Old and new testimonies

It is the first time that I appear before a tribunal. I am overwhelmed in turn by painful souvenirs and a powerful desire for punishment and revenge … I give my name. A Khmer lawyer reads a summary of the two- or three-page statement I wrote (for the new authorities) in Siem Reap. Then, I relate my four-year ordeal, name my dead relatives, and end begging the court to condemn the culprits. (Affonço 2005, p. 225)

Denise Affonço was one of the twenty or so survivors of the Khmer Rouge terror who testified at the trial of the ‘Pol Pot–Ieng Sary clique’ organised by the newly established People’s Republic of Kampuchea in August 1979. It has often been called a ‘show trial’, a rather unfit term for what was intended and actually did happen, but characteristic of the Cold War context of the late 1970s. The trial targeted two distinct audiences. On the one hand, the Cambodians: the new communist regime, backed by the Vietnamese and composed of Khmer Rouge who had defected to Vietnam in 1977–1978, had to differentiate itself from the Communist Party of Kampuchea led by Pol Pot and his comrades. On the other hand, the international community: the idea was to discredit the Khmer Rouge since the latter retained their seat at the UN General Assembly with the support of the Western powers and to challenge the West over its recognition policy.

Interviewed 30 years later in relation to the ECCC, Denise Affonço, who lives in France since 1979, declared that she would not testify in the new trial but would become a civil party. Her lawyer will represent her. After so much time she is afraid to come back to Cambodia, to the ‘crime scene’. Asked what she thought about the 1979 trial, she answered:
[It] meant a lot to me. I was relieved and convinced that the culprits—sentenced to death in absentia—would pay for their crimes and that the dead could rest in peace. I did not know what was happening in the upper reaches of international politics. I believed that justice would do its job. The trial, organised by the book, had juridical value. There were lawyers from various countries and international journalists. Later on I accessed the trial archives. What a disappointment when I learned that the UN never recognised the conviction. Today, I think it was a waste of time and money (Gée 2008).

The trial of the ‘Pol Pot—Ieng Sary clique’ was not the only attempt of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea government to document Khmer Rouge atrocities. In 1982–1983 it launched a petition operation (aka Renakse petition or ‘million documents’). Emissaries of the Solidarity Front, the entity in charge of the mission, travelled all over the country to collect signatures of villagers and testimonies about Red Khmer violence. They also recorded the extent of Khmer Rouge destruction: number of people killed and missing, homes destroyed, animals killed and location of mass graves. The petitions were never sent to the UN as it had been intended, but were stored at the Solidarity Front’s office. In 1997, they were handed over to the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (thereafter DC-Cam), an independent research institute compiling and preserving materials on Khmer Rouge crimes. Recently the DC-Cam, whose mission also involves organising information for the prosecution of senior Khmer Rouge leaders at the ECCC, decided to reactivate the Renakse petitions and collect testimonies from the same witnesses anew.

At first sight, the DC-Cam procedure is surprising: 30 years later the memories of survivors might prove even more unreliable, especially if brought into judicial frameworks. It is the political bias of the Renakse petitions (ideological formulation, oath of loyalty to the new government taken by the witnesses) that explains such undertaking. Representatives of the DC-Cam went to villages and met with former signers. The latter were told that—although years ago they had wanted to bear witness to their suffering and Khmer Rouge atrocities—their voice had not been heard because the petitions had been forgotten. Now, they had a chance to be listened to at the international tribunal prosecuting the Khmer Rouge leaders. The DC-Cam proposed to help them become a civil party. The idea was welcomed in different ways. Some survivors were upset and disappointed. They had hoped for trial and punishment then, hence were ready to testify again. Others objected that it happened long ago and life since then had changed and improved. Was it not better, finally, to forget? (Bopha 2008a, b).