Cambodian and international judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia are meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to hammer out differences on rules for the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal. But the last U.S. diplomat to leave Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975, says the court's proposed $56-million budget would be better used for schools and hospitals. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Washington others disagree and say a trial is necessary for Cambodia's recovery.
In an exclusive interview with VOA, former Ambassador John Gunther Dean said he does not see much use in putting former Khmer Rouge on trial because many top leaders have died, others are very old, and the world already knows the atrocities they committed in Cambodia.
"If you go to Phnom Penh and you see the torture chambers and the mountains of skulls and bones, you know what happened," he said. "They are the best proof people will never forget."
Mr. Dean, who now lives in Paris traveled to the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta last month to donate documents from his time as ambassador to Cambodia in 1974 and 1975.
He says he does not believe a Khmer Rouge trial will help young Cambodians and the money it would cost could be better used.
"And I think the $56 million which has been collected to convict half a dozen people, would it not be much better to use that to build some hospitals under the name of 'Lest We Forget?'" he asked.
The director of the non-profit Documentation Center of Cambodia, Youk Chhang, says although 30 years have passed since the Khmer Rouge was in power, millions of Cambodians still want the leaders held accountable.
He says the money to be spent on the tribunal comes from voluntary donations from the world community and is intended to help Cambodia build its state of law and therefore, it does not affect the government's budget to rebuild the nation.
The former director of the non-government Cambodian Center for Social Development, Chea Vannath, told VOA most Cambodians want answers from the Khmer Rouge.
She says most of them want to understand what had happened and want to know who is responsible for the killings and crimes.
During nearly four years of Khmer Rouge rule, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, forced labor, and extra-judicial killings.
The United Nations and Cambodia agreed in 2003 to try the former Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and human rights violations.
Since then, top Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and his military commander Ta Mok died. Other top Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive and free include Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, and Khieu Samphan, but they are in their 70's.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Ray served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia from 2002 to 2005. He told VOA that building schools or hospitals is a good idea, but it does not heal the psyche of the Cambodian people who suffered under the Khmer Rouge.
"This issue has inhibited, I think, a lot of the development in Cambodia," he explained. "This is an issue of the long-term health of Cambodia's culture and society. And that impacts its economic and political developments. So you have some kind of official closure to this horrible chapter of history."
Ambassador Ray says while it is not possible to have a perfect tribunal, it is necessary to search for the truth.
"I think the international community needs this as well to help us get a better understanding of how things like this could happen so that maybe in the future, if we cannot prevent them, at least we can minimize them or keep them from being so devastating," he added.
Cambodian Center of Social Development Director Theary Seng says there must be a system to try those accused of human-rights violations in any country. But she says if the trial cannot meet international standards, she would agree with Ambassador Dean.
"What I agree with him is that if we try them, but could not do it fairly, we should not have the trial," he explained. "I agree that it is better to use the $56 million to build something or do something for social development."
Ambassador Dean says the trial could lead to harsh criticisms of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.
In 1969 President Richard Nixon ordered the secret bombing in Cambodia without letting the U.S. Congress and the American public know. The bombing campaign was designed to get rid of North Vietnamese troops who had been using northeastern Cambodia to transport troops and weapons to fight U.S. and South Vietnamese troops in the Vietnam war.
When General Lon Nol staged a bloodless coup against then Prince Sihanouk in March 1970, the United States supported the new Cambodian government. China and North Vietnam backed the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk in a subsequent war against the Lon Nol government.
Seng says it is China that should be worried about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, because it supported them when they were in power in Cambodia.
"For example, China could be embarrassed in the proceedings, because the issue of China's support of the Khmer Rouge could be brought up," he noted. "Other countries could be also embarrassed, but in this tribunal, they should not have anything to worry about."
The Documentation Center's Chhang Youk says the United States has confronted its past and has spent several million dollars helping his center gather documents.
He says this court would have a hard time moving forward without the support, in terms of documents and evidence that the United States helps gather. He says he thinks the United States has taken a noble stance in facing its past.
Current U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Joseph Mussomeli says the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide demand justice and deserve justice.
The U.N.-assisted Khmer Rouge Tribunal is expected to take three years to complete, but no former Khmer Rouge leader has yet been charged.
The Cambodian government denies accusations it is dragging its feet and does not want the tribunal.
It says that in 1997 it asked the United Nations for help in putting the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial.
But Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams says he believes that in 1997 First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen only asked the United Nations, because they were competing for public support and political power.
"They needed to appeal to public opinions in Cambodia to show that they were strong against the Khmer Rouge," he said. "Each side was accusing the other of being supporting the Khmer Rouge. Also they wanted to gain international legitimacy."
Cambodian and international judges are scheduled to hold a press conference Wednesday to announce the result of their discussion on the internal rules for the tribunal.