samlot, Battambang – As a disagreement plays out at the Khmer Rouge tribunal over whether to prosecute more suspects, Meas Muth, the former chief of the Khmer Rouge’s Division 164 who has long been perceived as a potential defendant at the tribunal, has warned that further prosecutions will destabilize the country.
Meas Muth, who says he oversaw Division 164’s 20,000 troops and 50,000 women and children in the southwest zone, said in an interview last week that he was unaware of the dispute over whether to investigate more candidates beyond the five currently in detention. When informed, however, he warned that prosecuting more Democratic Kampuchea leaders “will bring Cambodia into instability again.”
The retired government military adviser declined to elaborate on how this instability might manifest itself.
Nevertheless, this supposed risk of political instability from charging additional former Khmer Rouge leaders is one reason the tribunal’s Cambodian Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang has said she opposes a push by her international counterpart Robert Petit to open judicial investigations into additional suspects.
While Chea Leang declined to comment specifically on Meas Muth’s case when contacted Sunday, she said any disruption of the process of reconciliation between former Khmer Rouge leaders and the general population should be taken into account when deciding whether to take on more suspects.
“We need to strictly check the legal procedures because the government and UN together signed an agreement to form the court, which considers national reconciliation, peace and social security,” she said by telephone.
Petit declined to comment when contacted Sunday.
During an interview with Meas Muth inside his home on the outskirts of Battambang’s Samlot town, a steady stream of local families stopped in, children in tow, apparently just to say hello.
A leader in his community, the 70-year-old said he migrates between his home and the local pagoda, where he occasionally gives Pali language lessons and oversees building projects. His deep, hacking coughs were drowned out by the sound of hammering nearby on his property: a new, equally large home for his son’s family.
In the 2001 book “Seven Candidates for Prosecution,” authors Stephen Heder and Brian Tittemore identify Meas Muth as a prime suspect for the tribunal’s investigations, in part because of evidence suggesting that Meas Muth sent a number of his soldiers to the infamous S-21 detention center in Phnom Penh during the party’s internal purges. The head of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, goes on trial starting Tuesday for alleged crimes he committed at the torture facility.
However, Meas Muth insisted last week that none of his troops ended up at S-21, nor did any die from the starvation and sickness that historians say contributed to the deaths of up to 2 million during the ultra-Maoist party’s rule.
“Mostly, they died because of fighting the Vietnamese, malaria…. But no one died of hunger,” he said.
Meas Muth said he knew and conversed with Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and former head-of-state Khieu Samphan during the regime’s rule, though he denied having any input into the party leadership’s decisions as is suggested in “Seven Candidates.”
“I don’t think the court will call me. But if they do, it’s useless,” he said, explaining that he is not guilty of any crimes. “The dropping of B-52 bombs in the 1970s by the US pushed many people to join the Khmer Rouge.”
Samlot town residents appear divided on Meas Muth’s role in the community and whether he should be prosecuted for his role under the Khmer Rouge.
Thoeun Samnang, 29, the chief monk of Wat Ta Sanh Chas pagoda, praised Meas Muth’s leadership and called him “a blessing” for his donations to the temple.
But local resident Oum Sroh, 46, scoffed at the notion that the former Khmer Rouge chief should get off the hook for his alleged crimes.
“[The arrest of] Meas Muth will not cause insecurity,” Oum Sroh said. “Samdech Hun Sen will not let a small group of people bring instability to this country. He won’t let this group of people do whatever they want.”
Meas Muth, for his part, said he is ready to testify at the tribunal and reiterated past statements that he will not flee from prosecution.
“I don’t have any place to hide, but just stay at home,” he said.