What Does Justice Look Like in Cambodia?

By Sheldon C. Good 07-26-2010

For the first time, a senior Khmer Rouge commander has been found guilty of crimes against humanity in Cambodia, yet I'm left pondering how interpretations of justice vary across cultures.

In 2007, I lived in Cambodia for three months and remember sitting around the dinner table for hours one night as my host mother described how she survived the "Pol Pot regime," as she called the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist system responsible for deaths of 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979. I listened intently, scribbling down notes as she recalled vivid images of multiple near-death experiences. Tears came to my eyes as I realized my own country's vested interest in 1970s Cambodia and the lasting experiences of war -- experiences I was bringing back by continuing to prod and ask questions.

After listening to her story of struggling to stay alive, I wondered what justice looked like for Cambodia, 30 years after the regime fell. My classmates and I heard various answers during our conversations: Khmer Rouge figures should be jailed; they should be executed; they should be set free; it doesn't really matter, because life has moved on.

Today, as the joint U.N.-Cambodian court's ruling for Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, is celebrated by many in the international community, varying perspectives on justice surface yet again. Duch was the prison chief at S-21 (Tuol Sleng), the infamous former high school turned prison, and has been detained by the court for three years. In a primarily Buddhist culture -- where the Khmer language has no direct translation for "reconciliation" -- many tend to live by the mantra "forgive and forget."

For many young Cambodians whose parents survived a regime that killed nearly 25% of the population, the Khmer Rouge is a distant, often ignored, part of history. Up until a few years ago, Cambodian textbooks only included one passing sentence about the Khmer Rouge. Then again, my own education included very little about the Khmer Rouge, or even Cambodia's role in U.S. interests during the Vietnam War. As my classmates and I listened to our host parents, we were sometimes joined by our host siblings -- many of whom were also hearing their parents' stories for the first time.

As I peruse the news coming out of Cambodia today, I'm struck by the same diversity of perspectives that we heard from our host parents. The semantics of justice clearly vary.

In a Reuters report, Theary Seng, a Cambodian who is now a U.S. citizen and lost her father at S-21, the prison Duch commanded, said, "We hoped this tribunal would strike hard at impunity, but if you can kill 14,000 people and serve only 19 years [as a result of this sentence] -- 11 hours per life taken -- what is that? It's a joke."

Mar Po, a distant relative of Duch, told the Phnom Penh Post, "If he is released, he will not survive because a lot of people are angry at him, so they will kill him secretly."

One of Duch's former classmates, Sem Thuon, said, "I want him to be released from prison because everything has been passed over already. I pardon him because I now respect the Buddha's teachings."

Maximum imprisonment, vengeful violence, and ignoring history are all concepts of justice that exist in Cambodia, and beyond. As a result of a corrupt judicial system, lack of funding and management, and the varying preference for justice, the Khmer Rouge tribunal continues its meandering trajectory. I remember visiting the tribunal, which sits on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh; I think its location, just out of the city's reach, is an appropriate metaphor for its practical impact thus far.

Part of the problem with pursing justice in Cambodia is related to the country's weak national justice system, which perpetuates serious human rights abuses for thousands of people across the country. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has oftentimes been at odds with the Khmer Rouge tribunal, a court troubled by mismanagement from its inception -- after four years of operation, Duch is the first, and potentially last, leader to be tried. The tribunal will likely begin its second case sometime next year, though the courts' future is uncertain.

Whether justice is being brought to Cambodia remains an open question. No matter the outcome, however, I will continue to pray for Cambodia. And I will always wonder what influences people to inflict so much violence on their neighbors.

Sheldon C. Good is the media assistant for Sojourners.

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