Three Old Men

ASIAWATCH — The current trial of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders in Phnom Penh is the judicial process that Stalin and Mao never faced. These tyrants died in their beds without ever answering for, in Stalin’s case, the famines and the bloody 1937 Moscow trials, and in the Chinese chairman’s, for the Great Leap Forward, and resulting mass hunger that claimed 30 million lives.

James Pringle writes for Asian Sentinel.

Now three elderly Cambodian men from 80 to 86 years old – those who made the Khmer Rouge policies – must answer, in a trial that opened in Phnom Penh this week, for at least 1.7 million deaths, and the destruction of one of Asia’s once most culturally splendid of countries, whose onetime king, Norodom Sihanouk, still fit at 90, used to call ‘an oasis of peace.’.

The co-prosecutors’ opening litany of horrors this week were revelatory, although most of the facts of Khmer Rouge rule are now known. But it was the putting together in one coherent story the horrific details of this chilling ‘Utopian nightmare,’ what national co-prosecutor Mde Chea Leang, called ‘a system of brutality that defies belief,’ that had such an impact.

It was one of the most harrowing several hours of my life,” said one spectator in the public gallery, a foreign lawyer.

From where I was sitting in court, which resembles nothing so much as a theatre with curtains that dramatically open to reveal the accused, prosecutors and judges in a single tableau, I watched Cambodian rural folk who had risen at 2 am that morning in their remote villages to be bussed here, dabbing their tears or, overcome with memories of murdered loved ones, hastening from the chambers.

Rhetorical flourish was in full cry from both sides. An ‘ocean of blood’ was how one of the co-prosecutors described that former ‘oasis of peace’ after the Khmer Rouge trudged into Phnom Penh on Apr. 17, 1975. Khieu Samphan, 80, the onetime Democratic Kampuchea president, called the prosecution case ‘spinning of fairy-tales.’

On a much smaller scale, though proportionately by population not so much so, the Cambodia’s nightmare was on a level with the horrendous death levels of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. At least the horrors in the Soviet Union were addressed by Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 ‘secret’ speech to the 20th Soviet party conference three years after Stalin’s death. China has yet to make such an accounting of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and Mao is still revered by many.

This accounting is now being made in Cambodia in a process that is likely to last two years or more. Zone chiefs, and the leadership’s drivers and other factotums will be among those called to give evidence on what the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders really knew about the widespread and brutal killings.

In fact, is it communism, now a defunct philosophy in Vietnam and China, even in Cuba, that is also on trial here in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). It’s certainly one of the most important international triibunals since the Nuremberg trials of 21 Nazi chiefs, though those occurred just a year or so after World War II ended, whereas the Khmer Rouge tribunal opens some 36 years after the horrific events that brought Cambodia for a time, back to the 14th century, at least in rural areas, as I saw myself in mid-1979,. In Phnom Penh, I saw Cambodians on hands and knees picking up grains of rice off the road.

This time gap accounts for the baffled looks on the faces of the rows of young uniformed students in court whose schools and parents have shielded them from the horrors that spread from Vietnam after the American invasion of Cambodia, ordered by then US President Richard Nixon in April, 1970 (which this correspondent rather nervously covered from a rickety South Vietnamese helicopter on the second day of the invasion, making several landings in which seemed like contested territory).

These students, and the villagers, listened as the British co-prosecutor, Andrew Cayley, said of the Khmer Rouge: “They took from the people everything that makes life worth living: family, faith, education, a place to rear one’s children, and a place to rest one’s head.”

The British barrister added later: “No one in this country is left unhurt or unaffected by what these three elderly men have done.”

There were other literary moments – and also rhetorical overkill – with Nuon Chea, aged 85, and otherwise known as Brother Number Two (to the late Brother Number One Pol Pot,) compared Vietnam’s relationship to Cambodia to ‘a python suffocating a young deer.”

Perhaps the most eloquent member of the Khmer Rouge, Shakespearian expert Ieng Thirith, 79, wife of Ieng Sary and Democratic Kampuchea’s minister of social affairs, was excluded on from the court on the grounds of dementia, though her case will be looked at again, after she has been gradually weaned off tranquilizers and anti-psychotic drugs that have been used to calm her. In 2009 she had already invoked Dante by cursing her accusers to ‘the seventh level of hell.’

For French defense lawyer (for Khieu Samphan) Jacques Verges the trial process was like something from ‘a novel by Alexandre Dumas,’ but he also raised the dire issues of the dropping of Agent Orange on the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the carpet bombing of Cambodia by B.52s.

While the court here is limited in its consideration of what happened only between 1975 and 1979, the period of Khmer Rouge control, already in three days it has expanded further. Perhaps there is a need, it is suggested, to look back to the 1950s, when Pol Pot and his cohorts were studying as students in Paris, close to the – at that time Stalinist – French Communist Party, to understand what made do what they did on what Mao might have called the ‘blank sheet of paper’ that was Cambodia’s political awareness in the 1970s.

Cambodians are not naive any longer about politics but they have certainly had to learn about them the hard way, for they still live under the tough regime of a former Khmer Rouge who nevertheless broke with the Beijing-backed (at the time) Khmer Rouge.

Other names in connection with the war, such as Dr Henry Kissinger and the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969 have already been brought to the attention of the court, as has the ‘fascism’ of the Lon Nol regime, which committed its own massacres of Vietnamese in 1970. It is difficult to see how these factors can be totally ignored.

The sins of the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin were bravely raised by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 at the 20th congress, though hints of Stalinism still linger on as a certain nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Mao’s sins have never been expatiated; his portrait still hangs from Tiananmen Gate .

Communism in Cambodia, through Khmer Rouge rule that lasted nearly four years, has been discredited forever and, not to be tendentious about it, all of us should be grateful that some accounting, at least, is now taking place. Nuon Chea managed to review Khmer Rouge rule without ever mentioning the brutal evacation of the whole population of Phnom Penh in Rpril, 1975. “All of these accusations are not true.” he said of the prosecution’s statements.

Chhang Song, a former information minister, well known to all journalists who covered the war in Cambodia,, is right when he says that this is the biggest trial in the history of Cambodia and exaggerating only slightly when he calls it ‘one of the biggest trials in the history of the world.’

One woman outside the courtroom summed up what all Cambodians feel and express: “The people of Cambodia really want, after 36 years, to hear what the Khmer Rouge leaders have to say, to explain what we went through.”

Whether they will be satisfied with the answers remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in Asian Sentinel.

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