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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Beyond the Khmer Rouge tribunal: patterns of justice and remembrance in Cambodia

Anne Yvonne Guillou

Texte intégral

1June 2011

TheKhmer Rouge Tribunal”

2In 2007, televisions and radios from all around the world broadcasted the news of the arrest of five former Khmer Rouge leaders. They are still held in temporary custody by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC, commonly known as the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal”) and are charged of crimes against humanity, genocide and severe violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention, committed between April 1975 and January 1979, when Cambodia was under the rule of a radical Communist regime inspired by Maoism and headed by Pol Pot. They ordered hundreds of thousands of people to be deported and forced many to work in rural cooperatives, which were to supposedly increase the production of rice and secure the country’s prosperity. This revolution was to delete the past in terms of religion, education and health. Finally, more than 1.7 million people died of abuse, starvation, and exhaustion or were executed. This toll of victims represents almost a quarter of the Cambodian population in 1975 including both superior and low ranking Khmer Rouge officers, who were clouded by the paranoiac system of purges.

3The arrest of the five Khmer Rouge leaders has been described by the Western media as a turning point in the search for justice in post-genocide Cambodia and the end of the impunity that Democratic Kampuchea officials have enjoyed up until now. It was also underlined that the trial allowed the ordeal experienced by the victims of the genocide to be formally recognised, although the concept of genocide as a crime, which is precisely defined by the Geneva Convention and other laws, may be scrutinised by specialists of the ECCC during the trial. The organisation of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is certainly an important step towards globalisation in Cambodia, attributing to a process of political, economic and moral standardisation. The trial taking place follows other remarkable events involving the same process; the opening up of the country in political terms after the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, the organisation of “free and fair” elections under UN supervision in 1993, and Cambodia’s entry into the WTO in 2004. Applying international justice norms to the Cambodian genocide is the last in these series of events, even though it has been subject to uneasy negotiations between the Cambodian government and the UN for ten years.

4The Cambodians’ opinion on the destruction of their country has not yet been closely examined. The Khmer rural community, in particular, making up 90% of the Cambodian population, has been incorrectly presented as being uninterested in post-genocide justice and remembrance because they were influenced by Buddhist fatalism or only driven by their need to survive. Although leaders under Pol Pot have lived freely since the end of the genocide, this does not mean that nothing has been done in Cambodia in order to bring justice and build a collective memory of the collapse in the 1970s. Cambodian attitudes towards the Khmer Rouge Tribunal today cannot be understood without reference to all the previous efforts for justice to be brought and for the memory to be commemorated.

Justice and revenge

5Today’s government stems from a Communist regime put into power by the Vietnamese army in 1979. It then converted towards a more flexible “market-oriented-socialism”. In spite of extreme poverty during the 1980s, the government had made efforts to address the issue of the Khmer Rouge in different ways. Firstly, it set up a People’s Revolutionary Tribunal where many witnesses gave testimonies, including a French woman. In August 1979, the court sentenced Pol Pot and Ieng Sary to death in absentia. The evidence files collected during this first verdict were handed over to the pre-trial chamber of the ECCC. However, for years, this first trial remained ignored by the international community because the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal was not considered compliant with the international standard of legitimacy and neutrality. It is worth noting that, at the same time, the Cambodian anti-government coalition including the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk groups were the authorised representative of Cambodia at the United Nations’ meetings. This first trial was nonetheless naturally organised with strategic purposes in mind. Of course, it was to initially legitimise the new regime supported by the Vietnamese, condemning Pol Pot’s Ieng Sary’s “genocidal regime”. However, this was not the only reason. The court also met the needs for justice of an angry population, which wanted to take the law into their own hands when the defeated Khmer Rouge troops fled the country toward the Cambodian-Thai border. Some of the cruellest local leaders (me kong and me krom) were killed by villagers seeking revenge. In order to prevent a civil war, the new government firmly forbade any act of personal revenge and pointed the finger at Pol Pot and Ieng Sary as being solely responsible for the genocide throughout the trial. This act of authority was efficient and it was said that the toll of victims was low.

6In the Cambodian villages today, farmers’ attitudes are not all the same regarding former low-ranking leaders of Democratic Kampuchea who had returned and settled down in their native villages. Some villagers refer to the Buddhist teaching that condemns the thirst for revenge and believes in the immanent justice of karma. Following its philosophy, any act is like a seed. It matures and produces an effect (or “fruit”) in later lives. In this regard, the conversion of Duch (the former director of the largest political prison, S21) to Catholicism can be seen as a means of escaping the law of karma. Other villagers accepted the proposal of the employees of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, who had travelled around the country gathering witnesses’ testimonies and asking people to apply as civil parties in the ongoing trial. Most of the time, however, rural populations tended to ostracise former leaders. The wrong doings committed locally under the Pol Pot regime is widely known and the perpetrators simply excluded from the community. In one case, an old disabled man without any family support could not ask for help from any of his neighbours and had to manage on his own. In areas where many former Khmer Rouge leaders had decided to come back to their native villages, the relationship with their victims may remain tense. Various villages’ rites are being resumed and ceremonies to pay tribute to the land guardian spirits, symbols of social unity help restore the feeling of belonging. National annual ceremonies, such as the Water Festival also aim to bring back social and symbolic order, especially since the 1990s.

Commemoration mechanisms and funeral rituals

7In addition, several commemoration mechanisms have been established over the years, at various levels. As early as in 1979, the district (srok) authorities were urged to gather the human remains that were scattered in the fields, particularly around the former Khmer Rouge health centres and killing fields. These remains were placed in memorials hastily built with wood and roofs made of leaves. Eighty of these small buildings were built all over the country during the 1980s. In doing so, the new government sought to commemorate the dead collectively, by organising collective funeral rituals and gathering material that proved the genocide, which was rejected by Western countries for various reasons depending on the political milieu, until the withdrawal of the Khmer Rouge from the Paris Peace Agreement in 1993. The committee in charge of organising national celebrations went from one sub-district to another in order to gather testimonies and other evidence, which were later handed over to the Genocide Museum of Phnom Penh in Tuol Sleng. The memorials were also put on display during the State-sponsored ceremonies performed on Liberation Day (7th January) and on the Day of Anger (20th May). Although Buddhism was barely tolerated at the time, monks from nearby monasteries were invited to pray for the dead and perform a bangskol. This specific ritual involved praying for the anonymous dead in order to make their next life better. This ritual is also performed in some other Theravadin Buddhist societies. In the tradition of the reformed Mahanikay (different from that of the old Mahanikay tradition as illustrated by François Bizot), the faithful offer pieces of fabric to the monks. By doing so, they receive Buddhist “merits”, which the monks can send to the dead.

8Re-established in the early 1990s, the Festival of the Dead (pchhum ben) bears much importance when regarding funeral ceremonies. This annual ceremony is a special time when the “spirits” of the dead come and visit the living. Rituals took place again in each monastery in the country and everyone could feel the general relief, particularly that of the hundreds of thousands of families whose relatives had disappeared with no corpse. The resuming of this important religious festival calmed the tormented spirits of the dead who had died traumatic deaths, and were said to be wandering around Cambodia without any possibility of rebirth. Other less known and more original ritual and memory practices were founded in the Khmer villages. These practices were to establish a relationship between the living and victims of the genocide, especially the thousands whose bodies still lie in mass graves and bushes. According to the popular Khmer religious system, which is a combination of Theravada Buddhism and ritual practices, many invisible ‘spirits’ are perceived as spirits belonging to both those who had died a bad death and are therefore potentially dangerous for the living, and those lost in the wild. Today, they are assimilated with other tutelary, ancestral and land guardian spirits (neak ta). In this way, the villagers can now lay the dead to rest at a distance from their daily life, by making offerings to them from time to time. This also allows the dead to come back into the world of the living, notably through dreams where the dead speak to the living. This is an improved way of mourning, which involves making sense of the tragedy and building a collective memory, allowing Cambodians to deal with the trauma on their own. Despite being largely unknown and far from mainstream ideologies, these practices have been efficient for many years.

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