Landmark Khmer Rouge genocide trial: Do Cambodians care?
The Cambodian government is stepping up efforts to inform the country about the Khmer Rouge's bloody rule.
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Among court officials and human rights activists, it’s an article of faith that justice and accountability can bring healing to a traumatized nation like Cambodia, despite the lapsed time since the crimes. For some victims of the Khmer Rouge, a dwindling population, there is a measure of satisfaction in seeing notorious killers in the dock.Skip to next paragraph
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But the idea that a war-crimes tribunal can provide “therapy,” as well as justice, is debatable, says Peter Maguire, the author of "Facing Death in Cambodia," who has taught on the laws of war at Columbia University. He says international opinion shifted in the 1990s toward a broader notion of post-war justice than simply trying suspects for their crimes, without any evidence that it works.
“A tribunal isn’t a forum for teaching lessons. It’s a forum for adjudication,” he says.
Lengthy trials that allow ideologues to expound their views can also stoke sympathy, as some scholars have found after the Nuremburg Trials of Nazi leaders, according to Mr. Maguire, though this doesn’t apply to Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia.
For many years, Cambodians knew little about the historical forces that shaped the Khmer Rouge. Teachers shied away from this and other sensitive topics, mindful of political tensions over who did what. Parents told their children of their pain and suffering, but were either unwilling or unable to explain the mass executions, or why some killers still lived freely among those they terrorized.
Gradually, high schools have begun to teach about the Khmer Rouge period at grade 12 using documentary materials from war-crimes researchers. While these initiatives haven’t come from the tribunal itself, it opened up political space for teachers and students, says Anne Heindel, a legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
Students are “interested in the trial because they learn about it in school, then they come in and see it,” she says.
At the Lycée Sisovath, an elite colonial-era school whose alumni include Khieu Samphan, one of the accused leaders, students in the outdoor cafeteria seem keen to know more about their country’s darkest chapter. Khon Sovansreyneth, a student in grade 11, says she’s heard stories of hardship from her parents and seen the tribunal on television. “It’s important. We’re Khmer. We have to know about the terrible history,” she says.