October 14, 2022
TOKYO – It took a lot of time, but it is noteworthy that Cambodia faced up to the negative history of the massacres of its own people and handed down a judicial ruling. It is hoped that the country will not let the painful memories fade away and will use them for nation-building.
A special tribunal has concluded its trial of one of the former senior leaders in the Pol Pot regime that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s and massacred its people. The sentence of life imprisonment for the former fifth-ranking official in the political hierarchy, the only one of the five defendants still alive, has been finalized.
Once in power, former Communist Party leader Pol Pot pushed ahead with policies such as the abolition of private property, moving urban residents to rural areas and forced labor. It is believed that up to 1.7 million people were executed or died of causes such as illness or starvation.
The special tribunal started in 2006 to identify the atrocious acts committed under the Pol Pot regime as genocide and crimes against humanity. Although the tribunal has been conducted within Cambodia, it is characterized by the active involvement of the United Nations and has the atmosphere of an international tribunal.
Not only Cambodians but also U.N.-appointed foreign nationals joined prosecutors and judges, setting up a mechanism to ensure fairness in trials. Japan also provided support through the dispatch of a judge and the provision of funds to operate the tribunal.
The fact that the tribunal was able to conclude its trials in a nation where Prime Minister Hun Sen, who belonged to the Pol Pot regime, has been in power since the 1980s, was due to these efforts by the international community. It is of great significance that those responsible for the massacres were brought to the tribunal and prosecuted there.
This will also serve as a reference for the international community should it try to bring charges for crimes such as the Russian military’s massacre of civilians in Ukraine and the Myanmar military’s killing of pro-democracy protesters.
During the trials for leaders under the Pol Pot regime, defendants died one after another because their trials were delayed or prolonged. In addition, as all the defendants denied their crimes, the specific process of the massacres could not be sufficiently clarified. These issues remain to be addressed.
Still, it is significant that a large number of citizens participated in the tribunal, with survivors of the massacres, bereaved families and former Khmer Rouge soldiers testifying. The generations born after the Pol Pot era reportedly account for about 80% of the population. It is hoped that the tragic experiences will continue to be remembered by the next generation.
What is worrisome is that Hun Sen has stepped up his iron-fisted rule, including dissolving opposition parties and cracking down on media organizations critical of his government. A dictatorship that does not tolerate any opposing opinions could make the same mistakes as during the Pol Pot era. He should learn from the lessons of history.
Japan has supported Cambodia’s development and has had close relations with the country. The Japanese government must continue to strongly urge Hun Sen not to allow the democracy that was built with the support of the international community to retreat further.