Sieu Sean Do was 12 years old when Khmer Rouge soldiers ordered his family to leave their home in Phnom Penh and go to the Cambodian jungle, where labor camps, starvation and persecution in the notorious “fields of death” of the regime would ultimately cause 1.7 million deaths.
Do witnessed massacres and torture before his family escaped, eventually moving to the United States. But lasting trauma and a desire to see justice stayed with him.
On Thursday, Cambodia’s 16-year UN-backed tribunal to prosecute the leaders of the 1970s regime ended after securing just three convictions at a cost of more than $330 million.
For Do and other Cambodian-American survivors, this fell far short of the justice they sought. But some said it still created a vital legal and historical record of the Cambodian genocide.
“The court process allowed survivors to finally have an opportunity to express what they had been through,” Do, now 59, told USA TODAY.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge attempted to create a classless agrarian society, forcing city dwellers to move to the countryside to work hard labor. Mismanagement led to starvation and disease. The regime targeted teachers, lawyers, doctors and clergy, according to the University of Minnesota’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The Khmer Rouge were ousted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979.
In Phnom Penh this week, busloads of Cambodians came to watch the final proceedings of a court that aimed to deliver justice, accountability and explanation for crimes.
EVENING NEWS: Sign up for USA TODAY’s free Evening Briefing newsletter
In its last session, the UN-assisted tribunal rejected an appeal by Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. He reaffirmed his life sentence following his conviction in 2018 for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The court previously convicted Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s No. 2, and Kaing Guek Eav, who commanded Tuol Sleng prison, where around 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away to be killed. Both have since died.
The tribunal – established in 2006 after the deaths of scores of Khmer Rouge officials, including leader Pol Pot, who perished in the jungle in 1998 at the age of 72 while leading guerrilla warfare long after losing the power – has long been criticized for being slow.
David Scheffer, a former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues who also served as the special expert on UN assistance to the tribunal from 2012 to 2018, said the tribunal faced a certain number of challenges. This included disputes over who could be sued.
Cambodia’s longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected when the group was in power and was installed under a new government.
Although the court fell short of its potential, Scheffer argued that it still produced an important measure of justice while helping to develop school education about the Khmer Rouge period.
“Justice has been served. Does that mean justice has been served for every death, against all perpetrators of death, injury and destruction under the Pol Pot regime…of course not,” said he declared.
Do, who lives in San Francisco, said he had “spoken with many angry survivors who shared their disappointment” about how long the court took for so few convictions.
“People are quick to note the flaws of the court, especially the political interference. And that was an albatross for the court,” Alexander Hinton, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, told USA TODAY via email. , who studies genocide and was in Cambodia for the final court hearing.
He added, “There have been too few trials, but the ones that did were important and essential to help Cambodia heal and move forward after one of the worst genocides in history.”
In Long Beach, Calif., Richer San, 58, a board member of the community group called Cambodia Town, Inc., told USA TODAY he also survived the Khmer Rouge as a youth.
“Horrible things happened,” said San, who recalls being kicked out of town at gunpoint. “My generation and more, you know, still suffer from PTSD.”
The tribunal, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers within the Courts of Cambodia, will now enter a “residual” period of three years, focusing on organizing its archives and disseminating information about its work for educational purposes.
“We don’t forget the past – because we were there,” San said. “But we are also looking forward to it.”
Contributor: The Associated Press
Chris Kenning is a national journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chris_kenning.