"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.
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.
"Thailand was the most affected by that statement," says the second Southeast Asian diplomat. "Not only because of [its] proximity to Cambodia, but at the time [after 1979] some Khmer Rouge may have been sheltered in Thai territories and Thai camps."
Yesterday Hun Sen sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asking him to consider three different trials, one for war crimes from 1970 to '75 (a civil war in which the US carpet-bombed the country), a second from 1975 to '79 (the Khmer Rouge regime), and a third from 1979 to '98 (a civil war that included a 10-year occupation and military coup).
But Thomas Hammarberg, the UN secretary-general's personal representative for human rights, said in a press conference yesterday that tribunals covering anything but the Khmer Rouge regime of '75 to '79 are separate issues the UN will not address immediately.
He also said Hun Sen's request had no effect on the prime minister's support for the UN's current plans and that the Hun Sen gave "his full support for the UN's work on this issue" after their meeting yesterday.
Diplomats and scholars here say that Hun Sen has myriad concerns to balance against one another, including the international pressure. Thanks to a series of deals with the Khmer Rouge, the country is at peace for the first time in decades. A tribunal could force many Khmer Rouge loyalists back into the jungles.
There is also Cambodia's growing partnership with China, which has quickly become Cambodia's top financial ally. Some observers say it was China's uneasiness about a Khmer Rouge tribunal that may have contributed to Hun Sen's request to "bury" memories of the brutal regime in the past.
However, the Consultative Group of donors to Cambodia meets at the end of February to determine the country's aid for the coming year, approximately the same time as the UN report on a trial is due. A rejection of the tribunal by Hun Sen could put some of the $1.3 billion in aid he's requested in jeopardy.
"I think that if the international community can financially and diplomatically put pressure on [Hun Sen], he will agree with what the international community demands," says Yim Sokha, secretary general of the Sam Rainsy Party, the lone opposition group in Cambodia's National Assembly.
China remains wary of any trial. Its involvement with the Khmer Rouge would be reviewed under the 1975 to '79 framework, and there are fears China will use its position on the UN Security Council to veto any trial.
Mr. Hammarberg recently described a meeting with China's ambassador to Cambodia, Yan Ting Ai, that reflected the country's attitude. At the meeting, Mr. Yan continued to assert China's blanket statement that a Khmer Rouge trial is an internal issue for Cambodia.
"I told him I agreed," Hammarberg says. "I said that the two prime ministers had written to request our help [in June 1997] and we would be ignoring their wishes if we didn't answer their request." The ambassador had no response, Hammarberg adds.
"I hope those countries who are concerned about an examination of their roles will understand it's time to get it out," says Hammarberg. "I look at it more as a moral and ethical issue. These crimes are horrendous. We must tackle these arrests."
Hammarberg also said UN diplomats and lawyers are considering whether they can bypass the Security Council in creating the tribunal. If the Security Council doesn't need to approve it, China and the US would lose their ability to veto any trial.
Rwanda and Bosnia too
Says Solarz: "It's clear to me that the tribunal will not be established unless Hun Sen has the will and determination to do so. Unless Cambodia urges the Security Council to establish a tribunal, China will veto it.... Hun Sen is really the key to seeing the tribunal is established and Khmer Rouge leaders are brought to justice."
Cambodia is caught up by the times as much as it is in its own politics with old cold-war foes. The current war-crimes tribunals over Rwanda and Bosnia and the push for an international court of justice almost dictate Cambodia's criminals see justice, some observers say.
"It's sometimes not appreciated in Cambodia, but what happens here has implications for precedent and for affecting the opinions of other countries," says one diplomat. "If you don't prosecute in Cambodia, how can you try the Serbs, or Bosnia or Rwanda? It is very topical."