For the first time since defecting to the government and effectively ending civil war here, former Khmer Rouge leaders sat down with UN representatives Sunday to spell out their demands on how to try their one-time comrades.
“We support the government’s proposal for the trial of former Khmer Rouge,” said Pailin Governor Y Chhien, who in the past served as Pol Pot’s bodyguard. “I’m requesting that Cambodian judges stay in the majority.”
In an interview Monday, Y Chhien said he and three former Khmer Rouge division commanders initiated a meeting Sunday morning with a high-profile UN legal team sent here last week to negotiate how to try those responsible for more than one million deaths during Democratic Kampuchea’s 1975-1979 reign.
Y Chhien’s support of the government’s proposal for a municipal court with a majority of Cambodian judges and “international assistance” counters a UN plan to form an international-style ad hoc tribunal in Cambodia with judges appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Also in attendance Sunday were Sam Bith, who in June was charged with aiding recently convicted Khmer Rouge commander Nuon Paet in the deaths of three Western backpackers and at least 13 Cambodians; Yim Phanna, who led the revolt last year at Anlong Veng that enabled thousands of Khmer Rouge fighters to defect to the government; and Sok Pheap, a former Khmer Rouge division commander based in the northwestern border town of Phnom Malai. All have joined the government since 1996 and hold top posts in RCAF.
Before the meeting, held at UN offices at the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana, Y Chhien said the group presented UN Assistant Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Ralph Zacklin a letter vowing their movement is no more.
“The Khmer Rouge military and political organization were completely destroyed,” the letter read. During a Friday news conference, Y Chhien cited the same letter and assured he would not stand in the way if a court indicts and attempts to arrest former Khmer Rouge leaders holed up in Pailin, once a rebel stronghold.
But Youk Chhang, who heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia and assembles potential evidence from the four-year reign of alleged genocide and crimes against humanity, was astonished that Pol Pot’s one-time henchmen could secure a meeting with credible international representatives.
“After all these years, after all they’ve done to us—I’m surprised they could gain access to this mission,” Youk Chhang said.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Hun Sen criticized the UN for its sullied past with the Khmer Rouge—particularly for granting them a seat in the UN General Assembly during its brutal reign.
Yet Youk Chhang noted the Sunday meeting might display how seriously the one-time rebels view the progress made by the UN in negotiating a tribunal.
“During the Khmer Rouge reign, before you died, you were forced to ask forgiveness, to beg to be spared. Now the tables are turned. They’re the ones who are scared,” he said.
In addition to their hard-line support of the government’s proposal, the Y Chhien-led group also spent much time recounting to UN delegates their discontent with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, the letter indicated.
Sok Pheap last week blasted Sam Rainsy for referring to former Khmer Rouge leaders as criminals and reportedly suggested Sam Rainsy be “gunned down.”
On Monday, Sam Rainsy rebuffed Sok Pheap with harsh words for the ex-rebel group: “The Khmer Rouge, they pull off their mask and show their real face. These kind of comments cannot be helpful to democracy.”
His comments came after he too met with the Zacklin-led UN team. Calling the UN-government talks the “moment of truth,” Sam Rainsy said despite somewhat optimistic reports from the deliberations, the two sides failed at deciding how finally to achieve justice.
If the UN “gives in” and allows the government to hold too much influence in the trial, “it would make a mockery of what has been done in other countries” like Rwanda and Yugoslavia, Sam Rainsy said.
Sam Rainsy consistently has argued for an international ad hoc tribunal with very little input from a Cambodian legal system he argues is corrupt and untrained.
While most agreed that since the UN team arrived last week they achieved much diplomatic progress, still unresolved is which type of trial will prevail. (Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)