Thursday, July 29, 2010

Justice for Cambodians? Follow my Train of Thought...

On July 26th one of the chief Jailers for the former Cambodian communist Khmer Rouge regime was sentenced to 35 years for the crime of torturing and murdering THOUSANDS of men, women, and children (estimates range between 14,000 and 16,000!!) in an effort to turn Cambodia into a "vast agrarian collective." The official crimes were: war crimes, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

Kaing Guek Eav, nicknamed Duch, will end up serving only 19 years of that sentence due to time already served and other factors. This man admitted his role in the killings and torture of thousands of men, women and children at the prison and yet was only given 35 years.

When I first read about this I was totally shocked that a man who did such terrible things could get such a short sentence (and on top of that he is appealing the decision by the UN-backed tribunal). It made me furious for the people who he tortured and killed and for their families. An Associated Press article on the subject included a quote by Saodi Oach, a family member of some of those killed, she said, "I can't accept this. My family died... my older sister, my older brother. I'm the only one left." So many lives were ended and ended brutally at the hands of this man. It would seem to me that any man responsible for so much death and suffering should be given a life sentence for each of the lives he took. Many others would generally assume that such a criminal should pay for his crimes with his own life.

But, then I read that his defense was that he was following orders. Not that that changes very much at all. He is still guilty of doing horrific things to many many people, but in a regime like the Khmer Rouge which ultimately killed 1.7 million people during its campaign, it is almost assured that this man was threatened along with his family and anyone else he loved if he did not follow orders. A New York Times article reported that he "apologized in court for atrocities he had committed but said that he had feared for his own life and that he was a scapegoat for others." It also reported that "Duch's lawyers presented a vigorous defense of a man who has admitted to overseeing the torture and execution of thousands, portraying him as someone trapped in a giant killing machine who later found himself singled out for prosecution." Also, when Kaing Guek Eav was finally found after the end of the regime, he was working the fields in rural Cambodia and had become a born-again Christian.

This is a moral quandry. Well, maybe it's not. Maybe he should have sacrificed himself and his loved ones by refusing to follow orders, but wouldn't the regime have found someone else willing to do it? The truth is that we don't know. We don't know what was in his heart or head. What kind of a spirit he has, and we, ultimately do not have to decide his fate (his ultimate fate), thank goodness. However, there must be consequences for our actions, the more serious the actions- the graver the consequences. Even if you were trying to protect yourself or your family. Even if he has changed his ways, there is still the debt to be paid. And I am not seeing justice in Cambodia. Already many of those involved in the Khmer Rouge campaign have died- including its leader Pol Pot- and were never brought to justice before an earthly tribunal. Earthly justice is important and this man should have to pay the consequences for his actions which should include a prison sentence that does not leave any possibility of getting out. 35 years diminishes the horrors of the Killing Fields and the sufferings of the Cambodian people.

It sometimes seems to me, as an American who went through the public school system and who tries her best to pay attention to the world's events, that the history of Cambodia and the Killing Fields has been forgotten or brushed aside. I don't remember EVER learning about it in grade school. I almost never hear about people doing things to memorialize those lost or to remember to never let such things happen again. Growing up the only genocide I really remember hearing about was the Holocaust, and a little later on in Serbia when the U.S. got involved in the situation with the crimes against humanity of Slobodan Milosevic. But, the situation in Rwanda (which went on WHILE I was a school child) and the horrors of Cambodia where, 1.7 MILLION people were killed, were never really spoken of. And really the only reason I know the little that I do know is because of my mother. In my home stake we used to have a congregation called the Mekong Branch named after the river in Southeast Asia. It was a congregation for people from Vietnam and Cambodia who had resettled in Northern Virginia. My mom served in the Branch so I would go with her and I made good friends, and one of my friends had a father who was severely handicapped, both mentally and physically. In normal child-like fashion I remember staring at him and being uncomfortable until my mother explained that he had been tortured while living in Cambodia and how horrible things had been there. He had lived there during the Khmer Rouge campaign and had been tortured but somehow was able to get out alive. Many of the people in that branch had been through similar situations, or else had lost family members to the killing fields: spouses, parents, children. It is something that we need to educate ourselves about and again, just like with An Ordinary Man and the massacre in Rwanda, prevent prevent prevent. I think knowing and understanding as much as we can is really the only tangible thing that can be done by the indivdual, but I also feel that the UN and international community can strengthen themselves (without stepping on any domestic toes) so that the world can protect itself and everyone will feel a duty to help those in need. The countries we now need to focus on as far as mass muder and crime against humanity are The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sudan. Justice needs to be brought down upon the perpetrators of these crimes, and mercy needs to be extended to their victims. Humanity demands both justice and mercy, but there must be good, brave people willing to carry it out. We need to be those people.


1 comment:

austin said...

I read this just after watching the most recent MormonMessage about forgiveness and I think the two situations are ripe for comparing/contrasting. I won't go into that here (I'm already too prolix) but I found it interesting to think about.

You're right: this guy deserves a lifetime of prison. In a sense, I can understand why he would do it to protect his family, but he has to know that there will be a price to pay for that decision and accept it. His family (I assume, at least) is safe, but justice has to be meted out on him.

Also, this seems like a great example for why I don't support the death penalty. Assuming that his conversion to Christianity is authentic, it shows how even people we might never think could change--people who tortured and killed hundreds--still have a potential to accept Christ into their lives. I don't want to take away that chance from people to do that in this life, even if it's only a tiny minority of criminals who do so. Again, that doesn't mean that he shouldn't be punished--indeed I would have hoped that he would have accepted judgment nobly as part of his repentance process--but it is a hopeful sign that people can change.

I also didn't learn about the Cambodian genocide in school, though I do remember my mom mentioning that the parents of a Cambodian woman in our ward were killed, which much later I realized was part of Pol Pot's insanity. If you ever want to read a terrifying but important first-hand account, check out "To Destroy You Is No Loss." It will tear your heart out, multiple times.

As for your ending: I agree! But... sometimes (read: lately) I get discouraged about practical things we can do to stop this stuff. I agree that there's *more* we can do in Sudan and the Congo, but I'm resignedly skeptical that we could *stop* the atrocities there. I mean, our military forces are already stretched pretty thin so I don't think we could give much in the way of peacekeeping forces--and even if we did it's no simple thing to have a foreign military put a stop to a civil war. Long term solutions (education, health care, economic aid, etc) are important but, by definition, slow. Even emergency aid in so many cases is diverted by those in power and corrupt officials to fatten their own pockets. I don't mean to be a downer (though I realize I am here), but I would love to hear/see/participate in something that is effective in stopping/preventing these things; so far I don't think I have. Please tell me you know the answer though! Awareness is certainly the first step, so thanks for doing that.