The Beleaguered Cambodians

Magnum Photos
The causeway across the moat at Angkor Wat; photograph by Steve McCurry

More than thirty years after an estimated two million people died at the hands of Pol Pot’s regime of Democratic Kampuchea, trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders and those most responsible for the deaths are at last taking place in Cambodia. On July 26, the first to be tried, Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch, was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity—a sentence that he and the prosecution have since appealed. Duch directed Security Prison 21, also known as Tuol Sleng, where at least 14,000 prisoners, mostly Khmer Rouge cadres and officials, were tortured and killed.1

Even more important, the next trial, which will probably begin in 2011, involves the four most senior Khmer leaders still alive: Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two; Ieng Sary, who was foreign minister; his wife, Ieng Thirith, minister for social affairs; and Khieu Samphan, who was president of Democratic Kampuchea. Now in their late seventies and early eighties, all four were arrested in 2007 and on September 16 were formally charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and related crimes under Cambodian laws.

While the trials have refocused international attention on Cambodia’s dark past, little attention has been given to how the much-watched proceedings relate to the troubled politics of Cambodia today. Will they lead to a new era of justice and accountability for a beleaguered people or end in another betrayal?

Cambodia is ruled by longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party. They govern with absolute power and control all institutions that could challenge their authority. Opposition political parties exist, giving the illusion of multiparty democracy, but elections have not been fair and the opposition no longer poses any threat to Hun Sen. The monarchy has survived but has little influence. The freedoms of expression, association, and assembly are severely curtailed. Human rights organizations are intimidated, and a draft law aims to bring them under the regime’s authority. The judiciary is controlled by the executive, and the flawed laws that exist are selectively enforced. Hundreds of murders and violent attacks against politicians, journalists, labor leaders, and others critical of Hun Sen and his party remain unsolved.

The regime’s violence against political opponents has been flagrant. In March 1997 Hun Sen’s bodyguards were clearly implicated in a grenade attack on a peaceful rally in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy.2 Sixteen people were killed and over 140 injured, including a US citizen. No serious inquiry was ever completed. Royalist opponents of Hun Sen were murdered when he deposed Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh in a coup on July 5–6, 1997. More people were killed during the July 1998 elections, which Hun Sen won. In January 2004, the popular labor leader…

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