We doubt many Americans can identify Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Then again, millions of Americans have never heard of the Khmer Rouge, don’t know where Cambodia is and weren’t alive in the late 1970s. Even young Americans might, however, have heard of the “killing fields.”
Cambodians old and young know who these men, both in their 80s, are, and won’t miss them when they’re gone. That’s because the two are the most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, a regime responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million people — about one-fourth of Cambodia’s population — between 1975 and 1979.
In a small but significant measure of justice, the Cambodian government, in a joint effort with the United Nations, last week convicted the two of crimes against humanity. The men were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in policies that led to mass executions and widespread starvation.
The proceedings, which took three years, came under harsh criticism, much of it justified. For starters, the trial took place more than 30 years after the offenses occurred and involved a small fraction of the offenses the two men are alleged to have engineered. A second trial will deal with the mass executions — if the men live long enough. A lower-level official was convicted in 2010, but these convictions were the first of the Khmer Rouge’s leadership.
The Khmer Rouge’s leader, Pol Pot, a communist revolutionary and Cambodia’s strongman, died under house arrest in 1998 but otherwise went unpunished. His reign of terror featured his obsession with collectivized farming and labor, a campaign that tore families and entire communities apart.
The two men convicted last week aided in this quest for an agrarian utopia and in the exterminations that ensued. Their convictions stem primarily from organizing mass urban evacuations and setting the stage for at least one mass execution.
Mr. Samphan, a former member of Parliament who in the 1960s was much admired, became the Khmer Rouge’s head of state in 1976. Mr. Chea was the Communist Party’s deputy secretary and upheld the Khmer Rouge’s policies as essential for the “people’s democratic revolution.”
Researchers have found at least 20,000 mass burial sites stemming from that “revolution.” They were dubbed “killing fields” by a Cambodian journalist who fled the regime. Researchers estimate that of the 1.7 to 2.5 million people killed, about 1.3 million were executed. The rest died of starvation or disease.
The conviction of these two old men for their roles in these almost unimaginable horrors might be “too little, too late,” as a Human Rights Watch official said. But it constitutes more justice than Cambodians ever got from the Khmer Rouge.