War Crimes Trials Won't Stop The Graft


For better or worse, the middle-aged control the institutions of power. In Cambodia, the educated members of this generation were systematically wiped out by a brutal experiment in political ideology made manifest.

On 17 April, 1975, after a decade or so of civil war, Khmer Rouge forces began emptying the capital, Phnom Penh. They had been in control of the city for two days. They planned to force the 600,000 inhabitants and the million or so refugees who had fled to Phnom Penh from other parts of the country, out of the city and into the countryside as the first step in creating an agrarian-Marxist utopia.

Sherry, my landlord in Phnom Penh, explained it to me like this: "If you were in the west of the city, you had to go west, if you were in the south, you had to go south. It didn’t matter where your family was or where you lived, just the street you were standing on when the soldiers started pushing people into the fields." Families were cleft, never to be reunited; parents, children, husbands and wives parted. Over the course of the next four years, around 1.7 million Khmers died in name the of Pol Pot and Nuon Chea’s bone-splintering experiment in South-East Asian Marxism.

The Khmer Rouge was finally overthrown in 1978 when the Vietnamese army invaded. And since then, the people of Cambodia have been reconstructing their lives and their nation with worn-out tools and a hopeful determination.

The UN-backed trials of Nuon Chea (Brother Number 2), Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sari and his wife, Ieng Thirith, for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge’s rule began in Phnom Penh this week. And there is no doubt they will go some way to healing the wounds of the past and hopefully bring a sense that some kind of justice has prevailed.

But wounds like this leave scars, and one of the disfiguring legacies of the eradication of an entire generation of Cambodians, particularly those who were educated, is the almost total absence of legitimacy among the leaders of Cambodia’s institutions. The unfortunate reality is that there can be no true healing until meaningful steps are taken to address the prevailing culture of corruption and nepotism such that young Khmers can believe there might be some reward for honest work.

When I was living in Cambodia, I heard countless stories of the corrupt exercise of power at all levels.

One example concerned the coronation of King Norodom Sihamoni in 2004, the first new king for 60 years. The government was keen to present a positive image of Cambodia — for a change. They invited Phnom Penh’s school children to the parade and delivered thousands of tiny plastic Khmer flags to the schools. They hoped the world’s news cameras would carry images of smiling Khmer children lining the riverbank waving Khmer flags as the new king made his way to the palace. And they did. Unfortunately — and this is a more complicated story than simple greed — many teachers, having received the flags, decided to generate some cash by selling them to their students and insisting the kids couldn’t attend the coronation unless they had a flag.

I also witnessed the day-to-day obstacle course of corruption that ordinary Khmers have to navigate — at times it was almost farcical. Once a week or so in the street outside my apartment, a group of three policemen would arrive with a One Way sign they had fabricated and cemented into a rough block of concrete. They would erect the sign on the corner and then demand on-the-spot "fines" from those motorists who travelled the wrong way down the newly designated one-way street.

The real story of corruption in Cambodia is, of course, much more serious and insidious. Reportedly, political interference occurs in around 30 per cent of court cases. And there are claims that more than 90 per cent of Cambodia’s judiciary accept bribes. Even the Khmer Rouge War Crimes Tribunal has had to fend off allegations that UN-funded Khmer staff were having to pay kickbacks for their jobs. And, regrettably, the report into the incident by the anti-graft monitor at the Tribunal remains confidential despite a pledge to release it publicly.

Given the ubiquity of corruption, it is naturally a potent political issue, and corruption-related pledges feature in the campaigns of all of Cambodia’s political parties. Despite the massive challenges required in terms of ending the culture of impunity that coddles Cambodia’s elite, there have been some concrete steps designed to address it, such as the creation of the National Audit Authority. However, its decade-long history has been patchy and to date it has delivered few lasting results.

Another manifestation of the widely held belief that hard, honest work will not be rewarded is the menace of violent street crime.

All the Khmers I knew in Phnom Penh, apart from the moto drivers, said they wouldn’t go out in Phnom Penh after 10pm because of "robbers". My moto driver, Sun-la, traded in his newer motorbike for an older, scruffier one so he would be less of a target at night. 

The prosecution of four geriatric war criminals may go some way to punishing and shaming the butchers of the past. It will no doubt bring healing and some sense of justice for their victims — but the healing won’t be completed until the gaping void those war criminals created is filled by leaders with some claim to legitimacy.


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