While lawmakers prepare to rush a new law criminalizing denial of Khmer Rouge crimes through the National Assembly, critics on Sunday continued to point out the risks the legislation could pose to free speech and the country’s reconciliation process.
Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the law to be drafted a week ago, just days after his government released audio of the opposition’s acting president Kem Sokha apparently accusing Vietnam of fabricating the jailing and torture of thousands of Cambodians at the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng prison. The National Assembly may vote on a draft that includes a jail term of up to two years for perpetrators as soon as Friday.
Keen to have the law passed ahead of July’s national election, the government has left little time for public debate. But independent observers said Sunday the law risks narrowing the space for freedom of expression on events linked to the regime.
In an editorial released Sunday, Youk Chhang, who heads the country’s leading archive of Khmer Rouge era records, the Documentation Center of Cam-bodia, warned that the law “carries great risks that far outweigh its perceived benefits.”
“Indeed, we must make every possible effort to ensure victims are cared for and the millions who died did not die in vain,” Mr. Chhang wrote. “However, using the law as a means to prevent the denial of the genocide poses great risks.”
Using the “blunt instrument” of the law, he warns, risked derailing a process of reconciliation that ought to rely more on forgiveness and “an unfettered search for the truth.”
He said the law risked “dictating history” rather than letting the country search it out through “an atmosphere of free expression.”
“While it is ridiculous for people to deny, revise or trivialize the genocide in Cambodia, we must not lose our intellectual high ground in condemning such people by replacing the crucible of public debate with the spectacle of criminal sanction,” Mr. Chhang wrote. “Truth does not need the law for protection.”
While some within the opposition have dismissed the law as nothing more than a tool for the CPP to try and score some easy political points ahead of the election, the government says it needs to stop deniers to protect Khmer Rouge survivors from suffering any more than they already have.
Ros Chantrabot, a member of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, on Sunday said that letting people get away with denying Khmer Rouge crimes risked plunging the country back into chaos.
He also rejected warnings that the law might stifle free speech or public debate about the Khmer Rouge.
“It is not an issue since this law exists not only in Cambodia but also in Europe,” said Mr. Chantrabot, referring to similar laws that exist in Germany and Austria making it illegal to deny the Holocaust.
But Cambodia’s courts are widely acknowledged to be far more corrupt than any in Western Europe, a problem that independent observers here say could turn the law into a tool to go after government critics.
“It could be subject to individual [political] interests rather than the public interest,” Mr. Chhang said in an interview last week.
Sok Sam Oeun, a lawyer and executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, said those laws in Europe were also stifling freedom of expression.
“I don’t support those [laws] because it is an opinion of the people,” he said. “The state [says] you must think like this, you must think like that. But in their minds, they may still think something else.”
Mr. Sam Oeun said a similar law for Cambodia would be no better. “I don’t think it is a good law because it is an opinion…and we cannot punish anyone for having an opinion,” he said.
Like Mr. Chhang, he said changing people’s minds through free and open debate was the far better option.
Both men agreed, too, that there was little if any chance that letting people deny Khmer Rouge crimes risked stoking new violence.
Beyond those concerns, there also remains the question of how the law will define genocide. Legally, the term refers to attempts to destroy in whole or in part any ethnic, religious, national or racial group.
This specific definition has led the Khmer Rouge tribunal to only apply the word to the regime’s alleged targeted killing of ethnic Cham Muslims.
Even its alleged killing of Buddhists who refused to defrock is being treated as a crime against humanity because the regime was opposed to all religions, not just Buddhism. So the vast majority of the 1.7 million mostly ethnic Khmer who died under the regime do not qualify.
Chheang Von, a CPP lawmaker helping to draft the new law, said the bill, officially called The Denial of Genocide Committed in the Period of Democratic Kampuchea Law, would apply to all of the regime’s crimes.
“We talk about the killing of all kinds of people,” he said.
Henri Locard, a Khmer Rouge historian and lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said the definition that Mr. Von gave for genocide made sense in the Cambodian context.
“Genocide as the killing of a race has never been translated into Khmer,” he said. “To the Khmer who do not know the English and French roots of words, genocide is just ‘crimes.’”
Still, the distinction could prove more than a matter of semantics, said Mr. Sam Oeun, the lawyer.
If the Khmer Rouge tribunal were to ultimately acquit the current defendants of genocide as strictly defined by the court, it could give cover to the genocide deniers being targeted by the government with its new law, he said.
Mr. Sam Oeun wants to see no law banning the denial of Khmer Rouge crimes at all. But if it is passed, he said the term genocide should be kept out of it.
“This law must not [be written] like that,” he said.