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274th Meeting - Tuesday, May 15th 2006 


Cambodia’s The Khmer Rouge Tribunal: 
Why has it taken so long to establish Asia’s first genocide tribunal? Will it achieve justice both for the living and the dead?

A talk by Tom Fawthrop

Present: Reinhard Hohler, Patrick McGowan, Ken Dyer, Kosum Saichan, Jill Locke, Glynn Morgan, Mathew Smith, Constance Brereton, Bonnie Brereton, Nikko Snyder, Stezygne Szano, Gianni Lia, Annelie Hendriks, Manus Brinkman, Thomas Ohlson, Richard Nelson-Jones, Kain Victor, Juergen Polte, Dianne & Mark Barber-Riley, Guy Cardinal, Hans & Saengdao Bänziger, Victoria Voneito, John Cadet, Ian Ross, Arthur Wright, Olivier Evrard. An audience of 28.  

Tom Fawthrop is a British journalist covering SE Asia and has been reporting on Cambodia since 1981 for international newspapers such as The Economist and The Sunday Times. His first glimpse of gun-toting Khmer Rouge teenagers was in 1979 in a jungle along the Cambodian-Thai border. He has also witnessed a number of momentous events in his career, including the downfall of the Marcos Regime and the destruction of East Timor by military-orchestrated violence.

 This is Tom’s summary of his talk.

Genocide, Justice & the Cambodian Tragedy

Of all the atrocities of our times, one of the worst was what happened in Cambodia from 1975-79, the era of the Pol Pot regime. His Khmer Rouge forces driven by a brutal mixture of xenophobic nationalism and an extreme Maoist creed emptied the cities and turned the country into a vast rural gulag. They killed through mass executions and torture or caused the death from starvation and lack of medicine 1.7 million Cambodians - an estimated 22% of the population.

 Only now, 27 years later, international justice is finally catching up with these mass murderers. Pol Pot is dead - but those top leaders who are still alive are now the subject of an indictment before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal that is currently being set up in Phnom Penh.

 Why on earth has it taken so long for Cambodians to have the opportunity to close this dark chapter of their history and have the satisfaction of seeing justice done and their tormentors held accountable?

 After the Nazi genocide against the Jews, the world came together in the United Nations to pass the 1948 Geneva Convention for the Prevention and the Prosecution of Genocide.

 Why was it not implemented back in 1979 immediately after the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime? (Convenor: one of the reasons Tom gave for this was that the Khmer Rouge had murdered almost all of the judges, and anyone else with an education.)  

 It was not for any lack of evidence. In the middle of Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh, there is a very unusual school building. Years ago it was a school. But it didn't become notorious until after it was converted into a political prison called S-21. For several years S-21 was a place of indescribable cruelty. They said then that you could hear the screams from blocks away. Today there is only an eerie silence.

 In 1979 a Vietnamese photographer stumbled on S-21 and found that most of its records of inmates, confessions and horrible tortures remained intact. This evidence is a prosecutors dream.

 Mountains of evidence were available even back then. Hundreds of survivors were eager to testify about the horrors of the Pol Pot regime. But where were the human rights lawyers and investigators in 1979?

 The KRT tribunal has been delayed for 27 years primarily because Washington and its allies persuaded UN member states to accept the credentials of the Pol Pot regime, even after it had been driven out of Phnom Penh. The voting record shows that not one western government ever opposed the seating of the Pol Pot delegation. The UN was bullied and cajoled into accepting a murderous regime functioning largely from exile in Thailand.

 This travesty of diplomacy has become one of the most shameful chapters in UN history. Cambodia, already a victim of US B52 bombing and the Pol Pot regime, was made to suffer all over again because it had been liberated in 1979 by the wrong country; Vietnam. Cambodian refugees and survivors called for an international tribunal, as did Bill Hayden, the then Australian foreign minister, international NGOs and Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister. They were contemptuously ignored by the very governments that see themselves as the western guardians of global human rights.

 A genocide tribunal was viewed as a dangerous diversion at a time when Washington and London were intent on backing the anti-Vietnamese insurgency of Pol Pot and his allies. In the 80s, while Oxfam was helping Cambodians recover from Year Zero with aid for clean water and sanitation, Britain was sending SAS trainers to advise the anti-Vietnamese coalition forces, including the Khmer Rouge, camped on the Thai border - so that they could more effectively sabotage Cambodia's fragile recovery.

 That is why more recent genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone have all leapfrogged over Cambodia – in those countries international justice and trials for crimes against humanity and genocide have already started years ago.

The Cambodian Tribunal is unique. It is the tribunal that the pundits said would never happen because some governments have been implicated and compromised by their support for the Khmer Rouge. China, the US, UK, Thailand, and Singapore all opposed any attempt to put Pol Pot on trial during the 1980s and have all been involved in covert support of Khmer Rouge forces and their allies. 

It was not until 1997 that the UN General Assembly finally recognised that crimes against humanity had occurred during the Pol Pot era and that the perpetrators should be held accountable.

In May 2003 a treaty was signed between the Cambodian government and the UN to hold a tribunal in Phnom Penh. Based on a partnership of international judges and lawyers working together with Cambodian judges and lawyers. These judges have now been named, a Secretariat is now functioning and the tribunal is expected to open in January 2007.

The ultimate enemy of justice is now memory and time. The memories of witnesses and defendants are fading, and many of those with evidence to give are dying. Several Khmer Rouge leaders, including Pol Pot, have cheated justice with their own deaths. Now, after all the time lost, Cambodians have a right to a final hearing. So many hurdles have been surmounted that it is now only a matter of funding.


Tom Fawthrop has reported on Cambodia and SE Asia since 1979 for international media including the Guardian, Irish Times the Economist and BBC online.

He is the co-author of “ GETTING AWAY WITH GENOCIDE

Elusive Justice & the Khmer Rouge Tribunal “

By Tom Fawthrop / Dr. Helen Jarvis

The book covers the period from 1979 -2004 including Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge/ the struggle to preserve the evidence during the 1980s and raise the issue/ the Khmer Rouge battle to regain power backed by China and the complicity of western powers /diplomacy and UN peacekeeping in Cambodia.

Truth, justice and reconciliation – the Cambodian model of dealing with their tragic past. What a tribunal can hope to achieve and why Cambodian people 27 years on still hunger for justice/who will be put on trial and where are the suspects now?

Contains rare pix of Pol Pot enjoying hospitality in Thailand

Published in UK by Pluto Books. It is available here in Chiangmai through INTG at the discount price of 800 Baht (over 1300 baht Asia Books) by contacting Louis Gabaude at EFEO House.









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