THE PEOPLE'S VERDICT?
AUGUST 6, 1997
Pol Pot, who was responsible for over a million deaths while leading the Khmer Rouge, was sentenced to indefinite house arrest by a people's court in a Cambodian jungle. But has justice been served? After a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth leads a discussion.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
Online NewsHour links:
July 14, 1997:
Experts discuss the ramifications of Cambodia's new ruler's decision not to join ASEAN, the Asian trade partnership.
June 18, 1997:
A discussion of the continuing unrest in Cambodia and rumors of Pol Pot's capture.
May 16, 1996:
President Clinton announces his plan to limit the use of landmines.
January 4, 1996:
Elizabeth Farnsworth reports on the use of land mines in Cambodia and elsewhere.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of Asia.
The Cambodian Embassy to the U.S.
Cambodia in Modern History: a site produced by those who opposed the Khmer Rouge
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now Pol Pot and justice in Cambodia. We start with some background. His real name was Soloth Sar, but the world knows him as Pol Pot. Few pictures of him exist. He remained mostly behind the scenes in the years 1975 - 1979 when he and his Khmer Rouge tried to remake Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. They forced people to move from cities to the countryside and murdered the educated and the skilled. More than one million people were slaughtered or died of starvation.
In 1979 the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew Pol Pot, who fled into jungles near Thailand and led a Khmer Rouge guerrilla war from there. After 18 years, and now 72 years old, he has appeared--a prisoner of his own movement, and on trial for recent atrocities--at least that was the impression created. Journalist Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a cameraman were the only westerners allowed to attend and photograph this so-called people's tribunal.
NATE THAYER, Far Eastern Economic Review: I was shocked that the point we arrived the show trial began. And it was an extremely surreal, historic moment.
"Crush Pol Pot and his clique."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The trial took place in an open-air mass meeting hall. Hundreds chanted "Crush Pol Pot and his clique." The longtime Khmer Rouge leader sat slumped in a wooden chair, grasping a bamboo cane and a rattan fan, ill from heart disease and persistent malaria. Participants stepped up to crude microphones to humiliate and denounce the fallen strongman.
NATE THAYER: There was a debate within the leadership on whether to, in fact, kill him, cut him off from medical care or give him the medical care and allow him to live his final days under house detention.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the end, Pol Pot was sentenced to live the rest of his life under house arrest. His fate is one piece of the complicated puzzle that is Cambodian politics today. Even after Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge followers were overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, Cambodia remained in turmoil.
In 1991, the United Nations brokered a peace agreement and sent thousands of U.N. troops and volunteers into the country to set up a special election. The vote in 1993 produced a coalition government with two prime-ministers: Prince Norodom Ranariddh, representing the royalist forces, and former Khmer Rouge member Hun Sen.
But the Khmer Rouge refused to disarm; the U.N. had no mandate to force them to; and low level fighting continued. Last month as rumors surfaced that Pol Pot had been captured, fighting broke out between Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddhs forces. Violence escalated, and several of the Prince's top officials were assassinated. Hun Sen seized control of the government. Ousted Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh fled the country.
The trial of Pol Pot in the jungle is related to the struggle between the two Cambodian leaders, in that--along with their other differences--they are competing for the support of Khmer Rouge fighters. That support could become important if full-scale civil war breaks out.
Now, three perspectives: Dith Pran was born in Cambodia and lived through the Khmer Rouge regime. The movie The Killing Fields was about him. He recently edited the book "Children of Cambodias Killing Fields." And he is now a photojournalist at the New York Times. Teeda Mam was also born in Cambodia and survived the Khmer Rouge. She is the author of the book "To Destroy You is No Loss." She is now a software developer in San Francisco. And Steven Ratner is an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Law. He served as legal counsel in the State Department during the Cambodia peace talks and co-authored the book"Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law" to be released later this year. Thank you all for being with us.
Teeda Mam, you suffered terribly under Pol Pot. Tell us your impressions of this trial.
TEEDA BUTT MAM, Author: (San Francisco) I was very sad to see that trial, especially the town meeting that was held where Pol Pot was being prosecuted and is a similar one that Im used to during the four-years of terror that I was under Pol Pot, so, you know, to me it was a setup show, and I am pretty sure that people were sitting in the trial were not at all aware of what was going on. And the justice was not being done there because its not a real trial with people who understand law, but it was more of a show.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The people--staying with you, Teeda Mam, for a moment, the people in the audience seem so young.
TEEDA BUTT MAM: Yes, very young. Most of them are my age, and when Pol Pot came to power, I was 15. For these people how we remember--understand--a full understanding of whats going on.
Like the SS trying Hitler
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dith Pran, what was your reaction to the trial?
DITH PRAN, New York Times: (New York) Well, I, first of all, I like to say that Im ready to testify. When the news Pol Pot being captured, I was very excited. I prepared with the book that my wife and I work together to prepare for us to be witnesses because Cambodia we dont have enough evidence, and, as you know, that the trial that it happened in the jungle, its similar to a SS trial of Hitler--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In other words, its as if the SS were to try Hitler to have Khmer Rouge trying Pol Pot, is that what youre saying?
DITH PRAN: Yes. It is similar.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And its not meaningful to you at all. Its just a show trial.
DITH PRAN: No. And also you can say its a political game. The Khmer Rouge want to purify themselves because they know that the name Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot is well known to the outside world as a criminal, so right now they want to clean themselves, so they can infiltrate another system, or another tactic, in order to come back into the power they had to change their new strategy. They want to show the Cambodian people that they are clean right now. We dont believe Pol Pot--Pol Pot is finished. We real nationalists, and please, you know, help us that to fight back, to get into the power. That is the way that I see it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me interrupt you one second. Does it seem to you, even if its a show trial, does the trial indicate that Pol Pot has lost his position of leadership of the Khmer Rouge, Dith Pran.
DITH PRAN: First of all, you know, Pol Pot, always make some kind of tactic to confuse the people. I remember in the early 80's they say, well Pol Pot retired, but he [was] still behind. But this time to me it seemed that Pol Pot is really finished because hes sick, and hes old, and you can see that its not a coup. What I saw, that the new generation, these are not the group that--who are responsible in the Cambodian genocide in the 70's; they were around late 40 and the old generation, in a circle, its not there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let me--Ill come back to you in a second. Teeda Mam, what about that question, do you also think it means that Pol Pot is no longer in control, and does that make a difference to you; that just one person is not there now?
TEEDA BUTT MAM: The sad part is this whole show is about trying to blame one person for a genocide of 2 million people, and what is scary is by putting up the show, a lot of people think they can get away with it, and the people who are involved here are the people who try to clean themselves up, and its very dangerous if the world accept that that is a trial because this is not. The Khmer Rouge is very tricky. I lived with them for four years. They lie all the time, and they always have this very, very complicated system where no one can understand whats going on.
Obviously, Pol Pot was very retiring. He was very old, and he looked sick to me, but People around him, you know, they just have somewhat a fear and respect for him. And thats really sad.
DITH PRAN: Excuse me, but--
Bring Pol Pot before an international court
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: One second. I want to get to Steve Ratner here before we go any further. As somebody whos looked at this issue and the issue of international law and atrocities like Pol Pot, how did the trial look to you?
STEVEN RATNER, University of Texas Law School: Well, on the one hand like others who care about human rights, Im glad to see he has apparently been apprehended by somebody. But this--what we had seen is not justice, and its not accountability. What it is is something that is reminiscent of the show trials that Stalin put on in the 30's and they took place in China during the Cultural Revolution. Its not real justice because it doesnt have all of the things that make for justice. It doesnt have fairness for the defendant. It doesnt have cross-examination. It doesnt have a real jury or a judge. Its just a show trial. And so because it blocks the real authority of a trial its not going to create the kind of closure and justice that a real trial can create. And the reaction of the two distinguished Cambodian Americans I think makes that absolutely clear. We dont see a sense that the issue of Pol Pot is behind us, and I would also underline the fact that it is very much focusing on one person when, in fact, it was a movement with many people, most of whom are beyond the--beyond the scope of justice at this point.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ratner, what should happen now? And I understand when I say should I mean they would also be possible within this scope of international law.
STEVEN RATNER: Well, there are a variety of options as far as trials go. You could have at trial in Cambodia under Cambodian law, or under international law, but the Cambodian court system is right now in shambles. The judges get paid practically nothing; they can be bribed or threatened by one side or the other. There is no respect for the rule of law, for defendants rights, and so unless you had a massive international assistance to Cambodia, or a trial that involved foreign judges and foreign assistance, Cambodia is not ready for trials immediately. Now, when you switch to trials outside of Cambodia, you could either have an international trial, or you could have a trial in another country. An international trial by the U.N. would require setting up a special court because theres no standing international criminal court.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So that would be like the court thats dealing with the war crimes in Bosnia.
STEVEN RATNER: Exactly. Youd need another court like the one for Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, which would require a decision by the Security Council of the U.N., where one has to deal with the reluctance of some countries -- in particular, China -- to see this issue handled by the United Nations. As far as a trial in a third country would go, there are some countries out there that have laws on their books that permit trials for crimes outside of their territory by foreigners, against foreigners. Canada is one of those countries the U.S. doesnt have a law that would cover the Khmer Rouge atrocities but when the U.S. government approached the Canadians last month on this issue, the Canadians were not enthusiastic about the idea.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And just briefly, its--these are not likely to happen, the other options you laid out right now. I mean, Pol Pot is some place where perhaps nobody can get at him, is that right?
STEVEN RATNER: Right. And overlaying all of these political problems is the issue of custody of the defendant and access to witness in--witnesses and evidence. The fact is that Pol Pot and the other Khmer Rouge leaders are not currently held by anybody who really has the legal authority to try them, and theyd have to be handed over to either the Cambodian government or to a third country or to the United Nations somehow.
Khmer Rouge unlikely to turn over its former leader
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dith Pran, what would you like to see happen next?
DITH PRAN: Well, I see that it is--the stage of a trial that they have, and I dont feel that Pol Pot will be handled through the democratic nation or through the Cambodia government. I like to see the trial in Phnom Penn, under the supervision of international community.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you dont think he will be handed over. Why?
DITH PRAN: Why? Because Khmer Rouge when we see the show that night, you can feel that the people still respect them, and theyre not going to let the founder of a Cambodian Communist leadership to get out from their hands. This is some kind of--they still look to me--they still respect these guys, and they know that if they hand over to the international community or to Cambodian community, we will try them with a system of democratic system, and Im very pessimistic, because this is a time that we want to show the world.
Why not? They say, well, were going to give you or turn over our former leader, but it seem for me--thats why I say its a show trial. And what I like to talk right now is the problem for the future, whats going on right now in my country, if you want to hear about--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I do want to hear, but I want to ask Teeda Mam first. I hope well have time to come back to you, Dith Pran, but Teeda Mam, what do you want to have happen now, with--with Pol Pot and with judging the Khmer Rouge leaders?
TEEDA BUTT MAM: Well, you know, Pol Pot is a special case. He is unique. Not that many people like him that kill their own people, and so I think the international community should treat it as special case, and I think he must be brought to trial, given the fact that he had committed enormous murder, one quarter of the population of a country completely destroyed, Cambodia, completely destroyed, the society that was once a very safe and peaceful place to live. Its very important, you know. There are few things, and first, it helps a victim like myself, whose fathers and many families were killed by him, feel closure to this painful experience we have. Secondly, you know, the prime minister of Cambodia today is also a Khmer Rouge, and he is committing murder right now as we speak. He is killing--may not be at the number Pol Pot--the number of people that Pol Pot had killed--but he also is committing murder to threaten, to scare people, to grab the power into his grip.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me one minute. We should just clarify that he was an ex-Khmer Rouge--he left when the killing got--he went to Vietnam--
TEEDA BUTT MAM: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --and came back after the Vietnam invasion.
TEEDA BUTT MAM: Yes.
Difficult to bring Pol Pot to trial
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Before we go into that--and I hope we have time--we may not tonight--to get into the current political situation--and Im sorry about that--but Steve Ratner, it does seem incredible really that this person who is responsible for this--I mean, just leave aside that other people were responsible too--is sitting in that jungle and nobody can do anything about it.
STEVEN RATNER: Well, of course, its not a question that nobody can do anything about it. Its a question that nobody wants to do anything about it. The crimes that were committed against the Cambodia people were also committed against the entire international community. Thats why we call them crimes against humanity. And theres a responsibility on the Cambodian government to try to apprehend Pol Pot and his ilk, and theres a responsibility on the international community as well to assist in that endeavor. At this point the politics of the issue has caused the government to choose here to amnesty certain Khmer Rouge officials in order to get them into--supportive of the government or to keep Pol Pot sort of out in the jungle where he becomes an excuse for a large military budget, and the international community has decided that if the Cambodia government is not interested in supporting the idea of accountability, its not going to take the lead, and so thats the impasse were in right now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much for being with us. And well hope to get to the current political scene later. Thank you.