Genocide museums and memorials could be used to acknowledge the 20th century's worst killings
Cambodian monks look at skulls displayed at the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial in Phnom Penh. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge launched a four-year pursuit of a communist utopia leading to the deaths of up to two million people through overwork, starvation and execution. (Photo: AFP)
Hopes of financial compensation for survivors of Pol Pot’s brutal regime that ruled Cambodia with an iron fist between 1975 and early 1979 are becoming less likely as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal continues to wind down.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which was sworn in 16 years ago and charged with prosecuting senior leaders of the regime for unleashing one of the worst mass killings in the 20th century, could secure only three guilty verdicts for crimes against humanity and genocide.
“Compensation could only work with a complete acknowledgement of responsibility,” said Ou Virak, president of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank. “There are far too many people who remained in power and too many powerful countries that need to be held accountable.”
Since the tribunal was only responsible for pursuing crimes inside Cambodia during the four-year regime, it meant China, which backed Pol Pot, and America’s involvement in the Indochina wars were not a consideration amid the mountains of evidence.
Instead, genocide museums, memorials, stupas and education programs will make up the legacy to be left behind by the ECCC. “Global investment in genocide museums here in Cambodia, potentially funded by countries who want to salvage their souls, could be a good starting point,” said Ou Virak
Most senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge died violently or behind bars, either awaiting their trial or following their conviction. Only Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, remains alive and in jail awaiting his appeal for a genocide conviction. If that is overturned, he will remain behind bars for a previous conviction and his role in the deaths of around two million people, more than quarter of Cambodia’s population.
“They seek to provide judicial recognition to victims of the Khmer Rouge, assist survivors to restore their dignity, heal trauma and injuries suffered by victims, and preserve their collective memories”
Efforts to prosecute lesser-ranking Khmer Rouge commanders were thwarted by disputes between international and local lawyers working for the court that proved impossible to resolve. Many of those commanders have retired to a quiet life and some still hold political connections.
Under Cambodian law, civil parties can claim compensation in criminal cases for damages they suffered from the crimes being tried. But any fiscal compensation would have to be provided by the Cambodian government, Western or Chinese donors, however unlikely.
ECCC spokesman Neth Pheaktra said reparations acknowledged by the tribunal were solely collective and moral in nature, adding that the court’s legal framework was not capable of providing individual monetary compensation.
“They seek to provide judicial recognition to victims of the Khmer Rouge, assist survivors to restore their dignity, heal trauma and injuries suffered by victims, and preserve their collective memories,” he said.
Some academics have argued strongly for financial reparations.
A 2008 survey by the Berkeley Human Rights Center found that 12 percent of Cambodian respondents wanted economic measures as part of compensation packages while just 10 percent asked for memorials and commemorations.
All surveys indicated justice for lost relatives and international recognition for the crimes committed under Pol Pot were among the top priorities.
Hao Duy Phan, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, suggested in the East Asia Law Review that NGOs could “act as coordinators working with the government in assisting the victims and mobilizing financial resources.”
“It is clearly impossible to give individual financial compensation to every one of the millions of Khmer Rouge survivors and their descendants who can also establish harm as a victim”
A later survey by the Berkley Human Rights Center indicated that attitudes had changed, with most people backing symbolic measures such as museums and public ceremonies.
Helen Jarvis, former chief of the Public Affairs Section from the ECCC’s inception until June 2009 and then head of the Victims Support Section, said she supported a wide range of collective and moral reparations for all victims.
This included ceremonies, memorials, recognition, maintenance of archives and documentation, access to mental and physical health and welfare support, as well as special recognition for all those who participated in the ECCC process as civil parties.
“It is clearly impossible to give individual financial compensation to every one of the millions of Khmer Rouge survivors and their descendants who can also establish harm as a victim,” she said.
But she felt that all eligible elderly or needy victims should be entitled to assistance under the National Social Security Fund, including non-citizens who can establish that they also suffered harm from the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia has the means of allocating funds after initiating its first social welfare system early last year as part of financial measures introduced to protect the poor, about 17 percent of the population, against the economic crunch that accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ou Virak said more education investment about this part of Cambodia’s history, and a truth and reconciliation commission, would also be welcome contributions.
“Other forms of compensation could be in stupas and memorials at various locations to acknowledge the atrocities that have taken place, and as a reminder to the world we have failed these victims,” he said.
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