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40 Years After Cambodia Fell to the Khmer Rouge, Perhaps We Shouldn’t Focus So Much on Anniversaries

By suggesting clean beginnings to tragedies, these dates can help conceal the events that led to disaster.

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On April 17, 1975, the sound of mortar explosions and rifle fire around Cambodia’s capital gave way to cheers. After years of fighting, the ultra-Maoist guerrillas from the jungle had finally defeated General Lon Nol’s American-backed government. Many people watching from the streets of Phnom Penh, a city swollen with displaced villagers, hoped the black-clad Khmer Rouge cadres marching into town would bring peace.

Soon, loudspeakers began blaring orders for the city’s residents to leave immediately for the countryside. Khmer Rouge soldiers pushed families out of their homes and even patients out of hospitals, some with IV-drips in tow. Within a week, the last residents had joined millions marching down the hot, dusty roads away from the city, leaving it mostly silent for the next three years, eight months, and 20 days. In that time, the Khmer Rouge would force nearly the entire population into rural collectives, and about 1.7 million people would die from disease, starvation, and overwork, or be tortured and executed for suspected disloyalty.

Some survivors, who decades later testified at the U.N. tribunal trying Khmer Rouge leaders, recalled cadres telling them they had to leave Phnom Penh because the United States planned to bomb it. That stirred fearful memories. The United States had actually ended its bombing campaign in Cambodia almost two years before, but by then American planes, mostly B-52s, had dropped more than 2.7 million tons of bombs across the country. Compare that with the 2 million tons dropped by all the Allies in the entire course of World War II. The U.S. aim was to destroy Vietnamese supply lines through Cambodia and ultimately help stop the spread of communism. Instead, the widespread destruction helped the Khmer Rouge recruit desperate villagers.

The United States was well aware of that threat. After surveying Khmer Rouge strongholds south of the capital, the CIA’s Directorate of Operations reported in a May 1973 cable that the rebels were “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.” Two years later, when the communists encircled Phnom Penh, many U.S. officials and displaced villagers knew — as the urbanites who cheered the rebels’ entry didn’t — that a Khmer Rouge victory wouldn’t bring peace. The guerrillas had already shown their brutality in the rest of the country as they emptied towns and collectivized the fields.

In a sense, then, April 17, 1975, is an arbitrary date. It represents just one point in an ongoing disaster wrought by not only the Khmer Rouge but also France, whose decades of colonialism in Indochina triggered nationalistic communist responses, the United States, and others. That context can easily fade from view with the focus on anniversaries like April 17. By suggesting clean beginnings to tragedies, these dates can help conceal the events that led to them. And there’s some comfort in that. Sectioning off precise periods of devastation makes them easier to dismiss as the one-off actions of singularly evil madmen — even as new cycles of military intervention bring new unintended consequences. Meanwhile, the United States has never apologized for its Cambodian bombing campaign, or its other Vietnam War actions.

That’s not to downplay the Khmer Rouge leaders’ enormous guilt — or the huge significance of April 17 in Phnom Penh. Commemorating the city’s fall to the Khmer Rouge gives victims and witnesses the opportunity in a news-oriented world to memorialize their experiences. Much less directly, it’s a chance for people like me to recall months spent watching Khmer Rouge tribunal testimony and studying the history. (I covered the court in 2012 and 2013 for the Phnom Penh Post and the Associated Press.)

Still, anniversaries suggest the same problem facing the U.N.-backed trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders: They draw too clear a line between those considered guilty and the rest — whether former low-level killers still living alongside victims’ families in remote northern Cambodian villages, or U.N. Security Council members like France and the United States, both key backers of the tribunal.

Of course, the court had to draw the line of guilt somewhere if it was ever to rule on anything. It only got its start in 2006 after years of political instability and government foot-dragging, and so far it’s only managed to finish trying and convicting one person, former prison director Kaing Geuk Eav.

Its second case is vast. On trial are Pol Pot’s right-hand man, Nuon Chea, and head of state, Khieu Samphan, the regime’s two most senior surviving leaders, and evaluating their charges requires looking at the entire Khmer Rouge period. The court has convicted them for crimes against humanity for the evacuation of Phnom Penh and other forced relocations and killings. But it’s still working through trying them on another set of charges, including genocide. In the meantime, another defendant has died, and the court deemed yet another unfit for trial due to dementia.

It’s unclear if it will ever try anyone else — not least because the Cambodian government wants the current case to be its last. Several current top Cambodian officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, were once themselves Khmer Rouge cadres, so they have an interest in promoting the notion that culpability is confined to a few key former leaders. Hun Sen’s cronies have ignored court subpoenas, and the government is refusing to arrest suspects a judge named in March on charges that would expand responsibility beyond the Khmer Rouge’s most senior figures.

Even in the face of this obstruction, one of the faltering tribunal’s main strengths is that at least in theory, it grants former Khmer Rouge leaders due process. Despite the near-universal belief that they are guilty of mass atrocities, imprinted in memories and history books, the defendants are legally innocent until proven otherwise. Fighting against the tendency to set these leaders apart as singularly evil, defense lawyers fiercely stand up for their ageing clients’ common humanity and present their actions against a backdrop of Parisian intellectual utopianism, anti-colonialism, and the Vietnam War. In 2013, defense counsel Victor Koppe asked one witness, a New York journalist, if he might be biased by “too much an American view … some might call it an imperialist view.” Perhaps counterintuitively, these underdog lawyers may represent some of the tribunal’s strongest refutations of regimes like the Khmer Rouge, which didn’t tolerate dissenting views or value its victims’ humanity.

During the hearings, both survivors and lawyers often repeat the familiar numbers that framed the regime’s reign: “three years, eight months, and 20 days.” Sometimes, the victims’ repetition of these figures suggests shock at how long they endured such great suffering — or, conversely, how such a relatively short span of time could have destroyed so much. Other times, especially in the mouths of government officials and some foreign observers, these numbers also suggest a way of encapsulating the suffering in a neat span of time — and ultimately shelving it to gather dust as governments initiate new campaigns of violence.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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