After a closure of sorts, Cambodia must now look to future

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 5:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 5:50am

No penalty would be enough to serve justice for responsibility in the deaths of up to two million people - from execution, disease, starvation or forced labour. Nor would it fit the charges against those responsible, such as crimes against humanity, genocide, torture and religious persecution. There is therefore an element of symbolism in the life sentences handed down to the last two top leaders of the Khmer Rouge to be held accountable for the Maoist regime's reign of terror over Cambodia in the late 1970s.

The symbolism is etched in time and tide. It is more than 35 years since the regime fell and age has almost cheated justice altogether. One of the former leaders, Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, is 83, and the other, chief ideologue Nuon Chea, is 88.

Of five top former Khmer Rouge officials who were put on trial, only one other has been convicted and sentenced - chief jailer Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch. Former foreign minister Ieng Sary died in hospital at 87 last year, two years after judges halted proceedings against his widow, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, because she was demented.

Cambodians have not received the justice they deserved for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge under the late Pol Pot, partly because Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, had not supported the trials.

The sentences on Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are as near to closure as survivors are going to get for their own suffering and the loss of family members. Now Cambodia needs to focus on reconciliation in order to move on, without forgetting the lessons of the past. To that end, the prospect that schools will now incorporate a new history chapter into their teaching about the regime, as part of moral reparations awarded to victims by the court, is welcome. So is the return to the legislature of opposition leader Sam Rainsy and 54 other members of his party after the end of a boycott that has shut down parliamentary business since last year's general election,