New Internationalist

Battle for the truth

Issue 385

The post-war Nuremburg Trials revealed to a shocked world the terrible details of the systematic genocide that the German Nazi regime had inflicted on Europe’s Jews, Roma and others. ‘Never again’ became the watchword for ensuring that the Holocaust would never be repeated. Yet the past half-century has seen some of the most violent, shameful and deadly assaults on human rights the world has known. And, like the Holocaust, the truth of more recent genocides has sometimes been slow to emerge.

Photo: Dave Perkins  / Globalaware
Inside Tuol Sleng prison: once a notorious Khmer Rouge torture centre, the prison was turned into a genocide museum in 1980. The photo shows a wheelchair-using survivor of the Khmer Rouge silhouetted against an English translation of the prison’s draconian ‘security regulations’. The regulations were posted on small pieces of board in each cell. Photo: Dave Perkins / Globalaware

Cambodia (1975-79)

History: The country became a ‘sideshow’ for the American anti-communist war in neighbouring Vietnam. Between 1969 and 1973 the US dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, killing 100,000 people and increasing rural support for the insurgent Khmer Rouge. After the Vietnam peace accords in 1973, the civil war in Cambodia continued until Lon Nol’s military dictatorship was ousted and the Khmer Rouge (KR) marched into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975.

Year zero Preaching an extremist brand of austere, agrarian communism, the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot (Brother Number One) emptied Cambodia’s cities, forcing three million people into the countryside – the infamous ‘killing fields’. All schools, banks, monasteries, mosques and businesses were closed. Racial minorities and all religions were targeted. Over the next four years an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died from starvation, disease and overwork.

Truth denied When Vietnam invaded in 1979 Pol Pot fled to the mountains, from where he battled the government for another 20 years. China, the US and Thailand feared Vietnamese expansionism, so opposed attempts to bring any members of the Khmer Rouge to justice – even after Hanoi’s forces pulled out in 1989. In 1984 China’s Deng Xiaoping said: ‘I do not understand why some people want to remove Pol Pot… he is leading the fight against the Vietnamese aggressors.’ In addition, some Cambodians are also reluctant to ‘rake up the past’.

Truth revealed The UN, hobbled by geopolitics, had remained silent. But when the Khmer Rouge boycotted UN-organized elections in 1991 and then murdered UN peacekeepers, the international mood shifted. The Khmer Rouge splintered and key members defected to the Government. In 1998 Pol Pot died in the jungle. Two years later a UN Group of Experts recommended that Khmer Rouge leaders be charged ‘for crimes against humanity and genocide’. Negotiations began between Phnom Penh and the UN. The ‘Extraordinary Chambers’ for Khmer Rouge trials was established in April 2005. Though funding is insecure, it is expected that cases will start to be heard in 2006.

Photo: Francis Freeman  / Eyepress
A bloody hand on the rising sun: an anti-Japanese protestor in Shanghai. Photo: Francis Freeman / Eyepress

Japan (China & Korea 1910-45)

History: Japan began its imperial expansion in the 1890s. By 1910 it had colonized Korea. The Korean language was prohibited; Japanese last names replaced Korean ones; a million Korean men were forced to work in Japan’s mines and factories during the Second World War. In 1931 Japan invaded northeast China. By 1937 the Japanese army controlled most of the country. Chinese deaths – mostly civilians – are estimated at more than 10 million.

Destined to rule In December 1937 Japanese soldiers entered the walled city of Nanjing and wiped out most of the civilian population. More than 300,000 were killed and 20,000 women raped. Japanese troops followed the ‘three alls’ policy: ‘kill all, burn all, loot all.’ Across Asia 200,000 young girls were kidnapped and forced to serve as ‘sex slaves’ (called ‘comfort women’), including tens of thousands of Korean women. Many Japanese thought of themselves as ‘superior and distinct’ – natural rulers of inferior neighbours.

Truth denied The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was set up by the Allies in 1946 to try Japanese war criminals. But few top leaders were punished. The occupation of Korea was not discussed; ‘crimes against humanity’ were not addressed. Many Japanese remained ignorant of their country’s role in Asia, believing that they were fighting a war of national self-defence. Even today, right-wing nationalists praise war criminals as national heroes. Japanese courts have not convicted a single person for war crimes. Political leaders have issued only grudging apologies. They argue that all reparations were dealt with under post-war peace treaties.

Truth revealed The ‘sex slave’ story was revealed only in 1991. Japan has offered token compensation, but the ‘comfort women’ are pressing for prosecution and an official apology. Recently, Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called on the Japanese ‘to make the truth of the past known and offer sincere apologies and, if necessary, pay compensation’. Both the Chinese and the Koreans have accused the Japanese of using high-school history textbooks that play down their wartime atrocities. Prime Minister Koizumi’s ceremonial visits to the Yasukuni war monument in Tokyo, where a number of convicted war criminals are buried, have also made Japan’s neighbours suspicious of past apologies.

Photo: Brian Atkinson  / Globalaware
Mayan women from Pulay, Quiche province, watch as forensic teams unearth the bodies of their loved ones. Photo: Brian Atkinson / Globalaware Photo: Brian Atkinson / Globalaware

Guatemala (1954-84)

History: More than 60 per cent of the population of this mountainous Central American country of 10 million are indigenous Mayan people. In 1954 the reform-minded Arbenz Government was overthrown in a military coup supported by the US and the United Fruit Company. The white, coffee-growing oligarchy controlled the state and the military while the Mayan majority were expected to provide cheap labour for plantations. A guerrilla insurgency sparked further repression.

Indian wars In the 1970s and 1980s rabid anti-communist proxy wars broke out in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With US backing, Guatemala ran a brutal counter-insurgency campaign which peaked in 1981-83 under President Efrain Rios Montt. Mayan villages were torched, tens of thousands of villagers tortured, raped and executed as suspected terrorists. More than 200,000 were murdered.

Truth revealed UN-brokered peace accords in June 1994 provided for an Historical Clarification Commission to deal with human rights abuses. The commission released a massively detailed report, Memories of Silence, in January 1999. It found that the military and state-supported militias were responsible for 93 per cent of the violence. It concluded that ‘acts of genocide had been committed against groups of Mayan people’ and that most human rights violations took place ‘with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities in the State’.

Truth denied The Guatemalan Government never officially acknowledged the report; there has been no attempt to bring those responsible to justice. After its release the Minister of Defence said the report was ‘a partial truth’, while the state tourism bureau complained the negative publicity would scare away visitors. Meanwhile, nothing changed for the Mayan majority and human rights violations continue today in the face of worsening poverty.

Timor-Leste (1975-99)

History: East Timor became a Portuguese colony in the 16th century. When Portugal pulled out in December 1975, Indonesia invaded and claimed the territory as its 27th province – a move the UN refused to recognize. For three decades the Timorese resistance, Fretilin, opposed the occupation and continued to fight for independence. In January 1999 a new Government in Jakarta finally agreed to ‘let East Timor go’. In August nearly three-quarters of the East Timorese population voted for independence.

Army terror At least 200,000 Timorese were killed by the Indonesian military – nearly a third of the population. Many more were tortured and imprisoned without trial. The population was forcibly resettled into camps. Thousands starved to death. Later, they were forced to work on army-run plantations growing cash crops for export. The army unleashed a final murderous assault after the independence vote. A scorched-earth campaign destroyed nearly 80 per cent of all property: 400,000 people were displaced from their homes; many were marched at gunpoint into West Timor.

Truth denied Indonesia’s actions were ignored by Western powers for decades. The country was courted as a bulwark against communism and a big military spender – the US and Britain were key arms suppliers. As late as 1991 the Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, noted that ‘the human rights situation in East Timor has, in our judgement, conspicuously improved, particularly under the present military arrangements.’

Truth revealed With the removal of the dictator, Suharto, in 1998 and a growing international outcry, the political climate was ripe for change. Both the World Bank and the IMF threatened to cut support for Indonesia’s collapsing economy. In 2002 the UN set up a Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) with a mixed international and local staff to prosecute war crimes, genocide, torture and sexual offences. An ad hoc Human Rights Court (HRC) was launched simultaneously in Jakarta and a Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in Dili, the capital of a renamed Timor-Leste. Results have been mixed. Indonesia sabotaged the HRC and the UN failed to commit enough resources to the SCU.

Photo: Tim Dirven  / Panos Pictures
Young Armenian mother holds aloft her baby: time for Turkey to face the facts. Photo: Tim Dirven / Panos Pictures

Armenia (1915-23)

History: Nearly two million Armenians lived in the northern part of the Ottoman Empire, straddling the Russian border south of the Black Sea. They were Christians in the midst of a Muslim empire. During the First World War, with the Ottoman Empire in decline and nationalism on the rise, the ‘Young Turks’ seized power in 1913 and began a programme of forced ‘Turkification’. After the Allied attack on Gallipoli, Turkey was under assault from all sides including from Russian and Armenian troops in the Caucasus. The charge of subversion was the pretext for the targeting of Armenians inside the Empire’s borders.

Forced expulsion The genocide began in April 1915. Soldiers cleared entire villages, usually with only a few days’ notice. People were forced to march overland to the Syrian desert. Thousands died of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. The convoys were attacked by marauding government-organized killers. More than a million Armenians died. By 1923 almost the entire community had been forced from its historic homeland.

Truth denied News of the Armenian slaughter sparked a temporary outpouring of aid and assistance from the West. After the war the borders of modern Turkey were secured and the new Government reluctantly brought to trial alleged perpetrators. But nothing came of it – real politik ensured that the facts were quickly forgotten. The remaining Armenians were scattered through Russia, Britain, Canada and the US. There was no compensation for Armenian losses. The Turkish state still refuses to accept or recognize its part in the genocide.

Truth revealed Over the past 25 years there has been a resurgence of interest in the Armenian genocide. The Armenian diaspora has been instrumental in documenting and publicizing the truth of the events including the recent feature film, Ararat, by Atom Egoyan, a Canadian filmmaker of Armenian descent. As Turkey applies to join the European Union, there is an increasingly active campaign to require the Turkish State to admit the facts – and its own complicity.

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