The colonial scramble for Africa may have ended a century ago, but in Indochina something of a cultural struggle still goes on in the hearts of the French, and glimpses of it are surfacing in the oddest of places: a United Nations-backed tribunal where tottering, white-haired Khmer Rouge leaders are finally facing trial three decades after their catastrophic revolution left up to two million people dead.
It is often forgotten that leaders of the Khmer Rouge were deeply involved in French communism as students in Paris in the early 1950s. One was Saloth Sar, the man who became known as Pol Pot, Brother Number One among the shadowy radical Maoists who in 1975 tried to erase the past and restart Cambodian history at Year Zero.
Pol Pot died peacefully in 1998 in his bed, in western Cambodia. But others are still alive, and are now in the custody of a joint Cambodian-UN court erected on a barren field twelve miles outside Phnom Penh belonging to the Cambodian military. There, in a pleasant enough detention center where the inmates have the cheek to complain about the food and living conditions, are housed Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two; Khieu Samphan, the erstwhile head of state and international face of the regime; the power couple Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, ministers, respectively, of foreign affairs and social affairs; and Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng prison and torture center, which sent thousands to the killing fields at Choeung Ek.
Khieu Samphan, free to choose his legal team at the expense of the tribunal (Khmer Rouge leaders claim poverty) has selected an old friend, the colorful French lawyer Jacques Vergès, known for his defense of Carlos the Jackal and Klaus Barbie. Vergès, to the outrage of most Cambodians who follow courtroom events, has chosen to stake his objection to the detention of his new client on the paucity of documents available in the French language. At a news conference after a hearing on December 4, survivors and still-living victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities tried to assault him and his Cambodian legal partner, who had to be hustled out by security.
Vergès’s contempt for the English-speaking panels of international judges and prosecutors he faces (some of them Cambodians who long ago ceased to use the French language) is visceral. He has insulted the bench, the UN and a variety of court officials. He rails against the use of international (read French) financial contributions to the court to print “pretty posters” encouraging victims to come forward with evidence. That money should have gone into French translations, he insists.
Cambodia has not been a French colony since 1954, a couple of decades before the Khmer Rouge came to power and turned the graceful nation into a concentration camp. Yet the French government still ties aid to the promotion of the language. Cambodians complain, for example, that French is the language of instruction at the French-funded school of public health when English (not to mention Khmer) would be more useful.
There are thought to be about 60,000 documents in the Khieu Samphan file. Court officials say that all the most important ones, numbering only several thousand, have been translated and that any other specifically requested would also be rendered into French if necessary. There is simply not enough time or money to translate them all. A French-speaking translator calls this a “culture war” that he has also experienced in other UN tribunals, especially the court in Rwanda.