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Cover story

U.N. others push for Cambodia war crimes tribunal

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The United Nations, its representatives and other players in the international community have been pushing hard for an international tribunal to bring to justice those involved in Cambodian war atrocities and genocide. Cambodia’s government, however, has been very reluctant in part because a series of “defections” two to three years ago has meant many Khmer Rouge leaders are now part of the government, the civil service and the military.

Other government, business and society leaders have strong connections to the Khmer Rouge, not least of which is King Sihanouk and FUCNINPEC, the political party he founded and his son now runs.

What do the common people say? Thun Saray of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, commonly known as ADHOC, said a trial is essential. “We need to provide justice for our people. We need to put an end to impunity. …I do not want revenge against the Khmer Rouge, even though I was put in prison, my family scattered. One of my brothers was killed, a sister lost five children because of the oppression. If you say forget the past, it is unfair for the people who suffered.”

Bishop Émile Destombes said, “The temptation is to forget the past. The majority of people would like to forget it. It is in the past, and now we have to build the future.”

“I myself think it is a good thing to have a trial. For reconciliation, for true reconciliation, we have to recognize who is responsible, especially for the genocide. Yet if we have a trial, many, many people will be implicated. This is a big problem.”

Once on a visit to the United Nations in the late 1980s and asked about a genocide trial, Fr. François Ponchaud said it would be a good idea, “but only if they also try [former U.S. President Richard] Nixon and [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger. They also are responsible.”

“The common people don’t care about a trial. It is an old story,” he said. “Their mothers, their sisters, their children, their husbands and wives died, but for them it is an old story.”

It may be an old story, but during a two-week campaign a year ago, according to Thun Saray, ADHOC collected 100,000 signatures from ordinary citizens demanding the convocation of an international tribunal, opposed strongly at the time by the government.

“Even in an atmosphere of intimidation from the authorities, these people signed the petition,” Thun Saray said. “What does this mean? The victims of the Khmer Rouge do not want to forget about that. ... They want an end to the past.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000