The long overdue trial of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders will soon get under way in Cambodia. These octogenarians, responsible for the deaths of almost 2 million people, have until quite recently lived freely and comfortably with complete impunity in an opulent neighbourhood of Phnom Penh. However the former communist leaders of the so called “Democratic Kampuchea” will soon face a litany of indictments for acts of genocide committed during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979, although it can be expected that they will continue to claim to have had no knowledge of the crimes at issue.
Still and all I am far less concerned about how the defendants plead than I am about the exact charges that are being brought against the said perpetrators. Genocide, as successfully applied in 1998 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, is defined as the “deliberate killing or mistreatment of a group of people due to their ethnicity, religion or nationality”. Understandably therefore most people are confident of the far reach and effectiveness of the above interpretation as given the scale of death and horror that took place in Cambodia, it does seem on the surface that the same verdict will be passed this time round. Afterall it is a well known and proven fact that Pol Pot and those at the top of the Khmer Rouge imposed a slave state, carried out widespread torture and killed en mass. However be that as it may the bare facts of the case also show that the regime did not set out to wipe out an entire people, their own people. There are many who might therefore argue that genocide cannot be committed when the perpetrators and the victims are of the same racial, national or religious group.
The term “genocide” was perhaps first pinned on Cambodia by a foreign media lost for words but in desperate need of a headline. Furthermore it surely suited many more of the international community to apply such a spine chilling label and thus draw attention away from the impact and scale of the secret US bombing carried out on Nixon’s watch.
In conclusion, the bottom line is that the barbarous acts do not in my mind fit very well with the said crime tag unless the definition to be relied upon in the Cambodian law chambers is a lot more encompassing than that familiar to us. Moreover to call the said acts genocide hides the ludicrous nature of what went on, for there still exists no definition, explanation or even comparison. Food for thought.