Amid the darkest days of Pol Pot’s oppressive Khmer Rouge regime, during which the Cambodian population was decimated by starvation, overwork and murder, Sam Mat Ly snuck away from his designated worksite to scavenge wild plants for his wife and newborn daughter. As he walked past the Buddhist pagoda in Kanhchom, a town in the southern province of Prey Veng, he made a grisly discovery.
“I saw seven holes filled with bodies. They had been there a week and the bodies were sticking out from the earth because they were so bloated. The smell was so bad,” Ly recounted of that haunting day in 1978, still seared into his brain nearly four decades on.
I saw seven holes filled with bodies. They had been there a week and the bodies were sticking out from the earth because they were so bloatedSam Mat Ly
A fisherman in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government in 1975, Ly said there was no doubt in his mind about the identity of the victims piled up in the pits. About a week before he stumbled upon the graves, 30 Cham Muslim families had suddenly disappeared from the rice paddies surrounding his worksite.
“I knew it was them because I didn’t see them working in the fields any more,” said Ly, also a Cham, who now lives on the outskirts of the country’s capital.
In Cambodian popular discourse, the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge era, during which an estimated 1.7 million people perished, are often referred to as genocide. Hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through the gates of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum each year, while 7 January is a public holiday for Cambodians to celebrate ‘Victory Over Genocide Day’, when events are held to mark the Vietnamese-backed overthrow of the Pol Pot regime in 1979.
This narrative is not only promoted within Cambodia, it is also widely accepted abroad. During a debate in February, US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the period “one of the worst genocides in the history of the world”.
Yet a debate is now raging as to whether the fanatical communists did, in fact, carry out genocide, specifically against two groups: Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese. A secondary debate might be whether the label – genocide or crimes against humanity – applied to the Khmer Rouge’s crimes is even important in the context of one of the greatest periods of human suffering in recent history.
The genocide trials
At the crux of the matter at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal, set up by the Cambodian government and the UN to hold the regime to account, is whether the Khmer Rouge set out to exterminate these minorities, or whether members of these groups died in large numbers for the same reasons as more than one million ethnic Khmer – chief among them overwork, malnutrition and disease.
Farina So, a Cham researcher with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia who penned the book The Hijab of Cambodia, said that a guilty verdict in the trial of ageing regime leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan on the count of genocide – often referred to as ‘the crime of all crimes’ – is vital to recognise the horrors her people were subjected to.
“The Khmer Rouge policy affected everyone. However, little by little it intended to destroy in part members of ethnic groups, mainly the Cham and the Vietnamese. This annihilation can be seen through a complete eradication of their ethnic, religious and cultural identities,” So said.
“Some Cham people feel that their experience is unique, [that they were] given different KR treatment – while others do not [see] any difference, given the great loss and pain all survivors had. However, Cham people have perceived that the KR committed genocide against them… [The] verdict is important to shed light on the topic,” she added.
Looking at the wider picture, Gregory Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch who also founded the Cambodian Genocide Project in 1981, argues that the “G-word” holds greater weight in the eyes of the world than other crimes.
“… as soon as the word ‘genocide’ became dominant, forceful action was taken to stop the killing… The G-word still has the moral force for which it was invented.”Gregory Stanton, Genocide Watch
“We conducted a study of the terminology used to describe the four most recent genocides – Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Darfur – and looked at whether there was any correlation between the terminology used and action to stop the genocides,” Stanton said. “The striking result was that as long as ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used, there was no forceful action to stop the killing. But as soon as the word ‘genocide’ became dominant, forceful action was taken to stop the killing… The G-word still has the moral force for which it was invented.”
The UN’s Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It is this designation over which prominent academics that study the Khmer Rouge are wrangling.
In the mind of historian Ben Kiernan of Yale University, there is “no question” that ethnic Vietnamese were targeted on racial grounds. Mass deportations left only 10,000 in the country after 1975, and not one remained after 1979, according to his book The Pol Pot Regime.
Kiernan also believes there was a policy in place to eliminate the Cham community, estimating that 36% of 250,000 Chams died at the hands of the regime, compared to about a fifth of ethnic Khmer.
Testifying at the tribunal in March, Alex Hinton, an anthropologist and the director of the Rutgers Centre for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, pointed to a 1978 speech by Pol Pot – in which the infamous leader announced that “not one seed” of Vietnamese was left in Cambodia – as an illustration of the proclamation of “a successful genocide”.
“It’s what might be called a successful genocide in the sense that virtually every ethnic Vietnamese disappeared from Cambodia, is [what is] being said… The word ‘seed’ is a root metaphor for the destruction of what might be called a race,” Hinton told the court.
During his appearance at the court in 2013, however, Philip Short, author of Pol Pot: A History of a Nightmare, argued that neither the Cham nor ethnic Vietnamese were targeted along ethnic lines. “I’m absolutely convinced there was no attempt to exterminate any particular ethnic group,” Short told the court.
“We are in a totally different situation in Cambodia to that in Rwanda, to that in Nazi Germany, where there was an attempt to exterminate Jews for what they were; they were Jews, therefore they should be exterminated. Tutsis should be exterminated because they’re Tutsis. That simply did not apply in Democratic Kampuchea.”
French historian Henri Locard went further in a 2014 opinion piece for the Cambodia Daily, arguing that genocide is a politically charged term in Cambodia – used by the government for political expediency – and that the Vietnamese fared better than ethnic Khmer.
“The Khmer Rouge committed every single crime against humanity that mankind can devise, but they were not specifically racists,” Locard wrote. “As for the Vietnamese, they were the least unfortunate of all Cambodian residents since the [approximately] 300,000 Vietnamese citizens… were required to leave the country. Not only did most of them take the opportunity to run away from the hated regime, but Sino-Khmers, or Khmers with some snippets of Vietnamese language, also desperately tried to go through the border.”
Locard argued that genocide was not waged against the Cham due to their ethnicity, but instead they were targeted over attempts to rebel in Kampong Cham province and their refusal to renounce their religion.
Stanton called Short and Locard’s understanding of the law flawed, saying that motive is irrelevant if there is evidence of intent to destroy the group.
“Henri Locard and Philip Short are not lawyers, and they probably do not understand the difference between legal intent and motive… The specific intent of genocide must be to destroy members of a group. Motive is the purpose or reason for the acts,” Stanton told Southeast Asia Globe. “The Cham rebellion followed intense persecution and attempts to prevent Chams from speaking their language, raising their own children and living as Chams. Putting down rebellions may have been a Khmer Rouge motive for the genocide of the Chams, [but] repression of a rebellion and genocide were not mutually exclusive. They went together.”
Ly, who says he was spared because of a friendship with a low-level Khmer Rouge official, believes his people were targeted by the regime as its leaders feared that more Chams would rebel after the Kampong Cham uprisings, and because their strong cultural identity made them resistant to assimilation.
“Regarding religion, there was not much talk about hating our religion because Buddhism was also banned. The important thing is that they were scared because the Cham people might have rebelled,” Ly said. “The Cham people tend to help and love each other, that’s why they wanted to create a division between us.”
Regardless of the motives behind the Khmer Rouge policy, Ly was certain that the regime planned to wipe out the Cham in Cambodia. And he has been left to face a painful reality alone. “They really wanted to demolish the Cham people. I lost all my relatives, 35 of them. It is only me left.”
The Khmer Rouge tribunal has never been far from controversy
In 1997, Cambodia approached the UN for help establishing a tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era. It was more than a decade before the first case – against the head of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch – was heard at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2009. Wrangling over the court’s mandate slowed the process considerably, and little wonder, as several senior government figures who served in the Khmer Rouge were keen to ensure they would not be implicated.
Pol Pot and senior regime leaders Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith all escaped prosecution, with the two men dying before they could stand trial and Thirith, suffering Alzheimer’s disease, being found unfit to do so. The second case – against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan – is ongoing, while the government continues to fight tribunal efforts to bring lower-level Khmer Rouge officials before the court. Funding has also been a major bugbear, with the Cambodian government repeatedly failing to pick up its share of the tab, causing local staff to strike on a number of occasions. International donors, who are only required to pay the heftier UN salaries, have bailed out the tribunal each time. At a total cost of more than $200m to date and with just three convictions secured, some have criticised the Khmer Rouge tribunal as a bloated and laborious form of justice.