Inching closer to a trial of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge

A UN delegation arrives next week to try to agree on rules for a trial of the regime in control 20 years ago.

It's been 20 years since the Khmer Rouge were toppled from power in Cambodia, but the country is just now moving toward closing the darkest chapter in its history.

At issue is a Khmer Rouge trial, and the best way to bring the remaining leaders of the brutal regime to justice. Months of discussions between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the United Nations seem to produce only roadblocks at every turn.

But next week, UN representatives are due in Phnom Penh to present their latest proposal. The hope here is that a country that lives with the legacy of the Maoist regime that killed more than 1 million Cambodians will finally be released from its grip.

Unlike Bosnia, which moved quickly on a UN tribunal, or Rwanda and South Africa, which invented new ways to heal their wounds, Cambodia has never attempted village-level reconciliation or a truth commission to bring out who did what during the Khmer Rouge regime.

So like the Khmer Rouge's barbarous "Year Zero" policies that erased history, culture, religion, and even currency, many see Cambodia in a holding pattern. Many perpetrators of violent crimes are rarely caught, much less tried in court. Cambodians submit, albeit grudgingly, to pervasive corruption. And few believe their leaders will ever be worthy of their trust.

"I don't think we can have a rule of law here until we address the killings of so many people," says Kao Kim Hourn, executive director for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. "There is no notion of social justice here at all."

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who does not trust the UN, has little by little accepted the idea of international involvement in his local Khmer Rouge trial. But he draws the line at ceding control to foreigners, rebuffing a plan that would have allowed the UN to appoint a majority of judges in a Cambodian tribunal. The UN's hope is to counter what it sees as an inexperienced and politically controlled judiciary, and to avoid setting a bad precedent for future war-crimes trials. But Hun Sen said he fears an internationalized trial will spark thousands of rebel defectors to take up arms. Other former Khmer Rouge leaders claim the same.

"This is hard legally for the UN and politically for Cambodia," a diplomat here says. "Even in Rwanda and Bosnia they have ad hoc tribunals, because there's no one way to do this. The legal precedents here concern a lot of people."

Rights workers say that without the Khmer Rouge in the dock, they are building a culture of justice without a cornerstone. "If you let the Khmer Rouge go, it's impossible to tell the new generation, 'don't commit crimes, don't kill, don't rob,' " says Kek Gallabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. They decry a "culture of impunity," where crimes are committed in broad daylight and, thanks to bribery and political clout, go free.

BUT when will a Khmer Rouge trial be held? Cambodia's parliament approved a law allowing war criminals to be held for up to three years without being charged, and Hun Sen could drag out the process. Advocates say it gives the government and UN more time to create laws and establish a tribunal. But critics fear this is one more attempt to delay a trial until key members of the Khmer Rouge regime, already elderly and in frail health, pass away.

Pol Pot, head of the regime, died in April last year. Guerrilla general Ta Mok was captured in March, and chief torturer Kaing Khek Iev turned himself in a month later. Large-scale Khmer Rouge guerrilla defections to the government occurred in 1996. At least two leaders who defected in December and live in semiautonomous zones in western Cambodia could be indicted. Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, seemed frail during a speech this past weekend, warning the world to stay out of the trials.

A Khmer Rouge trial would be "one aspect of bringing justice and gain the trust of the people," Chea Vannath says. But "it does not address all the trauma and all the pain people went through. We need counseling. We need support. We need more than justice in this society."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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