A reckoning at last

Observations on the Khmer Rouge

In April 1975, after a war in which 600,000 people died and the US rained down half a million tonnes of bombs, Phnom Penh fell to a band of child soldiers in blackened rags who wanted a communist paradise on earth. For the middle class, collaborators, the educated, the travelled and city-dwellers, it was the end of the world. In four years of Khmer Rouge rule a quarter of the population perished.

Unsurprisingly, justice is an emotional issue in Cambodia, and over the years most people had little hope that there would ever be a reckoning for what happened. Against expectations, however, something is finally happening: under an agreement between the UN and the Cambodian government, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) this month began a process that aims to deal out justice to Khmer Rouge leaders.

A handful of senior regime figures will be in the dock, probably including Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's "Brother Number Two", and Ieng Sary, the foreign minister who was the international face of the genocide. It is too late to try their leader, Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

The team of Cambodian and international judges gathered early this month at the dusty military base near Phnom Penh that is to be the seat of the ECCC, where they were due to go through an induction process before setting in motion the preparation of cases.

Unlike other tribunals for crimes of this magnitude, the Khmer Rouge trials will be held under local law, and under its deal with the UN the Cambodian government also won the right to appoint most of the judges. It knows, however, that outside participation is vital if the court is to reach international standards.

The UN is also determined to make this work. At a time when US pressure is threatening the future of the International Criminal Court and the new UN Human Rights Council, a successful trial would answer critics of international justice. It could also provide a model for such trials in future: other tribunals have been criticised for remoteness, but the Cambodian court is locally based and will be accessible to ordinary people. The court will lay on buses to encourage Cambodians to see justice done.

What is less clear is how Cambodians will deal with the emotional strain. A quarter of them are thought to suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder; revisiting those years is likely to be an ordeal. And though this is a country of 14 million people, it has only a handful of psychiatrists.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The house of slaves

The Alternative
Show Hide image

"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.