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On Crimes Against Humanity
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PHNOM PENH – The undated photo, by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, is as chilling as it is casual; right beside a black Mercedes, senior Khmer Rouge brass – in their trademark black pajamas, sandals and krama around the neck – pose nonchalantly. We see “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, his second-in-command Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Vorn Vet. This is what Hannah Arendt meant when exposing “the banality of evil”.

This Monday, in a specially built complex on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the initial hearing of the starkly named Khmer Rouge Tribunal took place by calling some of the most reviled characters in recent history – including “Brother Number 2” Nuon Chea and the relatively sophisticated “Foreign Minister” Ieng Sary, who convinced quite a few diplomats, Americans and Europeans included, that the Khmer Rouge were just trying to build a new, agrarian society; and that entailed the ritual killing over two million Cambodians in a 20th century Asian holocaust.

Sary in fact has previously admitted in secret meetings that the Khmer Rouge wanted to shrink the population of Cambodia from 7 million to 1 million, more than enough for this agrarian dream – conceptualized by Khieu Samphan in a Sorbonne thesis, much lauded by the French at the time – to blossom.

The angel of history intervened by having Vietnam overthrow the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 – much to the displeasure of Cold War Washington, which later presented to the world the sorry spectacle of supporting the Khmer Rouge at the United Nations.

Cambodia is run by a so-called “democratic dictator” – the wily Hun Sen – who has made sure none of his former Khmer Rouge comrades would have to face their crimes against humanity. Moreover Hun Sen – with Cambodia as part of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and subject of massive Chinese investment – will never run the risk of facing North Atlantic Treaty Organization liberation via humanitarian war. He’s one of “our” bastards – sort of.

Still two generations of modern Khmers – who in the past built one of the most sophisticated empires in Asia – are waiting for some measure of justice for the Khmer Rouge via a UN-backed court. The prospects are not good. Hun Sen wants this to be the last Khmer Rouge trial.

Only Duch – the notorious torturer who ran the horrendous Khmer Rouge prison of Tuol Sleng – has been tried and sentenced in the so-called Case 001. Pol Pot planned his exit strategy by dying in 1998.

Some of the charges against Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and his high-ranking wife, social action minister Ieng Thirith make a mockery of their state-organized genocide; they are accused, among other acts, of capturing and killing American yachtsmen and Vietnamese fishermen. Chea, 84 and Sary claim they are old and ill. Sary even got a pardon from then-king Norodom Sihanouk in 1996 after being convicted in absentia by the Vietnamese in 1979. Khieu Samphan has always managed to be too ill to face justice.


Substantive hearings in Case 002 will not begin for several more months. The good thing so far is that the hearings this week are being broadcast live across the Kingdom. Yet no one knows whether Chea, Sary and others will speak during the hearings, or collaborate with the court for that matter. Chea had the gall to take off his large dark glasses in court this Monday to say “I am not happy with this hearing” and then have his co-counsel get into details.

Have war will travel

It may be tempting to have historical perspective dissolve in bustling Phnom Penh, among the young, educated and connected drinking mojitos in terrace bars facing the Tonle Sap River and the glitzy headquarters of pan-Asian trading companies.

But it’s impossible not to connect the Khmer Rouge and the American Empire. It was Richard Nixon’s illegal war in Cambodia – call it VietCam, a precursor to the current AfPak – plus support for yet another tin-pot dictator, Lon Nol, instead of King Sihanouk, that created the conditions for the emergence of the Khmer Rouge and its power grab in 1975, just as the last American helicopter was abandoning Saigon in disgrace.

Washington didn’t care much about the Asian genocide and even grumbled when Vietnam toppled the Khmer Rouge.

And that takes us to the circular ways of Empire; Khmers would portrait it as a naga biting its own tail. Think of eternal Cold Warrior US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, recently arguing that failure in Afghanistan is “unacceptable”, regardless of the costs of war (just as failure in Vietnam was unacceptable).

Think of Gates telling Newsweek, “I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position.” Functionaries of Empire parroting His Master’s Voice can’t get clearer than this. There’s more; “Frankly, I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.”

“Engagement” meant extending a war, illegally, from Vietnam to Cambodia, and creating the conditions for an Asian holocaust. “Engagement” means extending a war, illegally, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and sowing extra chaos in South Asia. “Engaging” means extending an illegal war over Libya – sowing extra chaos in Northern Africa. “Engaging” means letting the House of Saud bribe everyone in sight in its reactionary, counter-revolutionary drive all across MENA (Middle East/Northern Africa).

So mass murderer Nuon Chea may well be excused for thinking, “I was just implementing the dream of an egalitarian, agrarian society. It’s the Empire that should be in the dock for crimes against humanity, not me.” The real Year Zero may not even have begun.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Cambodia 
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