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Sunday, February 13, 2005

At long last, a time for healing

Sunday Times, Singapore
Jan 30, 2005

At long last, a time for healing

By Verghese Mathews
For The Straits Times

CAMBODIANS have not failed to notice that while the international community rightly poured out its heart and its resources to assist victims of the tsunami disaster, the same community has been largely blind, indifferent and uncaring when it comes to victims of the Cambodian genocide.

This stark message jumps at you from the pages of a new book on Cambodia's quest for justice following the three years, eight months and 20 dark and terrifying days of the Khmer Rouge (KR).

Authored by British journalist Tom Fawthrop and Australian academic Helen Jarvis, Getting Away With Genocide? Elusive Justice And Khmer Rouge Tribunal is a detailed insider account of the tortuous process of bringing the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.

Fawthrop has covered the region for leading newspapers, including The Straits Times, for the last 25 years. Jarvis, previously with the University of New South Wales and documentation consultant for Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Programme, has, since 1999, been an adviser to the Cambodian Task Force on the KR Trials.

The plaintive cry in the book is why, after a quarter of a century following the 1979 ouster of the Pol Pot regime by invading Vietnamese forces, none of the perpetrators has been brought to court to answer for the crimes which led to the death of an estimated 1.7 million people, a quarter of the then population of Cambodia.

Fawthrop and Jarvis, both of whom I know personally, hold very strong views on this unacceptable delay. They point to the 'abysmal record' of the United Nations, the 'bitter record of neglect' of the international community and the 'dismal record of complicity' of certain countries with the KR, all of which the authors declare delayed justice.

The writing in this book is opinionated, but this should not detract from its evident and immense scholarship and research.

My quarrel with the authors is that in their almost evangelical criticism of the attitude of the UN and the international community in preventing the then newly installed Phnom Penh government from taking over Cambodia's seat in the UN, and in their disappointment that no western country so much as sent a fact-finding mission to Phnom Penh following the ouster of Pol Pot, they have failed to give adequate _expression to the complex international and regional dynamism which drove the then bipolar world.

There is mention, in passing, that for the United States the choice was simply between moral principles and international law and that the scales weighed in favour of the latter because it served US security interests. But the brevity of the comment suggests that it was included merely to give the appearance of a balanced criticism.

That aside, the authors are right in their anger and disappointment that the KR Tribunal, when it finally takes place probably some time this year, will mark one of the longest struggles to bring genocide perpetrators to justice.

But it is a case of better late than never, though only six or seven are expected to appear in court. The legal text agreed between Cambodia and the UN states that the Tribunal is expected 'to bring to trial senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea and those who were most responsible for the serious crimes and violations of Cambodian penal law, international humanitarian law and custom, and international conventions recognised by Cambodia that were committed during the period' from April 17, 1975 to Jan 6, 1979.

Still, there is sufficient latitude in the law for justice to be finally served. The authors rightly point out that 'one of the great expectations' of the Cambodian people is that the Tribunal will serve not only to mete out punishment, but also help to provide answers that bring collective healing and closure.

Unfortunately, some of the people who could have provided answers are gone. Pol Pot, Brother No. 1, died unceremoniously in April 1998. Son Sen, his defense minister with responsibility over the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison, is likewise dead.

Among their senior colleagues still alive, most are suffering from some ailment or another.

The fear is that these potential witnesses might die before the Tribunal. Of these, the most senior is Nuon Chea, Brother No. 2, believed to have been the most powerful official after Pol Pot. He surrendered to the government in 1998 and lives quietly in the former KR stronghold of Pailin.

Also living freely and much more comfortably is Ieng Sary, well known internationally as the deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs. He defected to the Hun Sen government in 1996 and brought with him several thousand guerillas, effectively breaking whatever strength there was left in the KR.

Then there is Khieu Samphan, who held several senior positions including that of PM and party president. He defected together with Nuon Chea in 1998 and lives modestly in Pailin close to Nuon Chea's house.

In prison are two notables who were captured by the security forces. One is Ta Mok, who in a leadership tussle in 1997 wrested control from Pol Pot but was forced to flee a year later when he was himself challenged. The other is the infamous Duch, who ran the secret police. Duch has just been taken from his cell to a government hospital for prostate surgery.

Ta Mok and Duch have much to tell and some commentators believe that they will. We will have to wait to see if this will come to pass, hopefully not for too long.

Fawthrop and Jarvis have contributed an extremely well-researched and fascinating book which is a welcome addition to the existing body of literature on contemporary Cambodia. With the date for the Tribunal getting closer, this work will prove to be a most useful resource.

The writer, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, was Singapore's ambassador to Cambodia from June 2000 to July 2004. He served in South Africa from 1992 to 1997.

SUBMITTED BY: Verghese Mathews on Sat, 12 Feb 2005

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