Ignorance from a distance on Khmer Rouge trials

[Sent to the Guardian on June 28, 2014.]

It is a shame that the section of your 24 June special report on “Truth, justice and reconciliation” regarding Cambodia could not have been written by someone who knows something about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge tribunal. The numerous factual errors and jaundiced political interpretations have considerably lowered my previously high rating of Guardian journalism.

Even minor errors indicate your journalists’ total ignorance. Nobody in Cambodia would refer to Prime Minister Hun Sen simply as “Hun”, any more than they would refer to former King Sihanouk as “Norodom” or the opposition leader as “Sam”. If Cambodians are referred to by a single name, it is always by the second name.

Theary Seng could not have “lost both his parents in the genocide”. Theary Seng is a woman, who lost her parents. Furthermore, she is involved in more than human rights, including activities that might colour her opinions about the tribunal. She has been a self-proclaimed supporter of opposition leader Sam Rainsy for two decades and consequently critical of nearly every government action. Shortly after the tribunal’s creation, she organised a group of victims who invaded the court premises and threatened physical violence against the judges if they did not deliver the “right” decisions.

Your journalists’ potted history of the Khmer Rouge tribunal begins with “the UN’s offer of help in 1997”. In reality, the tribunal was not a UN initiative. The Cambodian Co-Prime Ministers, Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, wrote to the UN Secretary-General in June 1997, requesting UN assistance in the establishment of a Cambodian trial of KR leaders.

The UN did not suggest a hybrid court. Its initial, slow, proposal (of course after a time-consuming study) was an entirely UN-run trial in the Hague, with the role of Cambodians being limited to that of defendants and witnesses. A large part of the delay in establishing the tribunal was caused by the need to negotiate arrangements for a tribunal that could involve and be acceptable to Cambodians.

And yes, the Hun Sen involved in initiating the tribunal is the same Hun Sen who, your story implies, wants to prevent prosecution of KR leaders. What else would you expect from “a former Khmer Rouge commander”? A shame that your journalists didn’t know that Hun Sen was a middle-level military officer during the civil war between the Lon Nol regime and a fairly broad resistance movement led by the KR. Hun Sen was seriously wounded the day before the fall of Phnom Penh to the KR, and he spent approximately a year in hospital recovering. When he returned to active duty, he was appalled by what the KR were doing to the country, and risked his life to defect to Vietnam and return to help to organise resistance and overthrow the KR.

Yes, Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin have refused to testify in the two trials that have so far been conducted. (Testimony has concluded in Case 002/1, and the judges are expected to deliver their verdict within a few weeks.) Did they have any relevant knowledge in the trials of Duch or the surviving top leaders of the KR? They were not at Tuol Sleng or in top KR leadership bodies. The request for their testimony was simply an attempted distraction by defence lawyers confronting an overwhelming case against their clients – rather like defence lawyers at Nuremburg trying to subpoena Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower.

The $200 million cost of the tribunal is indeed a lot of money. Your story might have mentioned that the great bulk of it has been spent on UN staff and expenses. It might also have pointed out that $200 million is a small fraction of the cost of any of the other international or mixed tribunals.

The courtroom for the KR trial has some 500 seats for the public, making it one of the largest in the world. These are almost or completely filled on most hearing days. Tens of thousands of Cambodians have attended sessions to see justice being done for crimes of the KR period. Maybe before condemning from afar, the Guardian should send a journalist to talk to some of them.

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