ECCC courtroom in Phnom Penh
The news that an elderly and frail woman was recently released from detention and excused from trial on ground of ill-health by a Cambodian court would hardly have been noticed in the Indian media. The news itself would be of little import but for the facts that the court — a hybrid body of national and international judges and jurists, officially christened the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia — was trying a handful of perpetrators of horrifying crimes committed under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) of Cambodia, and the grandmotherly Ieng Thirith, as minister for social action, was a key member in that government of Democratic Kampuchea. As wife of the then foreign minister, Ieng Sary, and sister-in-law to the Khmer Rouge chief, Pol Pot, her credentials as a star member of the regime were complete.
She was found to be suffering from a degenerative illness, probably Alzheimer’s disease, making continuation of her trial pointless in the eyes of the court. At the age of 80, she is unlikely to recover and so seems to have escaped conviction and a possible life sentence. She left behind in the special jail her husband, the former foreign minister, the ideologue of the regime (Brother Number Two), Nuon Chea, and the then head of state, Khieu Samphan, very old men all, who would continue to face trial unless death intervenes. Given the extraordinary delays in first getting the court off the ground and then getting legal proceedings truly under way, that possibility remains strong. Only one person, Comrade Duch, who was in charge of the internal security of the regime, including the supervision of the infamous S-21 detention-cum-torture centre (now the genocide museum in the capital, Phnom Penh), has been convicted and sentenced so far.
An account of the Khmer Rouge years reads like an impossible nightmare even allowing for the passage of more than three decades since Vietnamese troops put an end to it. The Khmer Rouge (the Red Khmers) was a byproduct of the communist movements of Indo-China and born on the sidelines of a greater tragedy, the Vietnam war. While its top leadership came from relatively elitist backgrounds, the foot-soldiers were largely supplied by the peasantry. The movement’s ideological goal was a land that would be a self-sufficient agrarian paradise, unencumbered by complications like education, religion, family, or material wealth. The whole country was to be turned into one giant collective farm where food would be grown and lives lived under the watchful and dictatorial eyes of committees. With people uprooted from cities and towns, transported to rural Cambodia and corralled into living this ‘classless’ agrarian utopia, disaster did not take long to strike. Food was already scarce by 1977.
During Khmer Rouge rule, between 1.5-1.7 million people — or one-fifth of the country’s then population — were estimated to have perished from forced labour, starvation and medical neglect, or, quicker still, by mass executions fast filling up the killing fields. A novel experiment in social engineering thought up in a moment of madness by the Khmer Rouge, which chose to ignore Zhou Enlai’s wise counsel not to try to achieve communism in a single step, went horribly wrong. The movement then turned on itself in distrust and paranoia, and purges were repeatedly ordered to eliminate ‘enemies’ of the revolution. In the genocide museum, there is a photograph of disgraced Khmer Rouge leaders, shackled to their iron bedstead and marked for death, looking up to the camera with dazed incomprehension. The Khmer Rouge was only continuing that haunting legacy of violent movements in history where the hunters sometimes ended up being the hunted.
Ieng Thirith was a self-assured, privileged figure in the middle of this mayhem. A student of English literature who studied at Sorbonne and married her husband in Paris, her contributions were in rolling out the widespread purges, and overseeing the youth movement — the fanatical young peasant cadre — that the party had identified as its ‘dictatorial instrument’, or the chosen tool of terror. Later, when tumultuous events in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia largely passed Thirith and her husband by, they went back to living the good life, till the ECCC came into being and called their conduct of the distant past to account. It was no different for Nuon Chea or Khieu Samphan. One cannot but feel that had the United Nations-backed court been delayed by some more years, the unrepentant leaders of the Khmer Rouge would have escaped even the most token punishment in this life.
And thereby hangs a problem of today’s Cambodia — lack of accountability. The main reason the hybrid court — partly funded by the UN and partly by donor countries, including India, on behalf of the Cambodian government — took so long to materialize was that the government of the day had far too many former Khmer Rouge members as its key ministers. They were not from top echelons, but still afraid that their past would catch up with them at the ECCC. So the government tried hard — and successfully — to keep the number of former leaders to be brought to trial to the very minimum. Since the court was, in effect, restricted to trying only a handful of persons of advanced age, questions were asked as to the wisdom of spending such enormous resources for such a limited exercise. One justification offered was that the process would unravel the mystery of why a regime so viciously turned on and devoured its own people. Truth, and from there reconciliation, were tantalizing prospects.
Or were they? My own impression of the Cambodian people — one of the gentlest I have ever met anywhere — was that most might not have been interested in finding out that truth. It was a classic case of being in denial, only on an almost national scale. An expatriate social worker told me she always had a problem in getting people to confront their past, and thought it could be because of their pacific nature or their religious faith.
I can think of more mundane explanations. Firstly it is the demographic distortion that the years of Khmer Rouge killings have wreaked. Today’s Cambodia is markedly youthful, with some 60 per cent of its 14 million population under the age of 24 or less, unborn when the Khmer Rouge had ruled. This dark chapter of Khmer history was also not taught in schools until some non-governmental organizations started an awareness campaign to mark the beginning of the ECCC’s work. So a huge section of the Cambodian society just did not know or care.
More important is the seamless coexistence of the survivors and the ex-tormentors in society. This is not only between the national rulers and the ruled, but also — at the grassroots level — between neighbours in towns and villages. It is as if the people of Cambodia have entered into a strange pact of silence about their violent past. Fear of exposure or retribution plays a part. Unexpected prosperity for thousands of survivors who successfully fished in troubled waters after the Khmer Rouge’s departure is a persuasive argument for them not to rock the boat. For yet others, it is the comfort of stability and predictability of life now over the brutal uncertainties of the past. Altogether, a pragmatic closure to what could have been a dangerously divisive issue.
Ieng Thirith may not be the only one to have escaped punishment. Death could free the others on trial soon enough unless the court is able to move faster. In that case, conviction of Duch would be the only showcase result of years of legal struggles at the ECCC. It is not often that one sees crime of such magnitude being met with punishment so meagre.