge leadership had led to a higher rate of execution for Khmer Rouge members than the ethnic majority population. As a result, many Cambodians today don't just see the genocide as one committed against ethnic minority groups, but also as a broad campaign of violence impacting the entire population. As of 2021, only three people have received prison sentences. Many victims would like the tribunal to pursue further trials of Khmer Rouge leaders. However, a 2018 national survey revealed that most victims feel the tribunal has contributed to justice.

In the wake of such tragedy, it’s tempting to paint conflicts in simplistic terms— casting one group as an oppressor and the other as oppressed. But many Cambodians live with a more complex reality. Everyone suffered, even those who contributed to the suffering of others.

This perception doesn’t excuse any acts of violence. But how society remembers traumatic events plays a part in who is seen as a victim, who is seen as the perpetrator, and how a shattered society can build a path into the future.


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