When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and started their violent bid to create an agrarian Communist utopia, thousands of Vietnamese still lived in Cambodia, had married ethnic Khmers and started families.
The Vietnamese parents were killed. So were their children, as well as children of mixed marriages whose mothers were Vietnamese. If the mother was Khmer, the children were spared.
The reason some children were murdered and others not, according to witnesses who spoke to genocide investigators, was because the Khmer Rouge wanted to get rid of those who had shared the umbilical blood and drunk the breast milk of Vietnamese women.
Such twisted logic will be scrutinized in upcoming months with the start in Phnom Penh of Case 002/02, the second criminal trial of the highest-ranking surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.
The two cases deal with one of the most horrific episodes of the past century, a tragedy so sweeping that it depopulated Cambodia and left its traumatized survivors still struggling with its emotional toll. After years of wrangling over mandate and funding, a special tribunal of local and international judges started to hear evidence in 2009. Only one man has been convicted so far. The youngest of the defendants and some of the victims in the remaining cases are in their 80s, meaning that the opportunity to bring justice to Cambodia is fading.
This time the main defendants are Nuon Chea, 88 and the most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leader, and Khieu Samphan, who turned 83 this week. They face accusations relating to genocide, forced marriages, mistreatment of Buddhist monks and the brutal conditions at eight security centres and work sites. The trial began Wednesday.
The two men have already been on trial for two years on charges of crimes against humanity resulting from the forced resettlement of the population of the capital, Phnom Penh, and the mass executions of military prisoners.
“The new trial … is important on a symbolic level since it includes the charge of genocide. And historically, it encompasses a much broader range of events than did [the previous trial],” said Alex Hinton, director of Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights.
In the background, Prof. Hinton said, are concerns over whether the tribunal will proceed to trial with two more cases – known as Cases 003 and 004 – that deal with a lower tier of commanders. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is a former Khmer Rouge cadre, has repeatedly objected to further prosecutions.
The verdict in the previous trial, known as Case 002/01, is set to be handed down Aug. 7. Because of their poor health, the defendants sometimes fell asleep during that first trial even as victims were testifying about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era.
“Assessing the whole spectrum of the charges in Case 002 remains unlikely due to the health and age-related concerns of the co-accused,” the tribunal’s Supreme Court Chamber acknowledged Tuesday in rejecting an appeal by Mr. Khieu.
Case 002/01 started with four defendants, but one of them, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, died last year at age 87. His wife, Ieng Thirith, who is now 82, was another defendant but was ruled unfit to stand trial.
The accusations at the new trial focus on crimes that are less known to the public – the systematic persecution and slaying of the Cham and Vietnamese minorities. “Case 002/02 will provide a broader accounting legally, historically, and symbolically,” Prof. Hinton said.
A court filing last week by Mr. Nuon’s seven-lawyer legal team argued that whatever happened during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979 came as “a reaction to consistent and flagrant aggression on the part of Vietnam and to the presence and destabilizing actions of a Vietnamese-sponsored faction within the leadership of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.”
Part of the inimity was due to historical conflicts between the two neighbourhing countries. The court evidence includes a letter by King Norodom Sihanouk, who detailed a meeting he had with Pol Pot. The letter quoted Pol Pot as using the word Yuon, a derogatory Khmer word for the Vietnamese, and stating that he would enter into war so that “the evil Yuon race will be wiped off the face of the earth.”
According to the indictment, more than a third of Cambodia’s Cham population perished under the Khmer Rouges. The indictment also says that all of the 20,000 Vietnamese who remained in Cambodia died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
“The Vietnamese people were not interrogated or detained for long … They were killed within 24 hours of being arrested, by bamboo clubs, and the bodies were put in grave pits and a well. Some witnesses saw the killings and another heard the sounds of them striking the people and heard screaming,” according to the indictment.
Witnesses also told the investigating judges about Chams being rounded up, to be led away to execution. “A cadre shouted the order, ‘Cham to one side, Khmer to the other, and mixed race to another.’ I had already lied and said I was Khmer,” one survivor said.
The surviving Chams, who are Muslims, were forced to eat pork. Their mosques were burned, their language banned and their women prohibited from covering their heads.
The forced marriage policy was related to the persecution of minorities. Sexual violence remained shrouded in secrecy and shame, according to a recent study by the non-profit Cambodian Defenders Project.
Through interviews with 105 victims and witnesses, the study documents gang rapes by Khmer Rouge cadres, sexual slavery and survival sex, where minority women offered themselves in exchange for food, medicine or easier work duties. The report said forced marriages sometimes took place at gunpoint. “Almost all the ethnic minority respondents forced to be married reported being watched by the Khmer Rouge at night to ensure consummation.”
Proceedings for Case 002/01 also heard that forcing Buddhist monks, Chams and the women of officials of the previous regime to marry Khmer Rouge soldiers was a way to erase their presence from society. Traditional ceremonies were abolished and group weddings of up to 100 couples were held.
“Forced marriage between Cham and Khmer was used as means to destroy their culture and religion,” Hong Kimsuon, a lawyer representing victims, told the court.
Po Dina, a kitchen worker who was in her mid-20s during the Khmer Rouge era, testified that she was pressed into a forced marriage after her son starved to death and her husband died. She refused and was beaten then, jailed and tortured. “I suffered,” she said, “and I still bear the pains inside me.”