Next up: righting Cambodia
Virtually all Khmer Rouge have given up. Can the world bring themto justice?
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
"Forgive and forget" doesn't always apply, a surprised Cambodian prime minister learned - not when it comes to the Khmer Rouge, the "Red Cambodian" Communist regime best known for its "killing fields" of the 1970s.Skip to next paragraph
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While welcoming the surrender of two of the last remaining Khmer Rouge leaders in late December, Prime Minister Hun Sen told his country and the world to "dig a hole and bury the past."
But the usually steely strongman was stunned by a deluge of protests from governments and rights groups.
"He was completely taken off guard" by the outcry, says one Southeast Asian diplomat. "He didn't expect such a reaction."
It's a demonstration of just how determined the world has become to dust off the 20-year-old atrocities of the regime responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians during its 1975-79 reign. The UN is expecting a recommendation in February on whether it will have enough evidence to try the leaders, most of whom now live in peace in western Cambodia. After their Dec. 25 defections, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea celebrated with a resort holiday before joining other former Khmer Rouge in Pailin. They leave a single high-ranking Khmer Rouge, Ta Mok, in hiding.
A carefully worded UN resolution, the passing of time, and the international movement toward establishing a world court have cleared a path for most countries' support of a war-crimes tribunal, according to diplomats, scholars, and politicians here. The international community hopes to see a Khmer Rouge tribunal that at least tries the top leadership - about eight to 10 of whom are still alive - for crimes against humanity.
Charges could include torture, execution, and the persecution of ethnic minorities. And world donors are willing to wield the hammer of foreign aid to get this struggling, cash-poor nation to comply.
Need for foreign aid
"The primary reason Cambodia has been the beneficiary of large amounts of assistance over the years," says Stephen Solarz, a former US congressman, "is because of the extent to which the international community feels guilty for standing by and doing nothing while the Khmer Rouge carried out its policy of autogenocide [killing its own people]." Mr. Solarz has been deeply involved in US policy toward Cambodia.
"If the government of Cambodia doesn't allow that leadership to be held accountable ... the international community will wash its hands of Cambodia," Solarz says.
Estimates of Khmer Rouge executions and killings run as low as 50,000, but as many as 2 million may have died as a result of the regime's extreme policies. The communists forced a reorganization of the country into agricultural communes, and many people died from overwork and lack of health care.
For years a Khmer Rouge tribunal was impossible because of the group's status through the '80s as a cold-war pawn. On one side was the Khmer Rouge regime in exile, backed by China, recognized by the UN, and indirectly recognized by the United States.
On the other was a Vietnamese-installed Phnom Penh government backed by Russia but shunned by most of the world.
Even years after the last Vietnamese soldiers pulled out of Cambodia in 1989, there was resistance to a war-crimes tribunal because it could review the involvement of countries such as China and the US. China was the Khmer Rouge's major patron even before it took over Phnom Penh in April 1975. The US was instrumental in getting a Cambodia coalition, which included the Khmer Rouge, a UN seat.
But the current UN resolution seeks a trial spanning 1975-79, encompassing the Khmer Rouge regime but exempting the subsequent civil war. It eliminates the concerns of most countries that would otherwise resist such a trial.
"There are countries still out there who would be pretty embarrassed by anything bigger [in scope]," says another Southeast Asian diplomat.
Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge member, has played on this shame. Quickly regrouping after the world's public rebuke in December, he said he would like a tribunal to cover 1970 through 1998 and see other countries tried along with the Khmer Rouge.
This received an immediate public rejection from neighboring Thailand, which in the '70s and '80s let its refugee camps be used as staging areas for Khmer Rouge soldiers.