Cambodia’s Killing Fields and the Rule of Law

EDITORIAL, 12 May 2009

#61 | Johan Galtung

There are many of those fields in this country treated extremely badly by history.  An enormity of structural violence by Phnom Penh on the countryside for centuries, legitimized by a Hindu caste system, softened by a Buddhism that eventually became state religion.  Thai and Vietnamese invasions and occupations.  French colonialism (as part of “Indo-China”) 1863, 1884, 1904-1953, using Vietnamese as bureaucrats in Phnom Penh, fomenting hatred.

Japanese occupation 1941-45.  The USA/Viêt Nam war 1961-75 spilling over into US bombing Cambodia 1972-73 more than they did Japan during the Pacific War 1942-45, directed from Phnom Penh (US Embassy-Lon Nol regime; 600,000 is one estimate of the killed; according to CIA–and William Shawcross in his 1979 book–a major factor in the next atrocity).  The Khmer Rouge, emptying Phnom Penh, working, starving them, torturing them into fake confessions, killing 1.7 million Cambodians, Vietnamese and Chinese, 1975-1979.

Then Viêt Nam invaded, removing Khmer Rouge, occupying 1979-89; the line-up being USA-NATO-Lon Nol-Singapore-Malaysia-Thailand-China-Khmer Rouge against Viêt Nam-Soviet Union.  As a result the USA-UK-NATO countries (like Norway) supported the Khmer Rouge before, during and after the Khmer Rouge rule, following Cold War logic.

Of all these atrocities Khmer Rouge has been chosen for punitive justice by the UN-Cambodian tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, ECCC, Kissinger not being among the defendants. The Cambodia Daily reported 8 May 2009 that “The Japanese Embassy said Wednesday that an informal gathering of donors to the Khmer Rouge tribunal was held on Wednesday morning at the French Embassy”.  Better be on the side of the judges than being judged.

Given the enormous atrocities, let punitive justice be done.  But do not expect any reconciliation, or feeling of closure and healing when the five-six aging Khmer Rouge leaders still alive are sentenced.

Cambodians know the total complex reality better than foreigners who use one to conceal all others; the leading court process being the process preferred by the leading powers.  Much more meaningful would have been a South Africa style Truth and Reconciliation process, a Rwanda style ga-ca-ca confrontation, a Polynesian ho’o pono pono for restorative justice, or a German-style school textbook approach, written by victims and accused explaining their angles, not by self-appointed judges with crooked axes to grind.

Adding to that, imagine, just imagine, Phnom Penh, French, Japanese, US, Chinese elites apologizing for exploiting the Cambodian countryside, killing them in various ways, tricking them politically and-or invading them culturally.  Imagine a monument dedicated to all the victims of all these atrocities, all these acts of commission, and the acts of omission by doing nothing, letting it happen, including supporting anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge.

Imagine a memorial, a peace museum, dedicated to the past and even more to the future, where common citizens can articulate their dreams and hopes for better distribution city-countryside, and sustainable peace with neighbors. With a more rational, Mekong Delta, cooperative relation to Viêt Nam.

Not impossible in a city where the river flows both ways, where Mao Zedong boulevard meets Eisenhower Avenue meets Charles de Gaulle Avenue, and where at some time electoral contenders got one prime minister and one minister each in relevant ministries.  What is most needed is a process for holistic reconciliation, and a future with equity between city and countryside.  The latter is highly unlikely.

The Mekong river flows from Phnom Penh into Viêt Nam and that same paper reported that the possibly greatest military genius of last century, General Vo Nguyen Giap, now 97, was celebrated for his victory over French imperialism 55 years ago.  And over another US imperialism, another atrocity, 24 years ago, 30 April.  No UN Tribunal for those.

And that is where the Rule of Law enters, based on some highly laudable principles, like no punishment except according to sentence, no sentence except according to the law, no retroactive law, and always audiatur et altera pars-listen to the other side-pro et contra dicere.

But then there is a fifth principle, much more problematic in practice: equality for the law.  For the same crime the same law and the same sentence.  Thus, there was genocide in Indonesia only ten years before the Khmer Rouge genocide anti-communist, anti-Chinese, serving US interests.  Where is the UN tribunal?  And, the USA has for years been operating their own torture around the world to extract confessions, probably driving unknown (so far) numbers into “confessing” anything for the pain to stop, with unknown (so far) numbers being “eliminated” anyhow.

Where is the UN Tribunal, as opposed to a twisted discussion in the USA over the pros and cons of truth commissions and legal processes versus “looking forward not backward” where the real problem under the Rule of Law would be how to internationalize the issue.  Torture is an indictable crime regardless of where and who, which is why Spain’s Judge Balthasar Garzón is arraigning American suspected torturers into court.

And we have the International Criminal Court, for Rule of Law to penetrate state borders and apprehend those accused of genocide and torture, crimes against humanity and peace, regardless of the who and where.  How the USA claimed, and got, its usual exceptionalism accepted is a sad chapter in contemporary history.

But their non-ratification was joined by Israel and Iraq, Russia and China and India–the latter two being coming Big Powers.  The way it looks right now the ICC is in practice a court located in the Netherlands sitting in judgment of African political leaders, looking like a continuation of South Africa before liberation.

Rule of Law?  As parody, yes, as farce. But far from reality.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 May 2009.

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