As a leading investigator into the brutality of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, genocide researcher Youk Chhang says it's easier to count the survivors in his family than the dozens, including his sister and father, who died. Sentenced during that period to a mass labor camp, Chhang, who now heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia, has devoted the past decade to gathering more than 400,000 documents relating to the Khmer Rouge. He told reporter Kay Johnson in Phnom Penh on March 31 that his countrymen are hungry for justice and pray that the proposed trials of Khmer Rouge leaders will deliver it
TIME: After so many years, why is it so important to the Cambodian people to find justice in this case?
A: People have been searching for justice for so long, but no one has come to give them the answers. During the last 25 years people have tried many different ways of achieving justice they have signed petitions, they have built stupas and filled them with skulls, they have shared their stories with officials and they have written their own stories down. People have tried in many ways and this is one of the reasons they have survived the trauma that happened under the Khmer Rouge regime. But it hasn't worked. That's why a trial is the last solution. We've never had a trial in Cambodia; we've never had a real independent trial. People have been very patient. This is the last solution because people want it.
TIME: You, probably more than anyone, have discussed this issue extensively with people around the country. Is it your opinion that people want not only a trial but a trial with United Nations involvement and, if so, why?
A: The government itself understands that the courts do not function effectively. The government itself has asked for support from the international community. Today, money is the key to solving the conflict between the strong and the weak. And these days many cases don't provide justice to the victims. We must also remember that this is not about Cambodia: it's about humanity. The Khmer Rouge case is so complex; people in Europe and elsewhere would not understand this. And it's important for those people to understand how this happened so they can prevent this sort of thing from happening elsewhere in the world. So we need official involvement.
TIME: The Cambodian parliament is poised to pass a law to set up a tribunal targeting the leadership of the Khmer Rouge. Do you think this tribunal, when it is formed, will provide justice?
A: I think justice will be found and that it will please a lot of people, but not everybody. People have understood that the survivors have demanded justice, and that anything less than justice will not do. I think also the government would like to claim responsibility to answer for the people of Cambodia, especially the genocide victims. But I would like to point out that because of political differences, because of the support that comes from different levels in society, whatever justice comes out of this court will not please everybody. And again, a trial is just one of the many ways to try to resolve what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime. It's just the beginning of the long process for complete justice for the people of Cambodia.
TIME: Who in your opinion should be brought to trial for these crimes? Who in the end is responsible?
A: From a legal point of view, this matter should be left to a prosecutor to decide. My personal point of view is that those who invented or created policy, and those who were closely associated, supported or participated in the policy making process, i.e., those who worked closely with the Standing Committee, should be brought to justice.
TIME: How many people from the Standing Committee are alive today?
A: I think it is about six, namely Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Ke Pauk, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan [Cambodia's head of state during the Killing Fields era]. There are others too.
TIME: There seems to be a discrepancy in that some of the Khmer Rouge leaders, for instance Ta Mok and Khek Ieu (Duch), are in custody, while defectors such as Ieng Sary are free and Ke Pauk is even a general in the government army. Are you concerned that all leaders won't be brought to trial?
A: If the court is independent it doesn't matter where they are or who they are, they all will be brought to justice. That is the key: the court must be independent. When I use the word independent, I mean that no one should control the court. The UN should not control the court, the government should not control the court--nobody should. And therefore, if the court structure is as such, it doesn't matter where they are right now or how much freedom they enjoy walking along the street, they will be brought to justice.
TIME: Is there any question in your mind that Cambodia's current court system could handle these trials on its own, especially in an independent way?
A: The government itself requested U.N. support, therefore they acknowledge that their own court system is not effective, and that they can't handle this case alone. In 1997, both former co-prime ministers--Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen--wrote to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and it was clear then that in their view they needed help.
TIME: A lot has happened since 1997. Hun Sen has welcomed back Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ke Pauk. At one point, he even told Cambodians not to think about having trials. Do you think Hun Sen still wants UN support or does he just wish this issue would go away?
A: I think he still wants support from the UN but at his request, and that is the problem. Perhaps his request for assistance is not the way the UN wants to provide assistance. I think that Hun Sen would like Cambodia--in order for economic development to blossom--to be integrated into the global economy. These are the facts of life. It's very significant for bodies like the UN to be involved in the Khmer Rouge trials, and I think Hun Sen would like that. It's just a matter of how much help he wants to receive and how much the UN is willing to provide.
TIME: One of the major sticking points right now seems to be trust. All the major points the UN has brought up have to do with ensuring that politics do not intrude on the process, specifically in preventing defectors such as Ieng Sary from being indicted. Do you think Hun Sen is willing to allow a truly independent court? He has said it might restart the civil war.
A: First of all, I don't think there will be a civil war and I think Hun Sen knows that. From attending a lot of meetings and talking to survivors, I feel that no one wants to have a civil war and no one wants to run to the jungle again. There's no place to hide now. I think it's not a matter of trust, it' s a matter of honesty. Hun Sen or the UN should not even think about control. If either has the idea that they want to control anything that comes up in the court, it won't be fair, it won't be just.
TIME: Do you think Hun Sen wants Cambodian courts to control this process?
A: I think he does. It shows the independence of the country. He sees it as a political rather than a justice issue: Having someone above a Cambodian judge or lawyer seems to send the message that foreigners have control and this discredits the integrity of the country. But Hun should not worry about that and he should make sure that no one can control the court.
TIME: Critics say Hun Sen's ulterior motive is to protect defectors from being brought to court. Do you think he really wants all those responsible for Khmer Rouge atrocities brought to court, or is he more interested in selective justice?
A: It seems to me that he doesn't care if anyone wants to bring Ieng Sary to justice. I think it is just a matter of how much power the court has to issue the indictment. That's the key. If the court is independent, if the prosecutors have the right and the full authority to indict anyone who there is sufficient evidence against, then I don't think Hun Sen, or even God, can prevent that from happening. There should be some kind of agreement between the government and the UN that 'right now we start with anyone on the Standing Committee and see how it goes.' And then maybe there could be Phase 2, looking at the regional leadership, and then Phase 3, and see how far it goes. If you try to do everything at the same time, it will only confuse and delay the process.
Q: If the UN and Cambodia are able to agree to run a tribunal jointly, how might it benefit Cambodia's court system?
A: Cambodia can learn from it. It can use all the systems and resources that have been established for the trial. It can have a formal reference of how a case should be structured. It will also be an educational process for them to see how a case is conducted in this kind of environment.
TIME: What if the UN and Cambodia do not come to an agreement? What will be the result if Cambodia holds these trials on its own?
A: Cambodia will always survive, it will always move on with its own life, but without prosperity, without law. Cambodians will no longer trust the legal system, which will damage the future of Cambodia. The country will take another 50 years or so to catch up with the world. We will remain behind, we'll remain in poverty and that will cause other problems in society. Who knows? Another revolution? Another war? According to the past, history here is always repeated. So there's a lot of consequences that could happen. But at the same time I hope that the UN and the Cambodian government believe that they both have historical responsibilities to make this happen. And both of them have no choice but to make it work, not just for Cambodia but also for other countries in the world.