Between 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the systematic genocide of roughly 4.5 million Cambodians. In one of the most sanguinary examples of human social engineering ever, government forces attempted to eradicate anyone deemed to be an enemy of the state. From intellectuals to ethnic minorities and even former city dwellers, Pol Pot’s regime has burned an eternal legacy of suffering into the psyche of Cambodia’s people. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the recent trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders have sent both domestic and international news corporations into a frenzy. Of those accused include Nuon Chea; once known as ‘Brother Number Two’ and right hand Man to Pol Pot himself, Khieu Samphan; the former Head of State, and Ieng Sary; ‘Brother Number Three’ and former Foreign Minister.
…mass starvation of the thousands working on government sponsored agricultural projects…
The most scrutinised case, however, is undoubtedly that of Ieng Thirith. Born in 1932 to Cambodian royalty, the ‘First Lady’ of the Khmer Rouge was educated at the Sorbonne, later enjoying a life of power and importance as the party’s Minister for Social Affairs. It was through this position that the former English Literature graduate oversaw the mass starvation of the thousands working on government sponsored agricultural projects. Now, at the age of 79 and suffering from severe Alzheimer’s disease, the onus is on UN-backed Judges to decide whether or not she will ever be fit for trial. Originally declared too unwell to stand before a court of law, measures have been passed allowing her detention and internment in a medical facility, with a view to renew proceedings at a later date. All accusations have, of course, been rigorously denied by the ageing Thirith, who will no doubt recall the recent and successful prosecution of Comrade Duch, a former interrogation camp commandant who was responsible for the torture and execution of 15,000 women and children.
…the mass eviction of thousands of Cambodian citizens from privately owned land…
Irrespective of prosecutions and trials, however, one thing has been made abundantly clear – the effects of the Khmer Rouge are still seen psychologically, economically and politically upon Cambodian society. Firstly, the nation’s government is still, in effect, a dictatorship, after having assumed power via way of a bloody coup in 1998. The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has actually been in charge for 26 years, thereby carrying on a legacy of totalitarianism that has pervaded the country for decades. Accusations of corruption and politically motivated murders have never appeared to have tarnished the reputation of a man, who in 2007, was responsible for the mass eviction of thousands of Cambodian citizens from privately owned land. Limited healthcare, illiteracy and widespread HIV all play their part in distinguishing Cambodians as one of the world’s most impoverished and destitute groups of people. Yet it is in the rampant ubiquity of child prostitution and rape that one sees the true repercussions of genocide and poverty.
…whether the successful imprisonment of former Khmer Rouge leaders will even change anything?
Unable to live by any other means, many Cambodian women and children are often forced into a life of abasement and degradation, routinely selling their bodies in a sex industry worth millions upon millions of dollars. From police officers, military officials, politicians and Western tourists, Cambodian society is riddled with those willing to exploit and harm the thousands of young women sold into slavery every year. Most shocking, however, is the prevalence of gang rape, a major trend within the country’s sex industry that is often tolerated due to the widespread stigma surrounding prostitution. The contrast between the life of Ieng Thirith and her fellow female compatriots, therefore, is stark to say the least, a woman who after decades of luxury and privilege is still being granted leniency in the face of major human rights abuses. It begs the question as to whether the successful imprisonment of former Khmer Rouge leaders will even change anything? What will it signify, or rather, what could it signify to a society that is still so plagued by injustice? Before the crimes of the past are recognised, it is evident that Cambodia must first come to terms with the crimes of the present, lest we are to see a perpetual cycle of misery and suffering in what is arguably East Asia’s most troubled nation.