Today we had the privilege to attend part of the trial for two Khmer Rouge generals at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. These courts were developed specifically by the UN and the Cambodian government to try individuals in charge of the Khmer Rouge regime and the damage it inflicted on the country.
If you aren’t familiar with the Khmer Rouge, here is a very brief summary: in 1975 the Khmer Rouge communist group took over Cambodia with the goal to purify the country. They committed numerous crimes against humanity including enslavement, forced marriage, torture, and genocide. They targeted individuals such as teachers, doctors, government officials, people with education, Buddhists, etc. By the time the regime was overthrown in 1979, 3 million people had been killed.
This particular trial is the second of its kind and has lasted 283 days. Two men stand accused: Nuon Chea, the former chairman of the regime, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state.
This was the last day of the trial, and so we were able to witness the final statements of the defense.
First, the defense lawyer for Nuon Chea spoke. His main argument was that the case had been decided from the beginning, that “the trial against him was nothing but a show trial.” He also argued that the jury refused to listen to the facts, preferring instead the more popular “fake history.”
Nuon Chea chose not to speak.
Second, the lawyer for Khieu Samphan spoke. (It’s important to note that the quotes are from the interpreter, as she spoke only in French.) She focused on legal proceedings, charging the courts that “it is your duty” to follow strict court procedures. She said that the court had failed to produce evidence beyond reasonable doubt that Samphan as an individual had been directly involved.
Samphan did choose to speak. (Again, quotes are from the interpreter.) He opened by saying “I know that they really suffered.” It wouldn’t have fixed the travesties that occurred here, but an apology or acknowledgement of his wrongdoings was something I had been subconsciously hoping for. He went on to blame Vietnam and the war for a desperate situation in Cambodia which allowed and even made necessary the sacrifices. As a high-ranking official, he claimed not to know about what was happening in the country. And finally, he closed with a “bow to memory of innocent victims, but also to all those who perished by believing in the idea of a better future,” referring, of course, to the Khmer Rouge.
As my classmates discussed it, the scary part was that each of us could clearly see Samhan’s persuasive abilities. He was an eloquent old man who spoke of uniting against an enemy for the common good. One of my classmates even commented that she could see why people believed him.
I don’t know why I had hoped so much that Samphan would show even a small sign of remorse. Perhaps the fairy-tale ideal of a happy ending, or human redemption. I’ve always thought that at the heart, people were good. I suppose now that not everyone is.