Yath Run was just nine years old when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975.
Because of the victory of Pol Pot’s forces, Yath Run was separated from his parents and sent to a child labor camp in Battambang province in northwestern Cambodia.
Decades later, Yath Run’s anger at the regime that separated him from his family and whose policies and purges led to the deaths of two million people in less than four years has not dissipated.
Life in prison is not enough, he said ahead of Thursday’s final verdict by the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh upholding the life sentence of Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former head of state, for genocide and crimes against humanity.
“They deserved 200 or 300 years in prison, and even their remains should be handcuffed until their prison sentences are served,” Yath Run, 56, said.
Khmer Rouge leaders should continue to be punished by death; He said none of their relatives – not even children – should be allowed to attend the funeral, suggesting the government designate a specific burial site only for the remains of the regime’s leadership.
“They should not be allowed to hold a funeral ceremony because innocent people were killed during their regime and their bodies had no coffin 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 decision in the UN-backed court’s 16-year work.
The court said it upheld his conviction and life sentence, taking into account all the circumstances, including the tragic nature of the events and the extent of the harm caused to Khieu Samphan.
Some have criticized the tribunal for taking more than a decade and a half and spending more than $330 million to indict five senior Khmer Rouge leaders and successfully convicting only three. Others say healing from the Khmer Rouge nightmare will continue in Cambodia long after the court has finished its legal work.
Khieu Samphan, the 91-year-old former head of state of Pol Pot’s regime, is the only surviving senior regime leader behind bars.
The regime’s self-proclaimed “Brother No. 1,” Pol Pot, died in 1998 before being brought to trial.
Nuon Chea, known as “Brother No. 2” and the main ideologue of the regime, was sentenced by the tribunal to two life terms for crimes against humanity and genocide. He died in 2019.
Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary was accused of crimes against humanity but died of ill health before the trial ended in 2013.
His wife, Ieng Thirith, the regime’s former social minister and Pol Pot’s sister, was also charged but was later found unfit to stand trial due to her mental health. He died in 2015.
Kaing Guek Eav, better known as “Duch”, was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2010 for atrocities committed at the S-21 prison and torture center in Phnom Penh. Duch died in 2020.
More than 40 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, survivors are still troubled by their memories of that period, according to a new study by the Cambodia Documentation Center. [DC-CAM]the country’s leading research institution that archives the events of the Khmer Rouge era.
Based on a survey of more than 31,000 survivors conducted between August 2021 and August 2022, 87 percent of respondents reported still having troubling memories of their past.
These memories “resonated” with survivors, and “25 percent of respondents reported still suffering from nightmares from this period, despite the fact that it happened more than forty years ago,” DC-CAM director Youk Chhang wrote.
Reflecting on the war crimes tribunal’s findings, Youk Chhang said the process was personal for each survivor, but the trial allowed Cambodians to speak more openly about what happened.
This openness allowed them to look more deeply into their personal and collective pasts. Cumulatively, people are willing to address issues more openly, which would help Cambodia in the future, he said.
DC-CAM also found that 47 percent of those surveyed had followed the tribunal’s work, compared to 51 percent who had not. A staggering 81 percent said “good/satisfied” when asked what they thought of the court, compared to 8 percent who said “not good/not satisfied.”
When asked what the tribunal’s contribution has been to the benefit of the individual and society at large, the answer was overwhelmingly “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 was the impact the court had on national reconciliation,” said Craig Etcheson, author of Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals.
Etcheson, who was also an investigator for the tribunal’s office from 2006 to 2012, said the trial has started new conversations in Cambodian society.
Parents were finally able to tell their children about the events of the late 1970s, Etcheson said. He said they could explain why they couldn’t talk about what happened earlier and why they might have behaved in a certain way.
He told Al Jazeera that the tribunal had “reached every corner of the country” and “crossed social divides”.
The purpose of the court was explained through television shows, road shows, art exhibitions and performances.
He said important modules on Cambodia’s history under the regime had been added to the school curriculum, and about 100,000 Cambodians had attended the tribunal’s proceedings.
As head of the tribunal’s public affairs office from 2006 to 2009, Helen Jarvist remembered feeling a little intimidated when she first traveled to rural Cambodia to spread information about the war crimes tribunal, nervous about how people would react.
Former Khmer Rouge regulars had lived quietly in cities, towns and villages since the movement ended in the late 1990s, as fighters were given the choice of joining the government or being arrested, and their military strongholds. accepted the mandate 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 their travels.
“I think it was enthusiasm, especially in rural communities from the beginning. But I don’t think we had enough funding to do it really well,” he said.
The tribunal — the first hybrid war crimes court in which national staff worked with international UN staff in a country where mass crimes were committed — will be remembered for its public and victim participation in the trial, he said, although he thought it was neither. the area was adequately funded or staffed in the original planning.
“It’s really ironic – those were the two big gaps. But they turned out to be the most important legacies I think.
Asked if he thought the tribunal had been successful, DC-CAM’s Youk Chhang warned that the word “success” can never be used when discussing genocide and the deaths of two million people.
The most important part of the trial was the inclusion of survivors, he said, adding that the tribunal “allowed people to participate and agree and disagree” and “personally shut him down”.
“Despite some people not liking the court, it allowed people to express themselves [their criticism] – it makes the court healthier,” he said.
Although the tribunal was significant in terms of justice, prosecution and conviction, Youk Chhang says there is still much to be done after the genocide.
“The court is not a history department or a consulting service,” he said. “It will continue after the court leaves.”
Teenager Khlout Sopoar was born a year after the UN-backed war crimes tribunal began its work in Cambodia.
Sopoar never experienced the suffering or trauma of previous generations who survived the regime and its aftermath.
Yet the 15-year-old student was very clear about the enormity of the crimes, their punishment, and the need for reconciliation.
Khieu Samphan, the last surviving senior regime leader, deserved life in prison, he said.
And the survivors of the regime should accept the right granted by the court.
“I think the brutality committed by the Khmer Rouge regime was enormous,” Sopoar said.
“But the victims should accept the punishment,” he said.
For Sopoar and millions of Cambodians, the end of the court case is a time to move on.