The Renakse Petitions: Background and Suggestions for Future Use

Posted by khmernews on March 4, 2008

Amy Gordon
After the liberation of Cambodia in January 1979, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (“PRK”) became the de facto government of the country. The PRK was created from the Salvation Front, a group that had formed in December of 1978 with the goal of overthrowing the Pol Pot regime. On 5 October 1982, the Salvation Front, as part of the
PRK government, established a Research Committee into the Crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Chaired by Min Khin, the Acting Secretary General of the Council of the Salvation Front, the Research Committee was tasked with preparing an overview of crimes committed under the Pol Pot regime and with compiling documents that could be disseminated nationally and internationally to raise awareness about these crimes. In 1979, Khin had also been in charge of the collection of evidence for the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal, which tried in absentia Pol Pot, the former Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea, and Ieng Sary, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs of Democratic Kampuchea, for genocide and other crimes; both men were convicted and sentenced to death.

The Research Committee was established chiefly to collect evidence that could be used to persuade the U.N. to deny recognition to the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s representative to the U.N. and to convince the U.N. or other countries to recognize the suffering of the Cambodian people and bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. The petitions are sometimes referred to as the “Renakse documents” or the “Renakse records.”

Possible uses for the petitions in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal
There are a variety of roles that the petitions could potentially play in the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (“ECCC” or the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal”). The following analysis will discuss several ways in which the petitions, depending on the final rules adopted, could prove useful in the ECCC.

Source of information for investigations
The substance of the petitions varies, but those that contain more detailed information could be used by the Investigating Judges as a source of information. Similarly, petitions from communes or from groups, such as workers at a particular location or minority groups, could help guide investigators as they determine where to do their investigations. Some petitions also describe the methods of killing and of torture that the Khmer Rouge employed, and the investigators could use these petitions as a basis for further research into Khmer Rouge tactics and specific crimes.

Means of identifying potential witnesses
In addition to providing leads for investigators, the petitions could be used to identify potential witnesses. It is still possible to find petitioners who are willing to discuss their experiences. Moreover, given that in 1983 they were willing to speak openly about their experiences, it is possible that the petitioners will again be willing to testify in court.

Means of identifying victims
As with identifying witnesses, the petitions could provide useful information for identifying victims who wish to participate in some capacity in the Tribunal. It seems as if victims will be able to lodge complaints and/or join the action as civil parties. Lodging a complaint does not require that the victim participate any further in the investigation or in the court proceedings. On the other hand, joining the action as a civil party requires that the victim actually become a party to and participate in the trial. Due to the potentially large number of victims who could claim compensation for damages suffered as a result of the crimes being tried by the ECCC and due to the ECCC’s lack of sufficient funds to provide compensation to everyone deserving of it, it is unlikely that civil parties to ECCC criminal trials will be able to obtain monetary compensation. Symbolic reparations may still be available, but the details have yet to be determined.

Evidence at trial
Another possible use for the petitions is as evidence during the trials. According to the ECC Draft Internal Rules, unless otherwise provided, all evidence is admissible at trial. Under Cambodian criminal law, the rules of evidence are similarly permissive. Thus, the ECCC, following both Cambodian and more general civil law practice, will most likely have relatively lenient rules concerning the introduction of evidence at trial, and the prosecution might be able to find a way to introduce the petitions.

Possible uses for the petitions in restorative justice approaches
In addition to using the Renakse petitions in some form in the ECCC trials, the petitions could play a role in restorative justice mechanisms or in other attempts to address the past. Craig Etcheson, an expert on the Cambodian genocide, believes that the collection of the petitions and the work of the Renakse Research Committee during 1982 and 1983 constituted a type of truth commission. Etcheson explains the Committee “interviewed people all over the country, compiled statistics on the damage to Cambodia’s infrastructure that was done during the Khmer Rouge regime, collected information about who killed whom, where and when, exhumed mass graves, [ ] studied Khmer Rouge documents,” and compiled all this information in a report, which it presented it to the government; thus acting somewhat like a classic truth commission.

However, as Etcheson points out, very few people in Cambodia know about the work of this “truth commission” so one of the main goals of such a mechanism—publicizing information in an attempt to ensure that all of society knows about the past—was not fulfilled. Moreover, the work of the Committee seems relatively one-sided insofar as the Committee does not appear to have elicited testimony from Khmer Rouge cadre.

The petitions could serve several functions in a future truth commission. For instance, as with criminal trials, the petitions could provide a useful means of identifying victims who might want to testify in a truth commission. Moreover, if the truth commission were to hold hearing in communes around the country, the petitions could offer a useful guide for determining which communes the commission should target. Finally, the petitions themselves could be entered into the record of the truth commission, not to provide a definitive account of what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime but to serve as an historical record of the response of the PRK to the genocide and to offer to the victims some sense that their original testimony was not in vain.

In addition to playing a role in a formal truth commission, the petitions could be the foundation for other activities recognizing the victims who authored the petitions and who evidently received little recognition, official or otherwise, for their suffering and willingness to speak about it. Finding ways to educate people about the petitions and to offer some type of recognition to the petitioners could prove valuable both to victims and to society at large.

Several means exist for publicizing the petitions and appealing to the petitioners. For instance, an NGO such as DC-Cam could use its extensive country-wide networks and media influence to teach people about the history of the petitions. Staff could write newspaper editorials, encourage radio and television shows to discuss the petitions, and refer to the petitions in interviews about the ECCC or other transitional justice issues. Additionally, many NGOs are currently conducting public fora about the ECCC; information about the petitions could be included in these fora NGOs could also provide information about the petitions on their websites, as a source both for victims who are trying to learn about the fate of the petitions and for outside researchers curious about official attempts to respond to the Khmer Rouge regime.

In addition to more general activities aimed at increasing overall awareness of the petitions and the Research Committee’s work, NGOs or even the government could take action targeted at the petitioners. Before deciding on a specific course of action, more research is probably necessary to determine the interests of the petitioners and thus figure out an appropriate way of addressing their needs. If for instance, the petitioners want official recognition for their suffering and for their participation in the collection of the petitions, NGOs or other interested parties could try to lobby the current government to pass some sort of resolution or make some sort of formal statement recognizing the Renakse documents and the victims who told their stories. Furthermore, if victims wanted to discuss either their experiences during the Khmer Rouge or their experiences writing the petitions and speaking with members of the Research Committee, an NGO could start a program related to the documents and do workshops with petitioners around the country. If most petitioners are mainly curious about the fate of the petitions, an NGO, particularly one with a strong country-wide network of contacts, could take on the task of meeting with commune chiefs and explaining to them the history and current status of the petitions, so that the chiefs could then pass on the information to their community members.

The Renakse documents offer interesting insight into both the suffering endured by millions of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime and the PRK government’s reaction to the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge and to the attitude of the international community. While not regarded as such as the time, the process of collecting petitions in 1983 and the other work of the Research Committee could be viewed as a form of truth commission. At the very least, educating Cambodians about the Renakse documents and providing petitioners with information about the fate of the petitions are important in helping build an historical record both of the Khmer Rouge regime and of the response of the Cambodian government to the genocide. As with other attempts, such as the building of memorials and the declaration of days of commemoration, to promote reconciliation and foster healing, the Renakse documents should not be lost to history but should become part of Cambodia’s history and be used, to the extent possible, to further the goals of reconciliation and recovery.

-Extracted from Rasmei Kampuchea, vol. 16, #4520, Wednesday, February 20, 2008.


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