For 'killing fields' survivors, a sliver of hope for justice

The first time he heard the words "United States," Chuck Sart was a teenager living in Thailand in a filthy, overcrowded refugee camp for survivors of Cambodia's "killing fields."

Separated from his family during the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia, and unsure whether they had survived, Mr. Sart was swept up by an aid organization in 1983 and eventually delivered thousands of miles away to a home in Massachusetts.

Now a social worker and community leader in this former mill town 25 miles north of Boston, Sart wonders if the remaining members of the Khmer Rouge, which he blames for ripping apart his family and wreaking havoc in his homeland during nearly four years of rule, will ever be brought to justice.

He isn't holding his breath.

Last week the United Nations met to discuss raising money for a tribunal to investigate the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. But for survivors like Sart, justice has been too long coming.

Sart has watched from afar as other despots - Slobodan Milosevic, Rwanda's Hutu leaders, and soon Saddam Hussein - have been prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

Not the Khmer Rouge. No, he says, "We went through a horrible time and nobody cares."

The Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975, seeking to establish a radical Maoist state. Herded into communal workcamps, scores of Cambodians died of starvation, disease, and overwork. Others were murdered as the communists attempted to rid the country of "intellectual" or "elite" classes. Many middle- and upper-class Cambodians lost their entire families.

Sart eventually learned his family had survived, but they were among the fortunate. One-fifth of Cambodians, or more than 1 million, died under the rule of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, who himself died in 1998 without ever having been called to account for the deaths of his countrymen.

"Saddam was a mass murderer - and so was Pol Pot," Sart says, in wonderment at the imbalance of global justice. "You can't just kill a million people and get away with it."

Today, most former Khmer Rouge officers live with impunity in Cambodia. Some hold government jobs. Others serve as village chiefs, a result of the peculiar way Khmer Rouge defectors were put in power after Vietnam's invasion in 1979.

In December, the UN and Cambodia signed a draft agreement establishing the legal framework for a tribunal, which is expected to last three years and cost $40 million. Now the UN is planning an official appeal to fund the tribunal that would indict between five and 10 former Khmer Rouge leaders deemed "most responsible" for the genocide. These developments are the most concrete since talks of criminal proceedings began in the mid-'90s.

Even so, corruption, instability, and the strong-arm tactics of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former low-level Khmer Rouge leader, make the far-flung victims dubious of plans for justice.

Cambodian-Americans have little political clout

Sitting in a booth at the Red Rose restaurant in Lowell's gritty Pailin Market, a gathering spot for many of the town's estimated 25,000 Cambodians, Vesna Nuon recalls stealing food from his Khmer Rouge captors.

"I stole the communal food even knowing that when you get caught they would kill you. When you're starving, you don't think about anything else," says Mr. Nuon.

He was a teenager in the 1980s when his family was sponsored by an American charity to resettle in the US.

The community here rarely speaks out for justice in Cambodia, Nuon says, because "they know it's not going to happen. And if it does happen, it's not going to be up to international standards for fairness."

Besides, he says, shrugging, "It's not going to be any closure for a lot of Cambodians, because they know that there are a number of [former Khmer Rouge leaders] still around and still in power."

Cambodian-Americans are largely a fractured group with little political clout or political will, he says. Many are impoverished, and some struggle with posttraumatic stress and other illnesses.

Many also retain old political alliances, making it difficult to amass a unified voice to lobby the US to press the Cambodian government to move forward with the tribunal.


Ratha Paul Yem publishes Lowell's "Cambodia Today" newspaper. The front page of the February issue shows former Khmer Rouge leader Noun Chea wearing sunglasses and surrounded by villagers after confessing to reporters that the Khmer Rouge "made mistakes."

"These people still walk around and still have their freedom," Mr. Yem says.

The delay in bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to justice rests "squarely on the shoulders of the Cambodian government," says Steven Ratner, a University of Texas law professor who was among a team of experts who traveled to Cambodia in 1998 and subsequently prepared a recommendation for how the UN should proceed with the genocide tribunals.

The team suggested an ad hoc international tribunal that would take place outside Cambodia and be made up of mostly non-Cambodian judges.

Their recommendation was not followed. In the end, Cambodia and the UN agreed to a tribunal presided over by a majority of Cambodian judges.

Mr. Ratner says Hun Sen could readily "torpedo" the trials by wielding influence over judges or prosecutors.

Judicial corruption

Rampant judicial corruption in Cambodia "is indeed a concern," says Karsten Herrel, head of the UN team establishing the Khmer Rouge tribunal. In laying out the time frame for the court, the team is setting aside time to train Cambodian judges in international standards of law.

"There needs to be a specific training process in the concept of genocide and what constitutes crimes against humanity," Mr. Herrel says.

Two conditions must be fulfilled before the Khmer Rouge tribunals can be established: Cambodia's National Assembly must ratify the UN's draft agreement, and enough money must be raised to fund the trial through its first year. Neither has yet been accomplished.

The Cambodian government remains deadlocked after elections last July in which Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party received a majority of votes but failed to persuade the other two major parties to form a coalition and convene the national assembly. "We are at the mercy of internal Cambodian politics," Herrel says.

Raising money for the tribunal 25 years after the atrocities occurred, with Iraq and Afghanistan on the world's front burner, may also be a tough sell to international donors, according to Ratner. "The US is not really interested in this anymore," he says. "I don't really know where the international pressure is."

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