Monday, September 20, 2010

Cambodia – Monsters of the Killing Fields

AS if to prove Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", Kaing Guek Eav or Comrade Duch looked more like the school teacher he once was than the chief torturer of the Tuol Sleng detention centre in Phnom Penh. About 14,000 men, women and children were processed through that chamber of horrors to Cambodia's "killing fields" -- the ossuary of some two million victims of the Khmer Rouge's murderous misrule between 1975 and 1979. Kaing kept detailed records, a habit of his that helped ensure his conviction on July 26 for crimes against humanity by a United Nations-backed tribunal. Unlike Arendt's reporting of the 1962 trial of Adolf Eichmann, however, the prosecution of the perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide comes nowhere near that of the Holocaust. Incredibly, 30 years after the toppling of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, Kaing is the only one that has been made to answer for his sins.

Why that is so is perhaps a complicated story of Cambodia's attempt to rise from the vale of tears that it had been reduced to. Pol Pot maintained an insurgency against the Vietnamese-supported forces that ousted him almost until his death in 1998. The Cambodian government would rather reintegrate the Khmer Rouge's remnants with a measure of forgiveness than risk a resumption of civil war. Many Cambodian officials resented the UN tribunal as an external imposition upon a broken nation's struggle to heal itself. The already impoverished country that had lost a fifth of its population and all of its social and economic infrastructure to Pol Pot's regressive Year Zero project felt it had better things to do. It could not afford the costly system of justice required to take the malefactors to court. Only with UN assistance and insistence could the tribunal be constituted and the charges preferred.

As understandable as the foot-dragging may be from a narrow political point of view, the idea that the decision-makers behind one of the worst slaughters in modern times can get off without punishment is preposterous -- most of all to an international community that has not only aided Cambodia but is bound in everything it does to protect the sanctity of human life. It is, therefore, a matter of relief that four senior members of the Khmer Rouge regime were finally charged last week. They included Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary, Brothers Number 2 and 3 to Pol Pot. As consuming as the present and near future may be, Cambodia and the world must remember the past if it is never to be repeated. Editorial, New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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