PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — This past Tuesday marked the day of the first Cambodian genocide hearing. The trial starts almost thirty years after the end of Pol Pot’s cruel Khmer Rouge regime. During its three years, eight months, and twenty days of rule from 1975 to 1979, 1.7 million Cambodians, more than one-fifth of the population, were killed by their own countrymen.
On our journalism trip to Cambodia, we talked with several Cambodian and international experts, and it struck me that there was a seemingly odd lack of excitement about this historic moment for Cambodia. The reasons for this could be a combination of the following points that were raised by different people we talked to:
First, many argue that the trials come too late. They argue that the trials should have been held right after the Khmer Rouge dictatorship fell in 1979. Since then, the process has lost much of its momentum. Some argue that it was the international community’s fault to not push for immediate reconciliation.
Second, it can’t bring back those who were killed. We heard from several people that the trial will bring back the grief but won’t bring back the parents, siblings, and grandparents so many Cambodians lost due to execution or starvation. We talked to a former Cambodian ambassador to the United States, who lost both his parents and seven of his nine brothers and sisters. Some also argue that the trial’s mandate to only punish senior leaders wasn’t helpful, since those who carried out the executions will remain free.
Third, international observers argue that the trial structure is imperfect and vastly underfunded. So far, funding amounts to $56 million for three years. A sum far too small, according to Michael Petit, the international co-prosecutor we talked to. Also, some argue that a process mostly driven by Cambodian law and Cambodian lawyers and only 40% international involvement won’t help to make the process credible. International NGOs, however, will play an important role in strengthening the transparency of the process by hosting public meetings and by reaching out to the public.
Fourth, some Cambodians even argue that the trials are government-controlled and therefore won’t address the involvement of current government officials in the Khmer Rouge regime. Some of the current government members used to be uncomfortably close to Khmer Rouge officials.
Lastly, Cambodia’s booming economy with its two-digit growth rates might play a role. Some people might just want to turn the page and forget.
The international political and business community, however, will probably closely monitor the trials. The question is whether the process has the potential to improve the Cambodian government’s tattered reputation. Business experts argue that it has been corruption and a lack of rule of law and good governance that kept big investment flows out of Cambodia so far. Will the trials be able to change this?