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Closure at What Cost?

Given Cambodia's current political climate, with its lack of respect for human rights and failure to govern by rule of law, the United States should be applauded for steadfastly refusing to participate in the upcoming Khmer Rouge trials. Prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia will be at best a demonstration of hypocrisy by current leaders of Cambodia and at worst an opportunity for the current regime, a vestige of both the Khmer Rouge itself and communist Vietnam, to rewrite history.

Not only is the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, but his politburo has been a model of authoritarian behavior since it was first put in place by communist Vietnam in 1979. Hun Sen's over 25-year grip on power (surpassed only by Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe) is carefully maintained through violence and intimidation. Over the past year, for instance, he has brazenly imprisoned those who speak out in opposition to his policies on trumped-up charges of defamation. And as evidence of Hun Sen's control over the judiciary, several of those charged with defamation were released in response to a visit by a United States diplomat to Cambodia in 2006. A Cambodian government spokesperson stated that Hun Sen had sent a letter to the court "ordering" the release of those being detained and that the releases were a "gift" to the visiting American diplomat.

In this backdrop of corrupt, authoritarian rule, true justice will be difficult to mete out. The UN's insistence on pursuing a trial of the Khmer Rouge at any cost has made it infinitely more difficult. By conceding to Hun Sen's demand that a majority of the tribunal judges be Cambodian, the UN has essentially given him control over the proceedings. Not only is the experience and competence of Cambodian judges in doubt, but even more importantly their impartiality and independence from political influence. Citing these concerns, the UN's own expert jurists vehemently recommended that most, if not all, judges be non-Cambodian.

In all fairness to the UN, Hun Sen has never really shown any true resolve to seek justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge. Since an agreement was reached with the UN in June 2003 for joint cooperation to set up the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Hun Sen has contrived various delay tactics to forestall the trials. On one occasion, he even claimed that Cambodia could not afford $11.8 million of its share of the tribunal budget, even though UN member states had already pledged $43 million of the estimated $56.3 million budget. Many of the accused are octogenarians and in poor health and his hope may be that they will simply pass away if he stalls long enough. In the event that he runs out of excuses to delay or prevent the trials, however, Hun Sen is virtually guaranteed control over all facets of the proceedings, having packed the courts with men loyal to him.

Closure for Khmer Rouge victims is often cited as one of the primary reasons for pushing forward what even most proponents readily admit is a flawed tribunal structure. But is prosecution of past tyrants worth the precedent it sets for Cambodians concerning the absolute power of their current tyrant? The United States has correctly answered in the negative and holds fast to her principle that the future of Cambodia's democracy should not be sold out for a mere show trial. Rather than teaching Cambodians respect for the rule of law and human rights, such a trial will instead reinforce the resignation of Cambodians to living under rule of dictatorship. A show trial of the Khmer Rouge orchestrated by Hun Sen will not only do disservice to victims of the Khmer Rouge, but also to the current and future victims of Hun Sen's authoritarian regime.

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