This tree was once used by the Khmer Rouge to smash the skulls of children before their bodies were dumped into mass graves. Now the tree is commemorated by visitors who pin ribbons, sacred strings and beads to its trunk. (Photo by Luke Hunt/ucanews.com)
Twenty-five years ago, few thought the genocidal leaders of the Khmer Rouge would ever be tried for war crimes.
Pol Pot and his lieutenants lived freely in the remote northwest of Cambodia, indulged by the United Nations and Cold War allies and despised by survivors of their brutal regime.
Public opinion began to shift only after the last shots rang out at the end of 30 years of war and a transition to peace began, slowly at first with Cambodians haunted by their tragic past.
But the pace of normalization did pick up amid efforts to prosecute leaders of the barbaric regime, something that has accelerated in recent years.
As the Khmer Rouge tribunal winds down, how two million people were slaughtered or died of starvation, disease and overwork is no longer an allegation but rather a matter of record.
And a generation of Cambodians, not directly scarred by war, has emerged to help reshape the cultural landscape.
That Pol Pot's bitter legacy belongs in the history books and is no longer the stuff of daily life is among the subject matter that will be scrutinized at a landmark conference being held by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh this week.
Throughout the 1990s speculation was rife that political alliances and civil war would allow the Khmer Rouge hierarchy to live with impunity, denying justice for those who perished between April 1975 and January 1979 when Pol Pot had absolute control. But history's readout eventually revealed a far different picture.
Following the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of what was then called Democration Kampuchea, Pol Pot and his foreign minister Ieng Sary were tried by a Hanoi-sponsored court for genocide and sentenced to death in absentia.
Those hearings lacked legal legitimacy, their convictions assured as Pol Pot’s Vietnamese-appointed lawyer Hope Stevens even noted that her own clients were "criminally insane monsters."
She said she knew this because her own background as an African-American qualified her as an expert on "genocide, murder, rape, torture, mutilation, lynching and deprivation of human rights."
Legally it was a farce, but the evidence was overwhelming. Denise Alfonso, a former secretary at the French embassy, gave evidence of having witnessed cannibalism.
"The condemned man was tied to a tree, his chest bare and a blindfold over his eyes," she testified. "Ta Sok the executioner, using a large knife, made a long cut in the stomach of the poor man."
She then testified that the man screamed like a wild beast: "His insides were all laid bare, and Ta Sok cut out the liver and cooked it on a little stove. They divided the liver among them and ate it hungrily."
Mass killings were well documented and Bun Sath, a political officer, told the court of the steady precision required to carry out the leadership's commands. Evenings were preferred because the streets were deserted. The prisoners were bound in pairs and bashed on the napes of their necks.
"We began at 6 p.m. and continued until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.," Bun Sath said.
Up to 300 people were killed in a session, day after day.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary would continue to snub global outrage until the Khmer Rouge finally capitulated to government forces in 1998, ending a drawn-out civil war. Senior KR leaders were again the focus of legal attention.
Seniority was defined by those who sat on the central and standing committees, responsible for drafting and implementing policies for the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), and for most the end was humbling and in some cases gruesome.
Pol Pot cut a miserable figure, spending his last days under house arrest and dying in suspicious circumstances. His final humiliation was best summed-up by the Phnom Penh Post headline, noting his body was "Burnt Like Old Rubbish".
Ieng Sary became the only man in history to be charged with the "crime of crimes" twice, when he was again put in the dock for genocide by a U.N.-backed tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which was established in 2003.
He escaped judgement day through death but his final years were spent behind bars while his wife Ieng Thirith was also jailed and died in custodial care after losing her mind.
Former head of state Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two, are serving life sentences for genocide. Kaing Guek Eav, feared commandant of the S-21 torture and interrogation center, was convicted of crimes against humanity and will also die behind bars.
Among the others, army chief Ta Mok spent his last seven years in prison awaiting trial. Security chief Son Sen and his wife, the education minister Yun Yat, were arrested as spies and shot on Pol Pot's orders alongside 11 relatives. Their bodies were run over by trucks.
Only senior KR figure Ke Pauk died at home in his sleep, shortly before the ECCC was established.
Justice of sorts
Finding proper justice for those who died violently or through starvation and disease was always a difficult task but their miserable deaths and life prison sentences exposed the long--standing myth of Khmer Rouge invincibility.
It was only late last year that the ECCC delivered the guilty verdicts in the genocide trial, keenly sought by prosecutors and widely seen as a result that can lay the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge to rest and deliver some kind of closure for one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.
Khmer Rouge history is on school curriculums, families torn apart by war have been reunited, memorials are planned along with a final cremation of millions of human bones scattered across the country, which as evidence for the ECCC have remained virtually untouched.
Adam Muller, first vice-president of IAGS, said the upcoming conference would be a first for Asia and focus on rethinking genocide studies and prevention with an emphasis on Cambodia, genocide justice and reparations.
"2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, making the timing of the conference all the more significant," he said.
These are lofty ideals to be thrashed out in a country that is finally normalizing with IAGS providing another milestone, two generations after Cambodia lost a third of its population to a genocide.
Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews.com. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.