Documenting the Truth
by Khavan Sok
Economics and Foreign Affairs
University of Virginia Class of 2002
* with special thanks to Sody Lay for his
guidance and assistance
The United Nations and the Cambodian Government have been
involved in intense negotiations over the process of bringing former Khmer Rouge
leaders to justice for several years now. Almost three decades after they committed their crimes,
putting the Khmer Rouge on trial is still exceedingly difficult and political.
It is difficult because of Cambodia’s weak judicial system and lack of
proper evidence. It is political
because many current government officials were in some way or another involved
as part of the Khmer Rouge regime and former Khmer Rouge leaders still possess
critical influence regarding the balance of power between leading and opposition
Bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice is a delicate matter.
Despite much enthusiasm for having a tribunal, the United
Nations and the Cambodian Government have made it clear that only those most
responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity will face prosecution.
At least three former Khmer Rouge leaders have already died, and several
more are facing old age and life-threatening illnesses.
Another leader, Ieng Sary, is protected by the King’s pardon after he
defected to the Government in 1996. Furthermore, the Government currently has only two former
Khmer Rouge leaders in custody. If
a tribunal is in fact established, perhaps only a handful of former Khmer Rouge
members will be prosecuted.
On March 17, 2003, the Cambodian Government Task Force and
the United Nations negotiation team led by Hans Corell reached an agreement
regarding the nature of a tribunal and the relationship between the Cambodian
Government and the United Nations in regard to the tribunal.
Although many observers expressed enthusiasm, a number of international human rights groups, especially
Amnesty International, have uttered concerns and protests against the agreement
citing it fails to meet international standards of justice.
In addition to seeking justice, however, any process dealing with the
Khmer Rouge must also address and achieve educational, remedial and political
goals. Prosecuting top Khmer Rouge
leaders alone may not do enough to achieving these goals.
This article attempts to discuss some possible burdens and benefits of
establishing a truth commission in Cambodia to be utilized in conjunction with
Purpose of a Truth Commission
There have been many
different forms of truth commissions set up over the years.
All of them have one major goal in common: to address and document the
truth concerning pass human right abuses. The
primary objective of a truth commission is not to reach a verdict for a
particular crime, but to elicit the truth about what occurred during a certain
period of time in a country's history. In
a truth commission, victims as well as perpetrators of atrocities are given an
opportunity to tell their sides of the story, thereby enabling observers to
grasp a bigger and better understanding of events that transpired.
To encourage perpetrators to speak the truth, however, they are often
granted some kind of amnesty. Therefore,
unlike trials, punishment is not necessary even if specific individuals are
found to have been responsible for certain crimes.
Over the past 25 years,
over 30 truth commissions have been utilized around the world.
They have generally been used in situations where a nation was attempting
to shift from a totalitarian to a democratic form of government.
Since these new democracies were often fragile, leaders of a new regime
usually did not want to risk confrontation with leaders of a prior regime over
the issue of past human rights abuses. Trials
would have risked destabilizing the country.
Nevertheless, these new governments also wanted to encourage respect for
human rights and respect for the rule of law.
They wanted to send the message to elements in the government such as the
police and military that human rights abuses would no longer be tolerated. To ignore such a problem would have been tantamount to giving
violators of human rights the license to continue their practice.
than placing leaders of an old regime on trial for the human rights violations
they may have committed, the new government instead sought simply to discover
the truth about what really occurred in the past and publicly rebuke abusive
practices. Through a truth
commission, the new government could acknowledge that past human rights
violations were wrong and affirmatively declare abuses would no longer be
tolerated in the future.
The Case of Cambodia
Unlike other nations that have employed truth commissions,
the current Cambodian Government has politically as well as militarily defeated
its opponent, the Khmer Rouge. In
most nations, the old regimes were not militarily defeated, but rather, in an
attempt to transition into democracy, fighting factions in those countries
agreed to reconcile peacefully for mutual interests. In many cases, leaders of the old regimes still had influence
in powerful government institutions. In
Cambodia, leaders of the Khmer Rouge have been driven from power
and most are confined to their small stronghold in the northwestern corner of the
country. The new regime led by
Prime Minister Hun Sen controls virtually all of the country, commands vastly superior
military power, and is in charge of almost all government institutions.
The Cambodian Government has achieved victory over
the Khmer Rouge using both military and diplomatic channels.
In the early 1990’s, as Cambodia moved toward democracy, Prime Minister
Hun Sen launched a campaign called the ‘win-win’ policy.
In an effort to seek peace, the Government courted the Khmer Rouge for
their political and military importance rather than simply threatening further
military action against them. The
‘win-win’ policy offered Khmer Rouge defectors amnesty, integration into
society, and government jobs. The
policy achieved huge successes as wave after wave of Khmer Rouge leaders and
soldiers surrendered to the Government. The
Khmer Rouge finally ceased to exist as a threat when its leader, Pol Pot, died
in 1998, and the last at large Khmer Rouge commander, Chhit
Choeun, alias ‘Ta Mok’, was captured a year later.
Would a Cambodian Truth Commission be Viable?
Public participation will be an important factor in whether
or not a truth commission will work in Cambodia. The South African Truth Commission
was successful because it encouraged perpetrators of human rights abuse to come
forward by offering them the opportunity to receive amnesty for their
testimonies. In the alternative, if
they did not come forth and avail themselves of the opportunity for amnesty,
they would risk later being caught and prosecuted for their crimes.
A truth commission in Cambodia, however, will not be able to encourage
perpetrators to testify in this way. Many
Khmer Rogue cadres defected to the Government with an understanding that they
would not be prosecuted. The Government
encouraged and welcomed defections and its ‘win-win’ policy
guaranteed them peaceful resettlement without retribution.
In addition, many influential government officials are themselves Khmer
Rouge defectors. Large-scale threat
of prosecution would therefore be extremely controversial and possibly
destabilizing. Hence, such action
may not be desirable.
Prosecutions aside, many Cambodians want some form of
public acknowledgement by the Khmer Rouge for the crimes they committed.
In 2000, the Center for Social Development held public forums in three
major cities across Cambodia: Battambang, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville.
Their surveys revealed that 32% of those who participated in Battambang,
38% of those in Phnom Penh, and 37% of those in Sihanoukville felt that former
Khmer Rouge leaders should publicly admit their faults and apologize.
The Center for Social Development survey did not reveal, however, whether
the Cambodian public would themselves be willing to participate in a truth
commission. Most Cambodians are
burdened by the day-to-day struggle for survival. Many are hindered by illiteracy and lack of proper education.
Hence, how best to encourage participation by victims will be an issue
that must be addressed by proponents of a Cambodian truth commission.
An even more difficult issue will be how best to encourage former Khmer
Rouge cadres to come forward and testify. Even
among Khmer Rouge cadres who are willing to come before the commission, fear or
their testimonies will be incriminating may incline them to lie despite the
non-adversarial nature of the proceedings.
Examining the Cambodian situation reveals some very real
concerns about the feasibility of a truth commission. Digging up the past and exposing influential people for their
involvement in murders and other crimes against humanity can be dangerous.
Within the general population, it may stir up feelings of vengeance and
rage. Furthermore, many former
Khmer Rouge cadres are now integrated into military and police forces.
Will a Cambodian truth commission cause instability?
Peace and stability are extremely important to Cambodia and
the Cambodian people because it is so fragile.
After all, the country has only achieved real peace since 1999.
The anti-Thai demonstration in January 2003 shows just how volatile the
country can be. The Khmer Rouge
still possess critical political and military balance as the leading and
opposition political parties continue to jockey for power.
In fact, this political maneuvering for Khmer Rouge support might have
played a role in the July 1997 military shakedown, when massive Khmer Rouge
A Cambodian truth commission will also require long-term
financial and political support from the public, the government, and donors.
A truly viable truth commission would require answering numerous
questions: Who would be the donors?
Does the Cambodian Government have political will and commitment?
Does Cambodia have adequate human resources to carry out the work of the
commission? Would there be means to
address emotional and psychological fallout?
Will everybody accept the findings of the commission?
Given the current political climate in Cambodia, different political
parties may have various incentives to disagree over the commission’s ultimate
Workable Cambodian Truth Commission
A Cambodian truth commission need not be an expensive venture or one that
requires extensive public and governmental commitment.
Since a truth commission in Cambodia would, in all practical terms, be
used to simply augment trials rather than in lieu of them, a judicial mechanism
for seeking justice will already be in place.
As a supplementary mechanism to trials, the work of the commission can be
reduced to a fraction of the size of other truth commissions.
For instance, the commission need not have prosecutory or investigative
powers. Without such authority, the
bureaucratic structure of the commission and the need for government involvement
will be drastically reduced.
the process and making the work of the commission much more
specific and cost-effective would leave important resources to help rehabilitate
Khmer Rouge victims and perpetrators. Organizations such as the Center for Social Development and the Documentation
Center of Cambodia have already been working in Cambodia for years promoting the
very educational and remedial goals a truth commission would be designed to
foster. These organizations can be recruited to contribute their expertise and experience and
would be a valuable resource throughout and after the truth commission process.
Overall Benefits of a Cambodian Truth Commission
While many issues continue to
weigh against the prospect of a Cambodian truth commission, there are also key
benefits Cambodians stand to gain from having
a truth commission that complements trials: first, the commission would serve to educate the public
details of the Khmer Rouge era, much of which may not be elicited in the adversarial
proceedings of trials; secondly, the commission would
serve to publicly acknowledge victims of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes on a more
individual and personal level than trials.
Since many people still do not
quite understand what happened in Cambodia during the Democratic Kampuchea
period, a truth commission's function of uncovering and documenting the truth about what occurred
would make it a particularly desirable mechanism for Cambodia.
truth commission proceedings will also have the ability to determine the causes
as well as the effects of the Khmer Rouge period.
It is important to determine not just what the Khmer Rouge did, but it is
also important to understand why they did what they did.
The answer to the question ‘why’ is especially important for the
psychological and emotional healing of victims.
Understanding why they were made to suffer may help victims to better
cope with the fact that they suffered and the fact that members of their family
suffered. Only when we understand what created the Khmer Rouge and why
they were so brutal can we take measures to ensure that such a tragedy will
never happen again in Cambodia.
of crimes by both victims and perpetrators is also a key benefit of truth
commissions. At truth commission proceedings, Khmer Rouge victims would be given an opportunity to tell their stories and express their
anguish and sorrow. By listening to
them, the commission can publicly acknowledge their suffering and the wrongs that have been
inflicted upon them. This
acknowledgement in itself can provide victims with a sense of comfort and
closure. The absence of public
acknowledgement, on the other hand, can cause victims to remain indignant and
resentful of the injustices perpetrated against them.
These negative feelings may manifest themselves in informal retribution
at both an individual and collective level, possibly causing within society a general increase in violence
and decrease in respect for the rule of law.
For almost three decades the Cambodian people have lived
knowing that their tormentors remain free.
Since many Khmer Rouge soldiers defected in 1996 and integrated into
Cambodian society, many Cambodian victims have had to live side by side with
their tormentors. Although some may
want retribution, it is also clear that they have shown tremendous tolerance.
Many victims have, in fact, expressed a desire
to forgive their tormentors and move on with their lives.
Clearly, a Cambodian truth commission will face social and political
controversy and difficulties in obtaining and documenting the truth.
Clearly, not all victims and perpetrators will have an incentive or
desire to testify. Nevertheless, it
is also clear that any process dealing with the Khmer Rouge must seek to heal
and educate Cambodian society, goals that tribunals alone may not be adequate in achieving.