On a 300 hectare expanse in a remote part of central Cambodia, a massive airstrip capable of handling the heaviest of bombers lies abandoned. A Cold War relic, the 1.4 kilometer runway has rarely been used. Still, it goes to the heart of an enormous travesty.
Ey Sarih knows this full well and has stood guard at the airstrip’s gates for more than 20 years. At 46 years of age, he has three children and a wife who runs a small roadside drinks shop. And he remembers very clearly the Khmer Rouge and what they did here.
“Most of the work was done here over 1978,” he says. “Then they killed a lot of people. They deserve to be there in front of the tribunal.”
Back in the capital, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has wound up after a controversial year, but with the three most senior surviving leaders in the dock for crimes against humanity as part of Case 002. Other charges of genocide, murder and torture are expected to be laid later.
Among the latest revelations were that members of the all-important Standing Committee had routinely visited the site of the airstrip, where Khieu Samphan, a former head of state, had pressed laborers to work ever harder.
There are several estimates on how many were deployed to work here, but tribunal sources put the number at 30,000 people. Those sent here were put to work constructing the runway, access roads, blast walls and a control tower that remains useable to this day. But conditions for laborers were allegedly so appalling that many preferred suicide, throwing themselves under passing trucks. Hanging, drowning and poisons were also used by workers to take their own lives. Then, nearly all those who survived until the end of 1978 were killed.
Ey Sarih says the dead were buried around the airstrip and at a nearby mountain where secret tunnels were dug to house Chinese logistics and computer equipment linked to the control tower.
The crimes were, of course, part of a much greater atrocity. Between 1.7 million and 2.2 million people died under Pol Pot, whose tyrannical rule lasted from April 1975 to January 1979. These were the darkest days of Cambodia’s 30 year war that ended in 1998, when efforts to kick start a war crimes tribunal finally gained some traction.
How much Beijing knew about the atrocities as they were being committed has been the subject of much debate among academics and military analysts. China has said nothing about the airstrip or its support of the Khmer Rouge, except to say the tribunal and prosecution of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders was an internal matter for Cambodians to resolve.
At the time, China also had its problems. Back in the 1970s, the Cultural Revolution was at its peak, and the leadership in Beijing was in disarray following the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976. The one man considered powerful enough to intervene, Deng Xiaoping, had been exiled to the countryside. Deng returned and took control of China in December 1978, the same month Vietnam invaded and ousted Pol Pot from power. Beijing, in support of the Khmer Rouge, retaliated by launching a cross border incursion into northern Vietnam.
The airstrip would have allowed the Chinese to stage short-range bombing raids over southern Vietnam and its near-completed status, some military analysts have argued, was also likely in Hanoi’s thinking and partially responsible for its invasion of Cambodia.
Ey Sarih says the reason the airstrip was constructed is a matter for the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) to establish, although he adds that “Chinese people came here to build the airport for fighting.”
Academics have argued that at least 5,000 Chinese people were classified as technicians and working in the then-Democratic Kampuchea as advisors to Pol Pot and his Standing Committee. China was the only country to have any substantial presence here, and critics argue this is a national embarrassment.
Others have also suggested that China’s role inspired rival Japan to fund much of the tribunal, which has cost almost $150 million since 2006, when initial investigations were launched.
The ECCC’s mandate is to try those most responsible, hence its focus on surviving members of the Standing Committee – Khieu Samphan, chief ideologue Nuon Chea and former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary – who wrote and deployed government policy.
Ieng Sary’s wife and former Minister for Social Affairs Ieng Thirith has also been charged, but was ruled unfit to stand trial due to dementia. She remains behind bars while doctors undertake further tests. Five other former Khmer Rouge have also been touted for prosecution and investigations are continuing.
In recent weeks, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan have been quiet while Nuon Chea and a senior Khmer Rouge advisor, Long Norin, gave evidence. Nuon Chea appeared to revel in being the center of attention and held to his long standing defense that the Vietnamese were responsible for all the deaths.
He also claimed his moniker Brother Number Two was inaccurate as it made him “look too big” and that none of the senior leaders were responsible for the evacuation of Phnom Penh or provincial cities of people who would fill the slave labor camps, like the airport construction site at Kampong Chhnang.
However, Nuon Chea attempted to justify the policy saying the cities were full of prostitutes, drunks, gamblers and hedonism comparable with Sodom in a country that needed farmers. He horrified Buddhist monks in the public gallery by denying the Khmer Rouge ever sought to abolish religion, and claims that the Khmer Rouge conducted mass purges of the party, turning on its own.
On the latter point, however, he added: “Some people could be re-educated while others could not…The revolution is to build the forces, not to smash the forces except in circumstances where those people after reeducation and rebuilding on several occasions could not be reeducated or transformed.”
The ECCC has faced severe criticism over its handling of investigations and the appointment of local and international staff. It has also been described as the most difficult tribunal since Nuremberg. Still, by the gates of the deserted airstrip in Kampong Chhnang, Ey Sarih says the tribunal is worth the expense and he happily shows off his collection ECCC booklets explaining the make-up and functions of the tribunal.
“Many, many people died, and they deserve to be before the court,” he says of the defendants. “Now my children are learning all about this in school and this is good.”
To date, more than 100,000 Cambodians have flocked to the ECCC to witness the trial process first hand. And there will be plenty of time for more to watch the proceedings unfold – defense lawyers told The Diplomat they expect the current trial to last another two years.