Yath Run was only nine when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.
The victory of Pol Pot’s forces saw Yath Run separated from his parents and sent to a children’s labor camp in the northwestern Cambodian province of Battambang.
Decades later, Yath Run’s anger has not subsided at the regime that separated him from his family and whose policies and purges have led to the deaths of two million people in less than four years.
A life spent in prison wasn’t enough, he said, speaking ahead of Thursday’s final ruling by the Khmer Rouge War Crimes Tribunal in Phnom Penh, which affirmed former regime head Khieu Samphan’s life sentence. for genocide and crimes against humanity.
“They deserved a sentence of 200 or 300 years in prison and their remains should also be handcuffed until their prison sentences are served,” said Yath Run, 56.
Punishment for Khmer Rouge leaders should continue even with death; none of their relatives – not even children – should be allowed to attend their funeral, he said, proposing that the government designate a specific burial site only for the remnants of the regime’s leadership.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to have a funeral ceremony because during their regime innocent people were massacred and their bodies had no coffins to lie in,” he said.
The rejection of Khieu Samphan’s appeal by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – the official name of the war crimes tribunal – marked the final ruling in the 16-year work of the United Nations-backed court.
The court said it upheld his sentence and life sentence “in light of all the circumstances, including the tragic nature of the underlying events and the extent of the damage Khieu Samphan caused.”
Some have criticized the court for taking more than a decade and a half and spending more than $ 330 million to charge five Khmer Rouge leaders and have successfully sentenced only three. Others say the Khmer Rouge nightmare healing work will continue in Cambodia long after the court’s legal work is now completed.
Khieu Samphan, 91, former head of state of the Pol Pot regime, is the only surviving leader of the regime behind bars.
The regime’s self-styled “No. 1 brother”, Pol Pot, died in 1998 before he could be brought to justice.
Nuon Chea, known as “Brother No. 2” and the regime’s chief ideologue, was sentenced to two life sentences by the court for crimes against humanity and genocide. He died in 2019.
Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, Ieng Sary, was charged with crimes against humanity but died of health problems before the trial was completed in 2013.
His wife, Ieng Thirith, the regime’s former minister of social action and Pol Pot’s sister-in-law, was also charged, but was later found ineligible to stand trial on mental health grounds. She died in 2015.
Kaing Guek Eav, better known as “Duch”, was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2010 for the atrocities perpetrated in the S-21 prison and the Phnom Penh torture center. He two died in 2020.
More than 40 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, survivors are still troubled by memories of that period, according to new research conducted by the Documentation Center of Cambodia. [DC-CAM]the country’s leading research institute that archives the events of the Khmer Rouge era.
Based on a survey of over 31,000 survivors conducted between August 2021 and August 2022, 87% of respondents reported that they still have troubling memories of the past.
Those memories “resonated” with survivors and “25% of respondents reported still suffering from nightmares from this period, despite the fact that it occurred more than forty years ago,” wrote DC-CAM director Youk Chhang.
Reflecting on the war crimes tribunal’s conclusion, Youk Chhang said the trial was personal to each survivor, but the legal process had allowed Cambodians to be more open about what had happened.
That opening had allowed them to look deeper into their personal and collective past. Cumulatively, this has led to people being willing to address issues more openly, which would help Cambodia in the future, she said.
DC-CAM also found that 47% of respondents had followed the court’s work compared to 51% who had not. A staggering 81% answered “good / satisfied” when asked what they thought of the court, compared to 8% who answered “not good / not satisfied”.
When asked what the court’s contribution had been to the individual and to society at large, the overwhelming answer was “justice”.
Education was also seen as the most important way to “help the younger generation remember the history of the Khmer Rouge and prevent” the return of such a brutal regime.
“For me, the most important thing that emerged was the effect the court had on national reconciliation,” said Craig Etcheson, author of Extraordinary Justice: Khmer Rouge Law, Politics and Courts.
Etcheson, who was also an investigator in the co-prosecutor’s court office from 2006 to 2012, said the judicial process sparked new conversations in Cambodian society.
Parents could finally tell their kids about the events of the late 1970s, Etcheson said. They could explain why they might not have been able to talk about what happened before, and also why they might have behaved a certain way, he said.
The court had “entered every corner of the country” and “through social divisions,” he told Al Jazeera.
There was outreach to explain the purpose of the court through television coverage, road shows, art exhibits, and performances.
Important modules on Cambodian history during the regime period were added to the school curriculum, and about 100,000 Cambodians visited the court proceedings, he said.
As head of the court’s public affairs office from 2006 to 2009, Helen Jarvis recalled a feeling of slight trepidation when she first traveled to rural Cambodia to distribute information about the War Crimes Tribunal. , nervous about people’s reactions.
Former base members of the Khmer Rouge had lived quietly in cities, towns and villages since the movement ended in the late 1990s, as fighters were given the option of deserting to the government or being arrested and because their military strongholds accepted the authority of Phnom Penh.
“I was so hesitant at first, wondering how we would be received,” Jarvis said, adding that to his surprise, his team never encountered hostility or negativity during those trips.
“I think it has been enthusiasm, especially in rural communities, from the very beginning. But we didn’t have enough funds, in my opinion, to do it really well, ”she said.
The tribunal – the first hybrid war crimes tribunal in which domestic staff collaborated with UN international staff in a country where mass crimes were perpetrated – will be remembered for its public outreach and victim participation in the legal proceedings, he said, although he did not feel the area had been adequately funded or staffed in the initial planning.
“It’s really ironic: those were two big gaps. But they turned out to be the most important legacy, in my opinion. “
Asked if he thought the court was successful, DC-CAM’s Youk Chhang cautioned that “success” is never a word to use when it comes to genocide and the deaths of two million people are being discussed.
The most important part of the judicial process was the inclusion of survivors in the process, he said, adding that the court “allowed people to participate and agree and disagree” and “close it personally”.
“While some people didn’t like court, it allowed people to speak up [their criticism] – this makes the court healthier, ”he said.
Although the court was important in terms of justice, prosecution and convictions, Youk Chhang says there is still a lot to do after the genocide.
“The court is not the history department or the advisory service,” he said. “This is what continues after the court is gone.”
Teenager Khlout Sopoar was born a year after the United Nations-backed War Crimes Tribunal began its work in Cambodia.
Sopoar has never experienced the suffering or trauma of previous generations who have experienced the regime and its aftermath.
Still, the 15-year-old student was very clear in judging the enormity of the crimes, their punishment and the need for reconciliation.
Khieu Samphan, the regime’s last surviving high leader, deserved a life sentence, he said.
And the survivors of the regime should accept the justice rendered by the court.
“I think the atrocity committed by the Khmer Rouge regime was huge,” Sopoar said.
“But the victims should accept the sentence,” he said.
For Sopoar and millions of Cambodians, the end of the legal process marks a time to move forward.