Ambivalence about Khmer Rouge trials

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As the international community presses for trials of the architects of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodians have mixed emotions about the prospects for the nation surviving such a pursuit of justice.

It is mainly foreigners - who wouldn't be here in Cambodia to feel the consequences of a new war that might break out between government loyalists and supposedly reformed Khmer Rouge defectors - who want these trials.

It's not that we don't want justice. There isn't a Cambodian alive untouched by the Khmer Rouge polices that led to the deaths of about a million people from 1975 to 1979. I, for example, lost half of my relatives and scores of acquaintances under the Khmer Rouge rule. My father was killed in the crossfire of its guerrilla war in 1973.

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But a premature push for justice might claim more lives than it avenges. For just this reason, the Cambodian Government initiated an amnesty for two Khmer Rouge leaders - Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea - who surrendered in December. The international outrage over this contrasted sharply with the mixed feelings of Cambodians, who have strong reservations about trials now and are afraid of a new war. Any trial of these two men would inevitably focus attention on other Khmer Rouge members active between 1975 and 1979. This would be a dangerous matter because so many of the regime's killers have changed their colors and have filtered into almost every level of Cambodian society. Many left the Khmer Rouge to become high-ranking officials in the government army, and federal and regional governments.

Cambodian leaders do not welcome the proposal by the international community to form an international tribunal to prosecute those long-ago crimes by the Khmer Rouge.

The people who rule Cambodia today are former Khmer Rouge members - they may have eventually left Pol Pot, but most certainly were part of the regime responsible for the deaths of about a million Cambodians. It would be impossible to have an international tribunal without consequences that affect the balance of power. A trial would implicate many strongmen, including senior and top political leaders, princes, a king, army commanders, and more. And that would stir dangerous distrust among them.

If war returned, it's not going to be the foreign workers, political observers, academics, legal reformers, and international policy experts who are pushing for trials who will get hurt. It will be the rural people who will suffer - the poor, uneducated 85 percent of the population that was easily manipulated and pressed into service by military strongmen.

A trial that attempts to assign blame for the tragic 1975-79 era cannot be fair because the killing was carried out on the grass roots level by ringleaders, village chiefs, field commanders, commune chiefs, group leaders, union chiefs, both as a matter of summary "justice" for infractions or even only on suspicion of an infraction. These people didn't wait for orders from higher levels in Phnom Penh or in provincial towns. During the Pol Pot regime, there was so much killing that even the Khmer Rouge cadre killed each other. The nature of the killing was mostly inspired by the ideology-ignited hatred or revenge of rural people against city dwellers. The Khmer Rouge was able to manipulate the masses - through hunger and fear for their lives - into being footsoldiers of this class warfare.

Cambodia is still a troubled nation. A leader who wants to stay in control has to keep control - being a gentle, even-handed humanitarian looking to right past wrongs is a sure way to lose control or get killed.

I know that the Khmer Rouge regime was criminal. But an international tribunal won't be able to make a trial fair and just - at least not today. It is better for the moment not to seek justice for the dead because it would be too dangerous for the living.

*Pin Sisovann is an associate editor at The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh.

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