Cambodia, The Killing Fields and rule of law

Saturday , August 16, 2014 - 12:00 AM

Guest commentary

Cambodia, scene of the killing fields of genocide less than four decades ago, has just completed a major step forward. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is the awkward title of an important United Nations tribunal established to endeavor to bring justice to the mass murderers of the demented Khmer Rouge regime. The regime, in power from 1975 to 1979, killed at least 1.5 million and perhaps over 2 million of their fellow Cambodians.

Two officials of that evil government, Nuon Chea and former President Khieu Samphan, have been sentenced to life in prison. In 2010, Kaing Guek Eav was convicted of war crimes and two years later received a life sentence.

The tribunal has been working since 2006, and has so far cost an estimated $200 million. Cambodia lacks modern legal infrastructure, and the judicial process has been made more difficult by an ambiguous courts charter which combines international and Cambodian laws and personnel.

Critics are legion, and also misguided. The Cambodia tribunal provides important evidence that the rule of law is growing in Southeast Asia, where revolution and instability were pervasive for decades in the 20th century.

Economic development is important to the process. In 2012, Cambodia hosted the seventh East Asia Summit, which assembled leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and the U.S. ASEAN, created in 1967, reflects the long-term economic expansion of Asia, greatly boosted by the end of the Cold War and opening of China.

The summit included an initial meeting between President Barack Obama and China Premier Wen Jiabao. That meeting was especially important given vexing disagreements. Obama spoke of the imperative need for ‘clear rules of the road,’ an oblique reference to Washington’s ongoing complaints about unfair trade practices. China also is immersed in complex maritime conflicts with neighbors.

The Cambodia summit followed a conference of the larger Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization held in Vladivostok Siberia. Russia Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seized the opportunity to highlight extensive national involvement in Asia. President Putin continues to emphasize Asia ties, especially with China, during the current crisis with Europe and the U.S. over Ukraine.

APEC was conceived by Australia’s Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1989. The initiative was embraced by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.

In the Atlantic region, NATO and the European Union can trace their origins back to the late 1940s and early 1950s respectively. Asia by contrast lacks the same long-established framework of collaborative institutions.

Vietnam did not join ASEAN until 1995, reflecting the lingering legacy of Cold War as well as revolution. In 2006, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was honored during an APEC summit held in that country.

Vietnam War developments in 1970 brought down the fragile but moderate Cambodia regime of Norodom Sihanouk, followed by the terrifying totalitarian rule of the Khmer Rouge movement.

In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese army did not invade Thailand, a close long-term ally of the United States.

Today, free markets, reflecting expansion of global trade and investment, gradually encourage stability and the rule of law in Cambodia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. At the same time, the complex history of the region requires foreign policies which are careful and informed. This applies especially to the U.S.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). He can be reached at

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