The British government pledges £1.4m to the Cambodian war crimes court

©magnumphotos

©magnumphotos

British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced this week that Britain has pledged £1.4m to help fund Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge war crimes court.

The court, which is close to running out of money, is currently trying top leaders of the murderous Khmer Rouge communist regime that ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of almost two million people during their four years in power, almost a quarter of the country’s population, through starvation, overwork, torture and execution all in their bid to create an agrarian utopia.

Pol Pot

Pol Pot

The leader of the party, Pol Pot, aka “Brother Number one,” came to power in 1975 with one aim, to reconstruct Cambodia on the communist model of Mao’s China, taking the country back to the Middle Ages and forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside. Declaring that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”, Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and set about abolishing money, private property and religion. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labour camps. Factories, schools, hospitals and universities were shut down and professionals including doctors, lawyers and teachers were murdered together with their extended families. Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed including those who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language. Buddhist monks were also executed and temples destroyed. One Khmer slogan ran ‘To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.’

khmer6

The Killing Fields

The film The Killing Fields tells the story of the genocide through the real life friendship of American reporter Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian interpreter Dith Pran. The man who played Pran in the film was Haing S. Ngor, who had no acting experience but who had himself survived the genocide. He was a trained surgeon and gynecologist practicing in the capital Phnom Penh when Pol Pot seized the country. He had to conceal his education, occupation and even the fact that he wore glasses to spare his life. During his stay in one of the concentration camps with his pregnant wife, he was unable to give her the cesarean section she needed when she went into labour, knowing that exposing himself would get them killed.

Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields

Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields

His wife subsequently died giving birth and after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Ngor went on to work as a doctor in a refugee camp in Thailand before being picked to play Dith Pran. The film brought a lot of attention to the genocide and Ngor went on to win the Oscar for his role, becoming the first Asian male actor to win one for their debut performance.

End of the Genocide

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge government were finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops. The majority of the perpetrators of the genocide escaped to the borders of Thailand where they lived until recently. Pot lived out his days in the northern jungles of Cambodia and died in 1998 before ever being brought to justice.

Ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary, “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and one-time head of state Khieu Samphan are currently on trial at the court with charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. So far the court has one conviction, sentencing Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Comrade Duch, to life in prison for his role in the torture and deaths of more than 15,000 people at the Tuol Sleng (S21) prison.

aka Comrade Duch

Kaing Guek Eav aka Comrade Duch: The Khmer Rouge executioner

Comrade Duch was the director of the infamous prison in Phnom Penh, one of 150 execution and torture centres in the country. Doctors, teachers, academics and any ‘enemies’ of Cambodia were brought to the prison with accusations of espionage levelled against them. They were photographed and then repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates who were then arrested and suffered the same treatment.

A painting depicting the torture by Tuol Sleng survivor Van Nath

A painting depicting the torture methods of the Khmer Rouge by Tuol Sleng survivor Van Nath

After prolonged torture the victims were taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where they were murdered and buried in mass graves.

Out of 17,000 people who passed through the prison only 7 people survived.

Chum Mey - One of the survivors of Tuol Sleng ©guardian

Chum Mey – One of the survivors of Tuol Sleng ©guardian

Hague has said that the court and its prosecutions are some of the most important since the post-World War II Nuremberg trials and that “The UK is committed to supporting the Court and our planned contribution will provide a measure of stability in this difficult period… We will continue to call on international partners, including states in the region, to contribute to the court.”

For more information about the court please see – http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en

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