I will never forget my introduction to Cambodia’s Genocide. It was watching the film “The Killing Fields,” a true story about two journalists, American Sydney Schanberg and his colleague Cambodian Dith Pran, who was left behind when the Khmer Rouge took over his country on April 17, 1975.
Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 million people — a fifth of the entire Cambodian population. During that period, the country was effectively sealed off from the outside world. The horrors that were taking place there only began to come to light when refugees escaped over the border into Thailand. Dith Pran’s story and the fate of his people left a deep impression on me. I read every book I could find on the subject and made it a focus of my graduate school studies.
I soon found my way to the Thai-Cambodian border. The largest Cambodian “city” at the time was Site II, a refugee camp on the Thai side of the border. A bamboo metropolis with streets, neighborhoods, markets, schools, health centers and Buddhist temples, it was also hot, dusty, muddy, guarded by the Thai military and home to thousands of Cambodians who had managed to escape the fate of their fellow citizens.
Refugees who told me about their lives spoke in terms of before or after “the Pol Pot time”, referring to the mild mannered but ruthless leader of the Khmer Rouge. Eventually those refugees were able to return home but the road to justice and reconciliation has been a long one.
Out of graduate school and working for an NGO in Washington, I joined the Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge (CORKR). CORKR’s goal was to advocate for justice in Cambodia by pushing the U.S. government to support an international criminal tribunal for Cambodia.
This small but committed group of Americans succeeded after years of hard work in convincing Congress to pass the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act – which committed the U.S. government to the pursuit of justice for the victims of the genocide and provided the funding for a Cambodian Genocide Program. The Program established an office in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, which became the independently run Documentation Center of Cambodia. The Center collected over 100,000 pages of documents and a vast video library about the Khmer Rouge regime and its victims.
It took another decade before a joint UN/Cambodian tribunal was established and its prosecutors found evidence of “crimes against humanity, genocide, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, homicide, torture and religious persecution.” The bulk of the documentation for the tribunal came from the Documentation Center. Sadly, Pol Pot died before he could be brought to trial for his heinous crimes. However, three of his top leaders are currently on trial for crimes against humanity. Their faces once adorned the Wanted posters of CORKR’s Campaign. Thinking back about the years of work on the Campaign and the many years it has taken since then to establish the tribunal, remind me that the road to achieving justice and accountability is a long one. It requires time, patience and unwavering commitment, which we need to remember as we continue working for these same goals in other parts of the world.