As Khmer Rouge tribunal prosecutors prepare to open investigations of new suspects, Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday the tribunal was dangerously close to sparking a return to civil war that could claim hundreds of thousands of lives. The prime minister also denied that he was placing pressure on the tribunal and urged it to be cautious as it went about its work.
“If you are prosecuting without thinking of peace and national reconciliation, and make civil war, and it kills 200,000 to 300,000 people, who will be responsible for that?” the premier said in an address at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Conference Hall on the 2008 census results. “I am not pressuring the court.”
The Khmer Rouge tribunal announced last week that Cambodian judges had been unable to block additional prosecutions of regime suspects, which were sought by UN prosecutors.
The prime minister has in the last 10 years repeatedly stated that no more than five Khmer Rouge leaders should be tried. However he did not appear to say yesterday that he would act to deny the court the ability to go beyond this number.
“It was very difficult to achieve peace like this. Cambodian history is full of blood and tears. So do not make any more trouble. Stop holding conferences. Let the court do it,” Mr Hun Sen said. “I will not let anyone, either Cambodian or foreigner, ruin this peace.”
Turning to Pailin Governor Y Chhien, a former Pol Pot bodyguard and secretary of Khmer Rouge military division 415, who was sitting in the audience yesterday, Mr Hun Sen said: “It is not easy to take Y Chhien out of the jungle.”
He also referred to the International Criminal Court, which in March issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir on suspicion of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the African country’s Darfur region.
“I want to question the International Criminal Court, which issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s sitting president. What can you do? If go there, they will shoot to break your heads,” Mr Hun Sen said. “That is a power that is not thinking of other issues.”
Through a spokesman yesterday, the tribunal’s chief UN administrator, Knut Rosandhaug, said he expected the court to function independently of the prime minister.
“It is a clearly established international standard that courts do not seek approval or advice on their work from the executive branch,” Mr Rosandhaug said. “I expect that the ECCC will comply with this internationally recognized standard and make its decisions independently.”
UN prosecutors and tribunal observers have expressed skepticism and disbelief at the prime minister’s claim that Cambodia risks a return to civil war sparked by former elements of the Khmer Rouge, the final remnants of which gave up their struggle more than a decade ago.
In an interview published in a Canadian newspaper on Friday, the tribunal’s former UN prosecutor, Robert Petit, who resigned on Sept 1, said such fears of civil war in Cambodia were “hogwash.”
However Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak maintained yesterday that reintegration of the Khmer Rouge was not yet complete.
“If we need to arrest them all, we will face some challenges,” he said. “The Khmer Rouge tribunal will be ended if it makes insecurity for the country because stability is more important than the Khmer Rouge tribunal.”