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“A Slap In The Face And A Kick In The Head”: The End Of The Road For The Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

Since my first visit to Tuol Sleng prison, I have always found it hard to capture the injustices that took place here. As I walked down the rows of now empty cells, it became apparent that the shadows of what had happened here, merely decades ago, continue to haunt these halls. The echoes of the innocents and stains of blood not yet cleaned away marked the grounds. There are rows upon rows of victims photographs, each with their own number, who had been meticulously recorded by the Khmer Rouge before they were tortured and murdered. As I edged through the prison, block by block, I thought that nothing else could be worse than this horror and that I could never bear to return to this place.

Outside Tuol Sleng prison, otherwise known as S-21

Three years later, I returned to Cambodia with my camera and found myself again visiting the Tuol Sleng prison, otherwise known as S-21. This time I had no intention of going inside but rather to find the man who had waited here, at his place of torture, for 30 years to tell his story to the world.

I found Chum Mey at the exit of the prison, sitting at a table protected from the heat by a sheet of tarpaulin. Spread across the table in front of him were copies of his book “Survivor: The triumph of an ordinary man in the Khmer Rouge genocide”. Despite the atrocities he experienced here, Chum Mey returns every day to share his story with those visiting the prison. For a man who carries the emotional and physical wounds of such a horrendous past he looked so peaceful. His hardened features seemed to soften in these surroundings rather than mimic the grieving expressions of visitors tip-toeing through the grounds.

Chum Mey takes a break from selling his book to eat lunch with his family

Back in 2009, Chum Mey was a leading witness for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s first trial against his former torturer and senior figure of the regime Kaing Guek Eav, also known as comrade Duch. Duch ran the Tuol Sleng prison, where it was thought around 17,000 men, women and children were tortured and killed. Chum May’s testimony, alongside other survivors' narratives of the horrors that occured at S-21, was believed to begin the healing process for many Cambodians and bring them a degree of long-delayed justice.

Decades later, as the last case brought forward by the UN-backed court is dismissed, have the trials really achieved justice for Cambodians or rather have they simply served to prop up a version of history that suits the continuation of the regime’s ideologies under Hun Sen’s government? It took almost half a century to bring the former leader of the Khmer Rouge to justice and today, as Cambodia’s last genocide case is dismissed, I can’t help but wonder has the world again chosen to turn its back on the Cambodian people?

On December 28th the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) released a brief statement to terminate Case 004 against former Khmer Rouge commander Yim Tith in the absence of an enforceable indictment. Today Yim Tith is a successful businessman but under Pol Pot's brutal regime, he served as a mid-level commander and was charged with crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and violations of the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code. Charges of genocide brought against him, however, were dismissed by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal - a partnership created between the Cambodian government and the United Nations that includes both international and Cambodian judges and lawyers - ending any further prosecution of Khmer Rouge commanders.

This decision did not come as a surprise as the ECCC has faced widespread perceptions of tarnished integrity from reports of corruption, poor management and political interference since the beginning. The ECCC’s operation targets the surviving senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the systematic murders of an estimated two million people between 1975 and 1979 under Pol Pots vision of a communist utopia. After 16 years the Khmer Rouge Tribunal ensured convictions against senior leaders Nuon Chea (known as “brother number 2”), Khieu Samphan and comrade Duch, but others like Pol Pot himself died or were deemed unfit for trial before a verdict could be reached. Despite these convictions, corruption and politicisation has occurred at the highest level. Under the UN’s watch, allegations have surfaced of staff not being paid and with the tribunal itself costing over $300 million, this has generated further suspicion.

The hail of criticism, however, has been challenged by a growing sense of the trial’s importance, especially for the victims. The Khmer Rouge’s regime of murder and torture is still very fresh and raw for many Cambodians, most of whom are still seeking justice. These trials afford Cambodia to face up to its past but also to the problems and human rights violations that they continue to suffer today. Yet, with the ECCC coming to an end, the results can only be described as controversial.

From the start political opposition to proceedings, especially regarding the cases brought against Yim Tith and Meas Muth, have been vocalised by the country's long-standing majority government the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Many of today’s government figures, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, served under the Khmer Rouge whose murderous regime killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. Hun Sen has long opposed the trials and threatened that any more cases risk pushing Cambodia into civil war. The politicisation and opposition to the trials are nothing of a surprise when hopes of democracy since the fall of the Khmer Rouge have faded alongside Cambodia’s descent into Hun Sen’s dictatorship. The CPP has cracked down on freedom of speech, jailing opposition leaders, journalists, university students who speak out on social media and even filmmakers. Yet, whatever the CPP claims under Hun Sen’s regime is spun into the truth and the law. Hun Sen continues to defend that everything he does is according to the rule of law, but he has written the laws and it is his judges that are determining what is legal and what is not.

A survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime returns to the Killing Fields to beg for money

Internationally the world has seen this coming, there are little illusions left about the methods Hun Sen will use, however violently or disreputable to stay in power. In 1993 Hun Sen’s party the CPP lost the UN-sponsored elections but he refused to recognise the results, forcing negotiations that resulted in his appointment as joint prime minister. Looking back this was the very first crack in the democratic edifice.

The responsibility for the ECCCs failure cannot be pointed towards the Cambodian government alone but the UN must equally bear the responsibility. Beyond what these trials meant for the victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, it was also intended to set a precedent for the rest of the world that even decades later those who have committed heinous crimes can still face trial and justice can be granted. The message for the world was that there will be no impunity for serious crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. With only three convictions and many investigations left unanswered, how can the UN-supported court feel they have achieved this message? This agenda in itself does not serve justice to the Cambodian people, so if the ECCC is to end, with no more investigations left to convict, is there to be no more justice granted to the victims and survivors of the Khmer genocide?

Rising from his chair, Chum Mey handed me a copy of his book, an account of his experience as a prisoner at S-21. Reminding Cambodians and the world of the heinous crimes that happened here only decades ago has become his life's work. I realised then, it was why he returned to his old prison to sell his books all these years later.

The ECCC convicted Duch of war crimes and sentenced him to 19 years in prison. After testifying in excruciating detail before the court, upon hearing the verdict, Chum Mey cried out “We are victims two times, once in the Khmer Rouge time and now once again”.

Bou Meng, a painter and one of only seven survivors at S-21 prison

Bou Meng returns to his place of torture everyday to share his story with visitors and share it with the world

Bou Meng, another survivor of the S-21 prison called it “a slap in the face and a kick in the head” - a sentiment that has been uttered by many Cambodians. Does this mean $300 million and 16 years later the Khmer Rouge tribunal has succeeded in slapping the Cambodian people in the face with false closure and promises for justice? Is this just another chapter in the UN’s systemic and disregard for true justice masked by a Western imperial sense of morality?

I wonder what Chum Mey would say about the trials ending, would he call this justice?


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