Cambodia’s Terror Lords Must Not Evade Trial

Published Sunday, March 7, 1999
in the San Jose Mercury News

DURING the Cambodian genocide of 1975-79, about 1.7 million people perished, in a population of 8 million. It was one of the twentieth century’s worst episodes of mass murder, ending only when the Vietnamese army invaded and stopped it.

The dictator Pol Pot took his defeated Communist Party back into the jungle, where the Khmer Rouge began a 20-year war to retake power.

That war is over, and it is time for a reckoning. Several new circumstances have reopened the case.

First, the Khmer Rouge guerrilla army has collapsed.

In 1996 the Cambodian government offered amnesty to Pol Pot’s ex-brother-in-law, the ex-foreign minister of the genocidal regime, Ieng Sary. This broke up the Khmer Rouge, as other leaders jockeyed for similar deals.

Suspecting treachery, Pol Pot murdered his former security chief. Then a Khmer Rouge army commander known as Mok turned and arrested Pol Pot. Another commander led a mutiny against Mok.

While his former comrades slugged it out, Pol Pot died in April, abandoned and alone in a thatch hut.

Two of the last remaining top Khmer Rouge leaders surrendered in December to the Phnom Penh government. The one-legged Mok, with only a few bodyguards, is unlikely to last long alone in the jungle. All surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are now within reach of the law. What is needed is the political will to arrest and try them.

Second, a report by a U.N.-commissioned Group of Experts has judged them accountable.

At the invitation of the Cambodian government, the team of three international jurists has visited Phnom Penh, studied the evidence and recommended further legal action:

  • An international tribunal to judge the crimes of the top leaders.
  • A truth commission to allow the victims to air their grievances more fully within Cambodia itself.

Cambodia and the international community now must decide how and whether to implement the panel’s report. Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be balking, worried a tribunal could reignite civil war. But U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is insisting on a trial.

Third, extensive documentary evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes has now come to light.

Three years ago my research program, the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University, acquired the archives of the Khmer Rouge’s secret security force, the Santebal. Hundreds of thousands of pages of Khmer-language documents unveil the decision-making at the very top of the regime (many can be viewed at

Based on these documents, the surviving leaders can now be indicted for specific arrests and murders. The evidence shows that they knew of and participated in the repression and violence.

We now have complete copies of the minutes of 15 meetings of the body that secretly ran the country during the genocide: the Standing Committee of the CPK Central Committee. They document the rise to power of Khieu Samphan – recorded in the minutes under his pseudonym Hem – who declared in April 1977, “We must wipe out the enemy (and) suppress all stripes of enemy at all times.”

And the diary of an aide to Ieng Sary reveals the prevailing view in his office: “In our country, 1 percent to 5 percent are traitors. .. The enemies are on our body, among the military, the workers, in the cooperatives and even in our ranks… These enemies must be progressively wiped out.”

The evidence is clear: The top Khmer Rouge leaders flouted international criminal law as well as Cambodian law. They can and should be held to account.