I struggled this week deciding what to write about, what with the high volume of tragedies transpiring within days of one another: the Boston marathon bombings, a devastating fertilizer plant explosion in Texas and earthquakes in Pakistan, China and Japan.
Conspiracy theorists are buzzing with excitement: the anonymous writer for vigilantcitizen.com observes that the latter half of April seems ominously ripe for disasters, and links this the trend to an odious tradition of sacrifice facilitated by the world’s occult-practicing elite.
I was tempted to jump onto this bandwagon, but since speculation does not lend itself to the comforts of resolution, I decided to stick with something familiar: the snail-paced proceedings of the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia.
Last month, Cambodians lamented the death of Ieng Sary, a founding member of the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) that murdered 1.7 million Cambodians through forced labor, mass executions and starvation. It was not the man’s sudden absence that caused ripples of anguish throughout the country, however, but the fact that he slipped into the afterlife before being sentenced for his crimes.
Last September, another high-ranking Khmer Rouge official — Ieng Thirith, the former Minister of Social Affairs and Ieng Sary’s wife — escaped the hand of justice by being diagnosed with dementia. To date, only one Khmer Rouge defendant — Kaing Guek Eva, known as “Duch,” the warden of the infamous Tuol Sleng or S-21 prison where 14,000 Cambodians were tortured — has been successfully tried and sentenced.
Only two defendants remain: Nuon Chea, also known as “Brother Number 2;” and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state. Both are well into the their nether years (86 and 81, respectively), which makes it all the more urgent for “The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia” (the fancy name for the tribunal) to get the ball rolling.
But the ECCC faces some daunting internal challenges. Ever since it was established in 2006, the courts have been plagued with corruption, internal bickering and political interference. Rumors continue to circulate that the current head of state, Prime
Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre himself, is indirectly stalling proceedings to prevent any evidence from surfacing that would implicate him.
The prime minister has denied wrongdoing, but many critics already see the tribunal as a travesty if only due to its financial inefficiency. After six years of operations, the tribunal has only sentenced one defendant despite $170 million in funding from the United Nations and donor governments. This amount has been used to compensate a slew of Cambodian and international lawyers and judges, as well as 270 local employees who staged a walkout last month after failing to receive their paychecks.
Operations in 2013 alone will require a budget of $7 million.
Despite multiple wrenches in the works, it is worth continuing the work of the ECCC for the sake of Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge era and deserve to see justice served on a plate. One can argue that court proceedings everywhere are costly and tedious. Moreover, to the ECCC’s credit, attendance has been relatively high, showing that Cambodians are interested in securing justice for themselves and their loved ones. Since the second trial began on Nov. 21, 2011, 76,000 individuals, mostly Cambodians, have visited the ECCC complex in the capital, Phnom Penh, to witness their tormentors brought to justice. And they are still waiting for this to happen.
At heart, the ECCC plays a cathartic role, more than it does a judicial one. If the latter were the case, then the ECCC would be going after every man and woman who committed crimes during the Khmer Rouge regime. That the tribunal is specifically targeting the masterminds behind the regime suggests that it is mostly a tool to help Cambodians achieve closure with the past by bringing to justice those most visibly responsible for the homicidal insanity that took place from 1975 to 1979.
As Youk Chhang, the director of The Documentation Center of Cambodia and a former victim of the Khmer Rouge, puts it, the tribunal “is a foundation to build a better Cambodia and to prevent genocide in the future.”