Cambodia: All Attention Focused on the ECCC


Milton Osborne

The arrest of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) Foreign Affairs Minister, Ieng Sary, and his wife and Social Affairs Minister in the same regime, Ieng Thirith, on 12 November, is the latest among the important ongoing developments associated with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, known formally as the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). They have been charged with 'crimes against humanity', and join Duch, the director of the Tuol Sleng extermination centre (S-21) and Nuon Chea, 'Brother Number Two' in the DK regime, who are already in custody. Despite having suffered a stroke on 14 November, the former DK Head of State, Khieu Samphan has now been arrested and charged with 'crimes against humanity'.

(It is worth noting that repeated references in the media to the ECCC as being a 'genocide' tribunal are of contested validity, if the definition set out in the United Nations Convention on Genocide is taken as a guide. Under that definition 'genocide' is defined as the act of extermination carried out against a group of people because of their ethnicity. In short, the question of intent is vitally important. So while it can be argued that such a definition might be applied to those people who were killed by the DK regime and who were not Cambodians - for instance Vietnamese - it seems correct to suggest that in killing their fellow Cambodians, members of the DK regime were acting against those whom they saw as enemies of the state - that this was their crime rather than the fact of their ethnicity. In this regard, it is of note that none of those arrested have been charged with 'genocide'.)

The expectation is that those former DK leaders who are now in custody will be brought to trial in the early months of 2008. In the case of Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan it is far from clear what view the ECCC will take of the fact that Ieng Sary was given a royal pardon for past crimes in 1996 while Prime Minister Hun Sen granted Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan amnesties for their past in 1998. With 'celebrity' lawyers such as Jacques Verges set to act for the defence once actual trials begin there seems little doubt that these past pardons and amnesties will become a source for active legal manoeuvring. At the same time, and in addition to Khieu Samphan's clear poor health, Ieng Sary has been undergoing regular hospital treatment in Thailand. At present only Duch, Nuon Chea and Ieng Thirith appear to be in untroubled health, though it should be noted that Nuon Chea is 82 years-old while some commentators have questioned Ieng Thirith's mental capacities. Critics of the manner in which the Cambodian government has approached the question of trying senior DK figures have long argued that it was the government's hope that old age would intervene to prevent their being brought to trial, just as happened in the case of Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

Throughout these recent developments, and indeed the controversies associated with the establishment of the ECCC over the past three or four years, the Chinese government has remained noticeably silent in contrast to its previous efforts to hinder the tribunal from coming into being. It has a clear interest in developments because of the important assistance it provided to the DK regime while it was in power, and to the remnants of that regime after it was ousted by the Vietnamese. In the eyes of well-informed observers it appears that the authorities in Beijing have finally decided that while China's role will receive some negative attention in the course of trials held by the ECCC the developments that took place in the 1970s occurred so long ago that it will be able to weather whatever criticism might arise in relation to its past activities.

Meanwhile, and at a more mundane level, funds for the ECCC are rapidly running out and will be exhausted some time in 2008. Even with the fact that Cambodia does not engage the world's attention to the same degree as once was the case, it is difficult to believe that the international community will allow the tribunal to founder through lack of funds, even if the projected trials have not reached a conclusion.

While international attention has been given to the events associated with the ECCC, several recent domestic developments deserve recognition. The two level-nature of the Cambodian economy has been given emphasis by the release of new figures showing that the country's current annual growth rate is at 9.5 per cent, despite the fact that a third of the population survives on less than US$0.50 per day. One effect of this set of circumstances is the enormous problems faced by the country's education system. A recent report has shown that the system continues to be plagued by inadequate financing with poorly paid teaches demanding bribes from children and their parents in order to continue teaching and with about half of those children who begin primary school failing to complete their education. This situation seems unlikely to change with the eventual commercial exploitation of the oil and gas fields that have now been found in Cambodian territorial waters in the Gulf of Thailand. The likely date for the exploitation and refining of products from these fields has now been pushed back to 2011 with hopes expressed that a refinery will be completed in Sihanoukville in 2010.

At the level of parliamentary politics, little has changed in recent months with Hun Sen and the Cambodian People's Party in an apparently unchallengeable position as FUNCINPEC and the newly formed Norodom Ranariddh Party bicker and as the Sam Rainsy Party shows little capacity to attract sufficient support to play more than a gadfly oppositional role.

WATCHPOINT: The capacity of the ECCC to bring defendants to trial in conduct trials in a fashion that is consistent with acceptable legal standards.


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