Cambodia’s war crimes trials: Will Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge henchmen never be punished for killing nearly 2 million people?

Will Pol Pot’s Henchmen Be Punished for Murdering 2 Million People?

Will Pol Pot’s Henchmen Be Punished for Murdering 2 Million People?

Stories from Moment.
July 22 2013 5:40 AM

Witness for the Prosecution

Nearly 40 years after Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, will his henchmen never be punished for murdering 2 million people?

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S-21 guards eventually force-marched Chum Mey to the provinces, where he chanced upon his wife, who was lined up in another march and holding the child she had been pregnant with the last time husband and wife were together. Terrified and relieved at once, he held his 2-month-old baby for the first time. As Chum Mey recounts this episode, he leans forward in his chair, raises his voice, and describes what quickly followed: Guards pushed the group into a remote area, and Chum Mey heard his wife call out a warning: “Run!” Sitting upright, Chum Mey brandishes his hand like a gun, purses his lips, and releases a series of staccato “Pop! Pop! Pop!” sounds. The S-21 guards machine-gunned both mother and child; Chum Mey managed to escape. Now in his 80s, he is plagued by an unavoidably vivid image of the murder of his wife and baby. “I cry every night,” he says.


Establishing a tribunal in a country decimated by decades of civil war, where victims and perpetrators have lived side by side from youth to adulthood, has been a study in frustration. Every step of the judicial process has been agonizingly slow, due to “complex political, security and legal reasons” and “the destabilizing social effect of the battered and shocked generation of the war,” says David Scheffer, the U.N. secretary-general’s special expert on U.N. assistance to the Khmer Rouge trials and who is among the world’s leading legal minds on war crimes. 

The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia’s rice farms into killing fields.
The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia’s rice farms into killing fields.

Courtesy of Amy Kaslow


The Kingdom of Cambodia continues to invoke these reasons as it plays an overactive role in just who is tried and how. Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for 30 years, first resisted international pressure to set up the tribunal, and, when it was inevitable, fought hard for a Cambodian-only court. While publicly supporting the tribunal, he pushes back against prosecuting surviving members of the Khmer Rouge regime, including some who are still in government posts. A recent editorial in the Bangkok Post tagged the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, interior, and finance as former Khmer Rouge officers, as well as thousands of government functionaries. Phnom Penh’s support of the tribunal’s work is a calculated risk: The wider the court casts its net, the closer it comes to those in positions of power.

At his grand office in the Council of Ministers, an imposing contemporary building along Phnom Penh’s Russian Federation Boulevard, Deputy Prime Minister and tribunal point-man Sok An sits at the center of a long conference table, flanked by dozens of deputies and aides. The man dubbed “the king of patronage” by the national press gives a rambling statement extolling the virtues of the tribunal and his government’s pivotal role in delivering it to the people. The court “demonstrate[s] Cambodia’s commitment to the rule of law,” he says. “We have to make our younger generation remember.” As he speaks, his note takers tap away on their iPads, and the authorized television cameramen train their lenses on him.

Despite the government’s positive spin, the tribunal is a contentious issue in the run-up to Cambodia’s parliamentary elections on July 28. To deflect attention from his own trial, tribunal defendant Khieu Samphan has pointed to the prime minister, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, who Samphan says had extensive knowledge of the regime’s tactics and actions. Angered by this and other challenges to his candidacy, Hun Sen emphatically warns that Cambodia risks a civil war if he loses the election and says he will “respond immediately” if anyone tries to apprehend him. 

Indeed, to the government, the tribunal’s profile may be more important than its prosecution, as Hun Sen and Sok An seek to position the nation as a leader in social, economic, and political reforms. The government could hardly wait to broadcast this message regionally, when it hosted the latest nine-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting. Among its bragging rights is that the country’s projected GDP growth is 6.7 percent in 2013. But like much government-sanctioned information, official data on hunger, jobs, and wages hardly reflect reality.

Provincial Cambodian boy.
This provincial boy shares a discouraging statistic with other young Cambodians: The World Health Organization ranks the country’s child nutrition among the poorest in the world, and statisticians say it has been near rock-bottom since the 1980s.

Courtesy of Amy Kaslow

NGOs and on-the-ground diplomats estimate that almost a third of Cambodians are malnourished and even more suffer from stunted growth. Poverty is rooted in rural areas where farmers struggle with pollution and water-borne diseases. (Countrywide, fewer than half of Cambodian households have clean water access, and only a third have toilets.) Lack of economic opportunity defines life for the vast majority of Cambodians. The best prospects for average high school graduates: low-skill work in factories where employers face few restrictions. Factory workers earn roughly $70 a month. “If you’re a rock star,” says one diplomatic economic attaché, “you might work in an office and earn $90 a month.” Farm workers can expect $40 in monthly wages. To many, the lure of the sex industry’s dramatically higher pay proves irresistible, where anyone can earn as much as $500 a month. Officially regulated but poorly monitored, the sex trade targets the vulnerable; untold numbers of Cambodian girls are enslaved by brothels that pay off inspectors and pocket the profits.

Near the top of Transparency International’s list of the world’s most corrupt nations, Cambodia has also earned the dubious distinction among human rights groups as one of the world’s worst abusers. Villagers fear the country’s judicial system, and bribes are the norm. Even the tribunal is not immune. Corruption allegations abound, starting with the Open Society Justice Initiative’s 2007 claim that Cambodia’s government demanded kickbacks in return for locals securing jobs, from support staff to judges.


Choeung Ek gained international notoriety in the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Ten miles south of Phnom Penh, the site is marked by an acrylic Buddhist stupa filled with thousands of human skulls. The Khmer Rouge massacred 17,000 people here and buried them in mass graves, and human bones still push through the powdery dirt. One of the country’s countless killing fields, Choeung Ek is among the top travel attractions the government promotes. It is part of a much bigger plan to develop genocide tourism as a robust industry.

Along a well-trodden path, a wooden sign conveys a stark message:

The Chemical Substance Storage Room: Here was the place where chemical substances such as DDT were kept. Executioners scattered these substances over dead bodies ... after execution ... to eliminate the stench from the dead bodies that could raise suspicion among people working near by the killing fields and ... to kill off victims who were buried alive.

Nearby, in a cleared-out area, two men sit side by side on a semicircular bench curving around part of a large picnic table. Across the way is a building filled with skulls and skeletal remains found on the site, memorializing the thousands who disappeared in the killing fields. The two men are quietly focused on the crowd gathered to hear them speak. They are together to tell their stories, tragic and entwined.