Returning from a UN trade conference in Bangkok where Prime Minister Hun Sen met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, government officials on Monday deflected charges that they weakened their position on how to try former Khmer Rouge leaders.
“We have not softened our stance on the issues with Kofi Annan,” said Minister of Cabinet Sok An, who was part of the delegation to Bangkok. “However, we intend to work with the UN’s experts…to work out all the differences.”
While no date yet is confirmed for the UN team’s arrival in Cambodia, Sok An characterized the Saturday meeting between the two leaders as “positive.”
His position comes in stark contrast to harsh comments the government made months ago, hinting they would proceed in establishing a trial with or without the UN.
It also counters Hun Sen’s statements before leaving for Bangkok last week, when he likened UN demands to retain international control in the trial to Cambodia acting as the UN’s “guard dog” in the process.
Observers and political analysts over the weekend said the prime minister has kept a tough public stance to appease hard-liners within his party. But behind closed doors, he knows he must deal with the UN.
“He doesn’t want to be seen as a soft Cambodian politician who will easily give in,” said Kao Kim Hourn, director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “He has been under a lot of pressure from within [Cambodia] and without.”
Hun Sen’s chief task is to convince his ruling Cambodian People’s Party to accept at least some UN control over a trial. Some diplomats warn that it will be a hard sell—explaining that several CPP leaders reportedly questioned Hun Sen at a closed-door party congress last week, with some accusing him of already giving too much away to the UN.
The ruling party has endorsed a Cambodian-run trial, warning that the country’s newfound peace could be threatened if too many former Khmer Rouge are indicted, perhaps convincing them to return to war rather than face a trial.
A handful of senior party members who held high positions in the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s may also fear that they themselves could be indicted.
Observers say the Hun Sen who has his eye toward securing international aid and investment has become much more moderate since his early Communist days.
“Hun Sen is coming back here a changed man, it seems,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy. “Before he said he could hold this trial on his own. Now he knows he must reach a compromise with them.”
Some diplomats maintain that to deflect too much criticism from within his party, changes to the trial draft law will occur within the National Assembly, where his one-time counterpart, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, its president.
Sok An reiterated the government’s stance that the draft law to establish the trial, passed last month by the Council of Ministers, would proceed through the National Assembly, maintaining “it is out of (the executive’s) hands now.”
(Reporting for the Cambodia Daily by Lor Chandara and Kelly McEvers)