PHNOM PENH — When President Obama’s motorcade wends its way through the clogged streets of Phnom Penh as planned this week, the first-ever visit to Cambodia by an American president, he will see remnants of America’s past and glimpses of its future.
Cambodia was collateral damage for much of the Vietnam War, the target of secret bombings designed to disrupt supply lines to communist North Vietnam. Political upheavals followed. The maniacal Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, played on bruised emotions: Its greatest genocidal act—the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, in 1975—was presented as an exercise to protect civilians from US bombing. Instead, almost 2 million ended up dead, some in urban death camps, others in the swamp-like “killing fields,” and still others in rural encampments, where they were left to starve.
Now, Cambodia again stands between the United States and a powerful geopolitical rival, China, which is seeking to cultivate its own sphere of influence. But this struggle doesn’t involve arms, only money and values. The vast preponderance of money is coming from China, which is flooding its southeastern neighbors with cash. The values are arriving from the West, with strong American backing, and have the potential to leave a lasting legacy.
The forces of Western-style openness and justice are massed at an unlikely site, a nondescript government complex on the distant outskirts of Phnom Penh. Here, in a court known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or the ECCC, the international community has been working closely with local authorities since 2007 to make sure that any top leaders of the Khmer Rouge who are still alive are made to pay for the regime’s unfathomable crimes.
At first glance, the court, which was promoted by senior US officials and is overseen by the United Nations and the Cambodian government, appears similar to other war-crimes tribunals, which since the ’90s have sought to punish crimes against humanity in Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere. It confronts the same criticisms that are applied to those tribunals, of slowness and bureaucracy; of punishment that comes too late and too gently for the horrors that it seeks to redress.
But in an important way this court also represents something new. While those courts try murderous dictators thousands of miles from the scene of their crimes, the ECCC operates in the country itself, with Cambodian lawyers and judges working side by side with their international counterparts. Funded in large part by the United States and its closest allies, the court seeks to plant the seeds of Western-style justice in Eastern soil, transforming an entire legal system rather than merely putting aging war criminals behind bars.
As such, it can be seen as a tool of diplomacy as much as law enforcement. And at a time when the United States has massive, expensive commitments around the world, and power has become synonymous with boots on the ground, this little-heralded project has a very different kind of potential. It isn’t a form of government that the United States and its allies are promoting here, but something more fundamental: the rule of law, a currency that could bind the United States and Cambodia for generations.
If there’s a whiff of cultural imperialism about the proceedings, it’s of a type that even the most multicultural of American liberals can embrace. And if it succeeds, it could provide a model for future joint national-international prosecutions in places like Libya, where the new government hopes to try Moammar Khadafy’s son and the former dictator’s inner circle.
“When you have egregious crimes of this character, they sweep across society,” says David Scheffer, the former US ambassador for war crimes in the Clinton administration, who was a key instigator of the court. “Achieving the rule of law is a means of addressing the challenges of corruption, and land rights, and human rights. With Cambodia, sustaining a court of this character has an effect on the entire society as it confronts other challenges.
“It’s one of the cheapest ways of projecting American values in the world.”
Like Phnom Penh itself, with its pockmarked French Colonial buildings and 500-year-old temples, amid which grows the occasional faceless skyscraper, Cambodia is wrestling with its past. The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander who quit and joined the resistance, has traded violence for corruption. There’s less repression and more economic ambition these days, but development remains slow. The majority of Cambodia’s roughly 14 million people live an agricultural life; about a quarter work in factories for wages low enough that some jobs get outsourced from China.Continued...