A UN-backed court in Cambodia gave its first – and perhaps last – guilty verdict against a former Khmer Rouge official on Monday for atrocities committed more than three decades ago. The verdict against a former torture-chamber manager widely known as Duch has no doubt given pause to Cambodia’s current prime minister, Hun Sen.
Hun Sen himself is a former Khmer Rouge commander and has used his often-ruthless power to limit the court’s reach to only the most notorious leaders of the former regime, which ruled from 1975-79 before being ousted by Vietnam.
When I had a long talk with Hun Sen in 1988, he had only recently been installed in power by Hanoi’s communists as a reward for defecting from the Khmer Rouge. Like many communists, he tried to explain to me how his brand of that utopian ideology was different from the one espoused by the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, and thus didn’t qualify him for being tried as a war criminal or perpetrator of genocide under international law.
He basically disagreed with the rapid pace of the “revolution” and the harsh conditions imposed on Cambodians by Pol Pot – but not the ideal of creating a communal society led by top party leaders with no free markets or private ownership of property. Most of all, he fled the Khmer Rouge because of internal squabbles that led to deadly purges of many comrades.
Perhaps no country has suffered more from communism, colonialism, and foreign rivalry than the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia. The French colonizers exploited it, the Khmer Rouge caused the death of nearly a seventh of its population, and China, Vietnam, and the United States all helped bring violence into a land of largely peasant farmers.
Young men like Hun Sen were easily lured by the kind of utopian thinking that communism offered. As with any group trying to impose ideals onto a people without their consent, communists easily justify violence. Yet the smallest differences between them over tactics or goals can cause intense fights.
The trial of comrade Duch for running the orture facility Toul Sleng only touched the surface of atrocities committed in Cambodia in the name of communism. Today, democracy hardly exists there under Hun Sen. In neighboring Vietnam, where a “mild” version of communism was implanted by Ho Chi Minh, thousands have perished for dissenting from the party’s goals and its grip on power.
A bit of justice was served for Duch’s victims in his conviction. But a verdict has yet to be served on how one of the biggest ism’s of the 20th century, communism, got away with so much killing, from Pol Pot to Stalin to Mao.
Perhaps Duch’s conviction will at least serve to show that utopian thinking which doesn’t include the consent of the governed and individual freedoms isn’t very utopian. It’s guilty as charged.