PHNOM PENH – Limits placed on a United Nations-backed war-crimes tribunal in prosecuting surviving leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime may not prevent revelations about international actors linked to Cambodia’s dark period.
It ranges from the period of Khmer Rouge history that the court will consider, a geographic limit to account for only atrocities committed by Cambodian nationals, and who among the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership can be hauled before the tribunal of foreign and local jurists.
Already, Noam Chomsky, linguist and trenchant critic of Washington’s foreign policy, has fired a salvo ahead of the opening session of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the tribunal is formally known.
On Monday, Kaing Khek Eav, or "Duch," took the stand at the ECCC to mark the beginning of the tribunal, which comes 30 years after the extremist Maoist group was driven out of power by Vietnamese troops.
Duch was the chief jailer of Tuol Sleng, a former high school in the Cambodian capital, which became the largest detention and torture center of the Khmer Rouge.
Between 12,380 to 14,000 men, women and children were tortured and then killed under Duch’s watch. Many victims were accused of having links with the U.S. spy agency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Only 11 people survived.
In all, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s population at that time, as they sought, between April 1975 and June 1979, to create an agrarian utopia.
But, as Chomsky asserts in the Phnom Penh Post, an English-language daily, the Khmer Rouge’s brutality against fellow Cambodia citizens did not emerge out of a political vacuum.
Chomsky points a finger at leading figures of the U.S. political establishment like Henry Kissinger, a member of the late president Richard Nixon’s administration, who should also be held accountable for creating the conditions that paved the way for the rise the Khmer Rouge.
"It [the trial] shouldn’t be limited to the Cambodians," said Chomsky in an interview that appeared on the weekend. "An international trial that doesn’t take into account Henry Kissinger or other authors of the American bombings and the support of the KR [Khmer Rouge] after they were kicked out of the country, that’s just a farce."
"The records say that the U.S. wanted to ‘use anything that flies against anything that moves’ [during the bombing of Cambodia], which led to five times the bombing that was reported before, greater than all bombings in all theaters of World War Two, which helped create the Khmer Rouge," he asserted.
Washington began flying sorties over Cambodia in the mid-1960s to crush parts of the country being used by North Vietnamese troops. These bombing raids using B-52 planes were kept a secret from the U.S. public for years.
During the Nixon years, from 1969 to 1973, an estimated 500,000 bombs were dropped, resulting in the deaths of close to 600,000 Cambodian men, women, and children.
But the relatives of these victims will not have their day in tribunals such as the ECCC.
It stems from the limit of "territorial jurisdiction" and "temporal jurisdiction" written into the language of the laws to establish the special tribunal.
Washington, in fact, had a role in a placing such limits on how far across geography and time the war-crimes tribunal could reach when a law to deal with the genocide in Cambodia was being shaped in the early 1990s.
"It is the policy of the United States to support efforts to bring to justice members of the Khmer Rouge for their crimes against humanity committed in Cambodia between April 17, 1975, and January 7, 1979," Washington declared at the time as it threw its weight behind the effort to investigate a grisly period of Cambodia’s past.
China, however, may have more to worry about, given its direct role in assisting the Khmer Rouge during the period the ECCC is examining. Beijing reportedly pumped in a billion U.S. dollars to help the Khmer Rouge, in addition to providing other material and diplomatic support.
The Asian giant wanted to draw Cambodia into its orbit to counter the growing influence of its communist adversary, the Soviet Union, and its Vietnamese ally.
The current Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, in fact, has grown nervous about the prospect of Beijing’s role during the Khmer Rouge genocide surfacing during the trial. After all, China has emerged as a dominant economic player, investing nearly $1.5 billion in 2007.
"The government would like to keep China’s name out of the trial. It does not want to upset the good relations between the two countries," a highly-placed Cambodian official told IPS on condition of anonymity. "What happened then was Cold War politics. But we have moved on; we have mended fences."
Hun Sen hopes to benefit from an initial decision by the ECCC to prosecute Duch and four other surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Such a limit will ensure that he and other senior members of his government who held roles of commanders or ranked as officials in the Khmer Rouge regime will not have to account for their role in the genocide.
"Many more people need to face the court to really deliver justice to the millions of victims of these horrific crimes," says Brittis Edman, Cambodia researcher for the rights watchdog Amnesty International. "The Extraordinary Chambers must urgently expand its prosecution strategy to investigate and prosecute more cases before it is too late."
(Inter Press Service)