This makes the tribunal a fragile experiment. There are signs that Cambodia’s leaders want the approval of the international community—and the cachet and credibility that go along with a more modern system of justice—but not at the expense of their own ability to control the outcomes. Hun Sen, whose 1997 coup put the country on the path to stability, if not good governance, is officially a supporter of the trials. In a court brochure, he proclaims that “now is the time for those responsible for planning and directing this horror to be held accountable.” But doubt about his level of commitment is rampant.
So far, the court has succeeded in convicting Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch,” the warden of the notorious S-21 death camp in Phnom Penh, where at least 13,000 people were murdered. Now, the court is trying Nuon, Khieu, and the other top political leaders. None of these defendants have direct links to the Hun Sen government. But prosecutors are preparing two more cases—against members of the military and provincial authorities who have not yet been named—and the Cambodian government hasn’t yet agreed to let the cases go forward.
Hun Sen is said to be leery of having international investigators probing the military and provincial governments. Former Khmer Rouge collaborators are still in power in many places. There is also the shadowy influence of China, which isn’t comfortable having its former Khmer Rouge allies tagged with genocide. China gives the Hun Sen government an undisclosed amount of aid, which presumably dwarfs the roughly $70 million in direct foreign aid contributed by the United States.
And in the broader effort to create an international consensus on justice, there are fundamental obstacles. Some court observers say the ECCC is fighting against an Asian tendency to bury the past and refuse to revisit it. Social barriers, including a rape stigma that renders any victim subject to immediate divorce, complicate the investigative process. Most Cambodians share a religious conviction that ultimate justice is meted out in the afterlife; the ECCC asks witnesses to take an oath that proclaims: “If I answer truthfully, may the sacred spirits assist me in having abundant material possessions and living in peace and happiness with my family and relatives forever....”
These factors fuel legitimate doubts about whether an American-style system of accountability can take root in a culture like Cambodia’s—and whether future diplomatic forays will be merely transactional, or if the nations can truly cultivate common ground.
For Americans , Europeans, and other foreigners revisiting the Khmer Rouge era, the ECCC inevitably calls up memories of the misadventures of the 1970s. The velvety Cambodian countryside, with its rice paddies, houses on stilts, and villagers with straw hats, recalls familiar images of Southeast Asia from nightly Walter Cronkite broadcasts. Cambodians of a certain generation remember that era, too, as they fish in the “bomb ponds” that dot the countryside—sections of paddies hollowed out by B-52 ordnance.
Back then, the United States was fighting to prevent a communist takeover in Vietnam but ended up creating one in Cambodia. American bombing of North Vietnamese supply lines in Cambodia in 1969 rocked the neutral government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leading to a coup by strongman Lon Nol. But the ultimate beneficiary was the Khmer Rouge, which overthrew Lon in 1975. Bou Meng, a 71-year-old artist and survivor of the S-21 death camp, recalls that he was rounded up by the Khmer Rouge because he once painted posters to advertise Western movies. “They asked if I was CIA, a foreign agent,” he says.
Such suspicions aren’t visible today. Cambodians express genuine excitement over Obama’s visit. But the extent to which memory, both expressed and repressed, plays on the Cambodian mindset is a crucial question underlying both the war-crimes tribunal and recent diplomatic overtures from the United States.
The Obama administration feels the time is ripe to forge closer American ties to Southeast Asia, whose independence provides a buffer to Chinese ambitions. Obama’s decision to visit Cambodia for the annual conference of Southeast Asian nations shows his desire to engage more fully in Asian politics; it’s of a piece with his initiative on India and his decision to build a US military base in Australia. All are aimed at creating a balance of power against China.
In that context, the forces behind the war-crimes tribunal believe that Cambodians can separate their 1970s-era fears of American incursion from their awareness of the very real crimes of the Khmer Rouge. This time, the Western powers are both preaching freedom and offering a model for it. That’s the idea driving the global commitment to war-crimes tribunals: Justice is different from money and arms and other tools of imperialism. It’s a universal language that unites, rather than divides.Continued...