August 27, 2014
The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributor
Let the Khmer Rouge Record Show
Cambodia Shouldn’t Censor the Khmer Rouge Court’s Files
By Craig Etcheson,
August 26, 2014
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia
Earlier this month a United Nations-assisted tribunal in Cambodia handed down long-overdue judgments against Nuon Chea (pic. left) and Khieu Samphan(right) for their roles in the catastrophic Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79. Nuon Chea, the Deputy Secretary of the communist party, and Khieu Samphan, the President of the Khmer Rouge state, were sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity.
For some observers, this seemed like too little too late for too much money. Eight years have passed since the Khmer Rouge tribunal — officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (E.C.C.C.) — began operations, it has cost more than $200 million, and these verdicts concern only a fraction of the total charges. Yet the delay was a result of the extensive procedural protections rightly afforded the accused and the complexity of the case: The indictment is the most complicated since the Nuremberg trials. And it was worth the wait, not least because the tribunal has amassed an extraordinary cache of documents and testimonies.
But now there is reason to fear that this database, a major contribution to existing scholarship on the Khmer Rouge era, will not be made available to researchers after the E.C.C.C. fulfills its mandate. Given the Cambodian government’s unease about its connections to the Pol Pot regime, these extraordinary archives risk being censored or put under semipermanent lock and key.
Between the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and the launch of the E.C.C.C., historians assembled significant evidence detailing the mayhem. After 1995, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent research institute originally established by Yale University, gathered tens of thousands of previously unknown internal documents from the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as thousands of interviews with both victims and Khmer Rouge cadres. (I was once a director of DC-CAM.)
That material was then made available to the E.C.C.C. Scholars from around the world also shared notes and interviews. And then the court itself sent out investigators across Cambodia to try to resolve ambiguities in the existing record. More than 1,000 interviews were collected as a result. Another major contribution were the testimonies of the nearly 3,900 victims who have joined the proceedings as civil parties — a feature of the E.C.C.C. that makes it unique among all international and hybrid criminal courts — plus thousands of complaints submitted by other victims.
All this evidence was gathered in a sophisticated digital database, which now contains more than one million pages of information, thousands of photographs and hundreds of films and audio recordings. The material is readily searchable, allowing all parties in the case to make connections that had previously eluded researchers and to develop a finer-grained understanding of the Khmer Rouge regime.
I worked as an investigator for the prosecution in 2006-12, and our office used all this information to construct an elaborate model of the notoriously secretive Khmer Rouge organization, from center to zone to sector to district to commune. We created more than 1,000 organizational charts depicting the staffing of political, military and governmental units. These gave us an unprecedented insight into the chain of command among all echelons of the organization across the entire country, and they graphically revealed the waves of internal purges that swept through the Khmer Rouge.
Such cross-referencing helped prove charges against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, such as some crimes committed after the Khmer Rouge seized the capital, Phnom Penh, on April 17, 1975, and then forcibly emptied it of its two million residents. Drawing on hundreds of accounts from people who passed through checkpoints on major roads out of the city, the trial judges concluded in their recent judgment that killings of officials from the regime that the Khmer Rouge deposed in 1975 were not isolated acts by undisciplined soldiers, but evidence of a systematic pattern resulting from a centralized plan.
Many more connections can be drawn from the E.C.C.C. archives, some with a direct bearing on the charges that will be considered in the next phase of the leaders’ trial. That section of the case includes forced marriage, among other charges. Several NGOs had already done pioneering work to gather evidence of sexual crimes during the Khmer Rouge regime. But it is the civil-party applications and victims’ complaints collected by the E.C.C.C. that make clear just how often rape was committed as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s policy of compelling people to marry and forcing them to consummate the unions.
And then there are insights not of direct relevance to the leaders’ trial but invaluable to understanding both the Khmer Rouge regime and contemporary Cambodia. For example, a review of the minutes of meetings of the Standing Committee — the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate decision-making body — and telegrams between the military leadership and division commanders has revealed the astonishing scope of China’s military assistance to the Khmer Rouge, in terms of matériel, logistics and personnel. And the E.C.C.C. archives contain extensive information about the operation of the so-called Eastern Zone under the Khmer Rouge regime, from which emerged some senior leaders in the government today.
These matters are controversial, however. The ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has been in power since the Khmer Rouge were deposed in early 1979, has long been touchy about its exact connections to the Pol Pot regime. Some senior party members have published autobiographies claiming that they joined the Khmer Rouge movement only in 1970 and in response to a call from the former king to rally against the military dictatorship that had just overthrown him — assertions that are contradicted by material in the E.C.C.C. archives. And in 2009 some party leaders — the president of the national assembly, the finance minister and the foreign minister at the time — failed to answer an E.C.C.C. summons to answer questions during the investigation.
Such sensitivities are the reason that the court’s archives may be vulnerable to tampering or being sealed after its work is completed. The risk is all the greater because the United Nations, the court’s donors and the Cambodian government have agreed that once the trials are over the E.C.C.C.’s database should remain in Cambodia and under the control of the Cambodian government.
The United Nations and the donors must persuade the government to ensure that the court’s archives in their entirety are opened to historians. Anything less would be to squander the E.C.C.C.’s legacy and an incalculable loss to the historical record.
Craig Etcheson, a former investigator in the Office of the Co-Prosecutors at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is a visiting scholar at George Mason University.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 27, 2014, in The International New York Times.