As government officials publicly accept US proposals on how to try former Khmer Rouge leaders, conspicuously quiet has been a nation some would argue holds a much more powerful grip on Cambodia’s decision-making: China.
“Before Tuesday—when the government announced it would compromise on the Khmer Rouge trial—one could say that China’s influence on the trial was silent yet significant,” said political analyst and director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace Kao Kim Hourn.
“But now, maybe Cambodia no longer minds what China wants them to do in this trial.”
Diplomats agree that for months after China in March threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution to hold an ad hoc tribunal outside Cambodia, the Asian powerhouse’s influence over the proceedings remained pronounced.
As recently as June, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told high-ranking Cambodian officials a Khmer Rouge trial is a Cambodian problem and outsiders should not interfere.
This apparent stranglehold over Cambodian policy-making prompted opposition party leader Sam Rainsy to issue a statement last week asking China “to stop encouraging Hun Sen to stick to his untenable position to let a Cambodian-controlled court prosecute the former Khmer Rouge leaders.”
But since then, Cambodia has come closer to allowing a “mixed” trial inside the country with both Cambodian and foreign judges, thereby leaving China’s advice behind.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong insisted Cambodia can now proceed without a Chinese stamp of approval. “The Chinese have told us this is an internal problem for Cambodia,” he said Friday. “China is not asking us to do this or that over the Khmer Rouge trial…Only the US has always intervened.”
One Asian diplomat, however, called this stance by China “oxymoronic.”
“If they tell you not to let anyone interfere, they themselves are interfering,” he said.
Chinese embassy officials in Phnom Penh didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
For months after the ad hoc tribunal was rejected, the Cambodian government and the UN sparred over how to conduct the “mixed” trial.
Until this week’s compromise, conceptualized in Washington and brokered by the US ambassador to Cambodia, the government held firm that too much international control would erode the nation’s sovereignty.
The sentiment echoed China’s position, not only over the Khmer Rouge trial but on rejecting international meddling in human rights violations and retaining control over Taiwan.
Analysts say China also fears its backing of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979—and its support of the Khmer Rouge during guerrilla warfare against the Vietnamese throughout the 1980s—might resurface in the trial.
Why the Cambodian government might be deserting China’s ideas for those of the US can be answered in a few words, analysts said: monarchs and money.
What differentiates current trial negotiations from those in March is that this time around, King Norodom Sihanouk has weighed in, said Documentation Center of Cambodia director Youk Chhang. “China won’t intervene now that the King has spoken out in favor of international involvement,” he said.
“Now Cambodia’s children will not go against the father of the country,” he said.