Late last month the International Court in Cambodia affirmed the 2012 convictions and life sentences of two criminals. It was an encouraging win for international accountability at the top, but the final affirmation has greater implications.
Defendant Khieu Samphan, 85, (former “President of the Central Presidium”) and defendant Nuon Chea, 90, known as “Brother Number Two,” were the architects of destruction of their own nation a generation ago. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge (“Red Cambodia”) won power. The U.S. bombing pursuant to the Vietnam War assisted that event. One could argue that a similar “Bomb the crap out of..” mentality toward Iraq years later ultimately resulted in the manifestation of ISIS/Daesh in Iraq, but this is for historians to debate.
To contextualize last month’s events in Cambodia: imagine 40 years after World War II, a frail old Goering and sunglass-wearing Goebels are finally put in front of the Nuremburg Trials. And these tribunals are held in a country still run by a Nazi.
Brother Number Two Chea and the Presideium Samphan’s et al’s rule in the late 1970s was a horrible administration. A small but elite cadre of French educated (unusual at the time, there) fanatics abolished money and private property, communized the citizenry, and emptied the cities. This was surprisingly easy given their penchant for excessive violence – excessive even in an already brutalized and bombed country. They achieved a level of genocide of local Muslims, the Chams, of Vietnamese living in Cambodia, and auto-genocide – a uniquely Cambodian term in political science – almost unequaled. This clique (with Pol Pot, et al) turned their country into the “Killing Fields” – a semi-fact based Hollywood docudrama about the era. Between 1975 (“Year Zero” by their new calendar) and 1979 their country became a Cambodian shaped hole in SE Asia, a vast starving prison camp.
Diplomatically, the newly named “Democratic Kampuchea” was deeply weird. Nearly all embassies closed, and foreigners were immediately deported or killed, depending on one’s passport. They sent the Japanese government a telegram to severe formal ties by more or less stating that diplomatic relations would not be required for two hundred years. They changed their country’s name from the Khmer Republic to Democratic Kampuchea, and attacked a passing U.S. warship (killing some Marines) in a pointless act of geopolitical hooliganism. They traded Cambodia’s wildlife for rickety North Korean tractors and provoked their Vietnamese neighbors (10 times their size, by population) with murderous cross border raids until the Vietnamese invaded in 1979.
After Year Zero 1975 visiting foreign journalists were incredibly rare and one was killed in mysterious circumstances. Most of the scarce newsreels of the time are in black and white except a grainy few minutes in color by a Yugoslavian TV team – a dystopian vision of ant-like workers in black toiling on dikes and fields. The dearth of international knowledge allowed the world to ignore the horror and some Western academics actually defended the Khmer Rouge. They thought it was the agrarian utopia the K.R. portrayed it as.
The rich irony is that one of their number, Hun Sen, who peeled off from the Khmer Rouge government early enough to retain plausible deniability, repackaged himself a reformer and has run Cambodia on and off ever since. It is Hun Sen’s power that has delayed justice for decades. But international pressure, UN money, and human rights community activism has finally put these doddering old war criminals in the dock, since arrest 10 years ago and the final appeals end last month.
Hun Sen is still the current dictator, a part of all this madness way back in the 1970s, and has since taken corruption to Olympic levels. He is a dictator’s dictator. A war criminal by choice and a real estate developer by later opportunity, he managed to obscure his dark past by hobbling the international comeuppance of his former Khmer Rouge cronies.
The “Marquis” (K.R.) were all personal friends as they tormented their nation then, living en famille, and marrying each others’ siblings. The entire inner party was educated in socialistic France in the 1950s. Study abroad in the colonial master was a rare opportunity for these guys, on small scholarships, from a very poor backwards state. That such privileged young students who could have returned home with their fancy educations to improve their country, actually came back and destroyed it is remarkable. It is a tragedy that still resonates through a national PTSD a generation later. Today in Cambodia piles of skulls in glass cases, mass graves, and a torture museum are tourist sites.
The killing continued as the Marquis K.R. Party fled the capital as the Vietnamese closed in and hunkered down in the hills. Later Pol Pot, Communism’s Tony Soprano, had yet another old friend and K.R. bigshot whacked: Son Sen (French educated, of course, and a leader of their group). Pol Pot had Son Sen and his family of 13 run over by a tractor – kids included – all mashed into the red Cambodian earth. That was in 1998.
The remaining few K.R. old guard got as close to justice as anybody could hope last month with their life sentences affirmed: merciful punishments since they wrecked their country. They sat there in an international court, Nuon Chea in his big black glasses like malevolent fly, and Samphan with his genial smiles, listening to their verdicts.
The affirmation of their original convictions and life sentences, despite a crooked co-conspirator Prime Minister from that era still running Cambodia, is a big win for justice in a place where justice is usually purchasable, impossible, or forgotten.
This weird, sad little drama’s positive end may seem remote to the rest of the world, but legally it is very important. Previously if things got too hot, a dictator’s last option was to load up his personal plane with swag, like the entire treasury in a suitcase in Equatorial Guinea, 1979, or a vial of homeland soil for Iran’s Shah, maybe a few stolen billions and go to a happy exile. Maybe to Saudi Arabia? It is still popular: witness the desert exile’s exiles: Uganda’s Idi Amin, Tunisia’s dirty Ben Ali, or Yemen’s Abdullah Saleh.
But lately global justice is breaking out all over. Aside from Cambodia, witness (also French educated) President Hisseine Habre of Chad’s guilty verdict in Senegal or Slobodan Milosevic’s well deserved end in a Dutch jail, his black heart giving out.
All human calculations are primarily self-preserving and there is a danger in bringing these monsters to justice. If cushy exile is not automatic, when the retirement plan may not include a comfy villa, but rather a cell in The Hague or a Cambodian war crimes trial, why wouldn’t a dictator dig in his heels, garrison, and become more brutal? When there is no escape everything becomes a zero sum game.
So it remains to be seen whether monsters like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, the affectionately known “Fatty 3” (North Korea), or Syria’s Assad will make the flight. Or fight to the bitter end.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in New York City with a background in venture capital and criminal defense. He writes about politics and law for themoderatevoice.com and counterpunch.org