Is it jail time for genocide deniers in Cambodia?

Prime Minister Hun Sen's new law criminalizing denial of the Khmer Rouge genocide is a barely disguised political move, not a gesture of goodwill, say analysts.

Heng Sinith/AP
Hundreds of former Khmer Rouge victims' bone and skulls are displayed in a memorial at Choeung Ek "Killing Field" in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen today pushed through legislation that makes it illegal to deny the Khmer Rouge genocide, but his critics say it has little to do with promoting atonement for his country's tragic past.

Passed unanimously in a special session of the country’s National Assembly, the new law mandates a jail term of up to two years and fines of $1,000 for anyone convicted of denying the 1975-1979 genocide, during which Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge slaughtered some 1.7 million people.

Though formally said to be a gesture of support for the ongoing trials of leading Khmer Rouge leaders, analysts say the law is far more about political advantage for Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge official who has been the unchallenged leader of Cambodia since 1998.

The new law comes quickly on the heels of controversial comments allegedly made by Kem Sokha, president of the main opposition party. In May the government released an audio clip purportedly of the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party saying that Vietnamese soldiers who reported the aftermath of an an infamous atrocity at a Khmer Rouge prison had imagined what they saw, according to The Phnom Pehn Post

Kem Sokha said that the audio clip was edited to take his words out of context, according to The Phnom Penh Post. But the mere suggestion that Kem Sokha denied the atrocities could taint his image. Nearly 20,000 people were tortured and murdered at the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 prison in Phnom Penh during a four-year long nightmare for Cambodia that has not faded from the national consciousness. 

Opposition party members note that they had for years been pressing for such a law, but also point out that the prime minister had only made moves toward such a law when politically convenient, according to a separate Post article. The opposition objects to the fact that the law was passed with no debate, arguing that a law that has the potential to be abused should be thoughtfully drafted and subjected to careful scrutiny.

"It is a shame that the law should be passed in a rushed way in response to political comments," wrote Phuong Pham, a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, where she is studying the Cambodian public's attitude toward the Khmer Rouge trials, in an e-mail. "Kem Sokha, the opposition leader, is not a genocide denier, and any charges would be clearly politically motivated."

No opposition party members were present at the session that unanimously approved the bill on Friday morning. The prime minister's ruling party elected to remove all 27 members from their posts on Wednesday, amid election controversy. The ruling party was upset that two different opposition parties had merged to challenge it in July's elections.

On Thursday, the opposition parties sent a letter to the National Assembly president asking that the vote on the law be postponed. The letter also proposed a tongue-in-cheek amendment to the law banning former leading members of the Khmer Rouge from holding public office. That would include the prime minister, Hun Sen, as well as several other leading members of his government. Hun Sen belonged to the Khmer Rouge before defecting to Vietnam and later rolling back into Cambodia, eventually claiming the post of prime minister. 

A member of the unofficial "10,000 Days in Office" dictator’s club, Hun Sen has profited enormously from the genocide more than three decades ago, cobbling together a dubious narrative in which he rescued the troubled country from Pol Pot’s agrarian "Year Zero" and crafted it into a emergent economic center in Southeast Asia. Last month, he told reporters that Cambodia would have been “a coconut plantation” without his leadership, according to The Cambodia Daily.

Trials for 2 out of 4 Khmer Rouge leaders – the first and only Khmer Rouge leaders to be tried for the genocide – are currently ongoing in Cambodia, reported The Christian Science Monitor, racing against the failing health of the aging defendants. One defendant died in prison of heart failure in February. The only defendant to have been sentenced so far, Kaing Guek Eav, the former head of the S-21 prison, was transported to a prison in Cambodia’s Kandal Provincial Prison yesterday, where he will serve a life sentence, The Cambodia Daily reported.

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