A bloody footprint

This is a guest post by Stephen W

A durable fact, cast in high-grade concrete, stretches for a mile and a half in the flatlands – just below the southern neck of Cambodia’s great central lake. The runway lies, mostly unused and unregarded, nearly ten km outside the tiny provincial capital of Kampong Chhnang. It is an inadvertent monument to the direct involvement of the People’s Republic of China in the Cambodian ‘auto-genocide’.

Thousands of Cambodian people, soldiers mostly, deemed ideological no-hopers by the government of ‘Democratic Kampuchea’, laboured to complete the airstrip and were then murdered. This was for the sake of a facility purportedly to export to China a fondly-imagined rice surplus, but also offering a dedicated nesting site within striking distance of Saigon/HCMC for Shenyang J-6’s and perhaps the new J-8’s, which included for the first time significant design input from Chinese engineers – an adaptation rather than a straightforward copy of a MiG.

The forced labour and mass murder employed in laying the airstrip at Kampong Chhnang amounts to a very small fraction of the total sum of murders in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, yet it does hark back to foreign-imposed and very uncivil engineering projects of the past, like the (1921) road from Kampot to the French petit-paradis of Bokor Hill Station, complete with casino and church; or the Vietnamese-commissioned Ha Tien canal, vintage 1813/14. At Kampong Chhnang, though, both the raw magnitude of the crime and the harm intended were significantly greater. “To destroy you is no loss; to keep you is no gain.” Such was the charnel logic espoused by the creatures of anonymous Angkar.

This commercially useless (so far) airport bespeaks also a betrayal of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s own dogma of ‘independence mastery’, as they placed Khmer bodies once more under the direction of foreign engineers, with predictably, deliberately extravagant attrition. These ultra-paranoid nationalists, blood-and-soilers, were also not merely ideological ‘Maoists’ but personal associates of Mao himself and of Zhou Enlai.

By a supreme effort of doublethink, they were readying their country for new overlords in Beijing (themselves resorting, by then, to capitalism). The ruling CPK clique repeatedly expressed the intention do outdo and outstrip all other revolutions, including China’s, but ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ had a relatively tiny reserve of human life to sacrifice to this impossible super-revolution – a starting population of around seven million, which had suffered losses of nearly half a million lives in the previous five years of civil war.

Just recently, they’ve been having yet another re-think at the $200m Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Only one trial has been completed so far – that of the torturer and mass-killer Kaing Kek Iev, although appeals have yet to be heard. Over the summer, a squeak of fanfare announced the trial, at long last, of the four surviving principals. Since that brief summer fanfare, the fleetingly imminent joint trial of the most senior surviving members of the ‘Pol Pot’ gang has been abandoned until next year and now seems likely to be split into separate trials, deferring until nobody-knows-when a public judicial examination of the grisly construction project at Kampong Chhnang. The youngest defendant, 78-year-old Ieng Thirith, may not face trial at all, if doctors confirm that she has indeed developed Alzheimer’s while waiting for the wheels of justice to turn.

Advancing age is winnowing out surviving victims too. Among these, just last month, was the celebrated Vann Nath, who painted many of the horrors he’d witnessed at the torture centre housed in a former school at Tuol Sleng.

In 2009 the British lawyer and former soldier Andrew Cayley was appointed as international co-prosecutor at the ECCC, replacing the Canadian Robert Petit. Cayley’s reputation now seems pitted against that of Siegfired Blunk, the “erratic” UN co-investigating judge who has appeared disinclined to fully examine the cases already on the Court’s books.  At stake are not only the reputation but the viability of the ‘Khmer Rouge Tribunal’ in the face of scantily vested interests that would rather it went away. The Vietnamese conducted their own crude yet concise trials 32 years ago and today have more to lose than they’ve ever had. The Russians might be expected to relish a chance to make the most of the US’s “quasi-alliance” with China through the 70’s and 80’s, but they would then be required to answer for their own crimes. Cambodia’s relations with the capitalist titan of the age, meanwhile, go from strength to strength. Fiat iusticia? It would be nice, given that the Cambodian world has indeed perished once. However, Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly asserted that the same could happen again if the Court pursues justice to the full extent of its mandate.

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