Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday berated the opposition’s acting president, Kem Sokha, for his recent claims that Khmer Rouge atrocities at Tuol Sleng prison were fabricated by the Vietnamese, and called for a new law making it illegal to deny crimes carried out by the Pol Pot regime.
On Saturday, the Victims Association of Democratic Kampuchea played recent audio recordings of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) acting president in which he claimed that Tuol Sleng had been “staged” by the Vietnamese after they toppled the regime in 1979.
The comments drew an angry response from some of the prison’s survivors, who demanded that Mr. Sokha apologize to them in person or face demonstrations.
Speaking at the inauguration of a new building at Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen accused Mr. Sokha of evoking Tuol Sleng for political gain and said that an apology to a few survivors would not be enough.
“These words are like Khieu Samphan’s words, which he said during the tri-party talks. He said all the skulls in the country were artificial,” the prime minister said.
“This is not his first speech like this. At Tuol Sleng, Duch is much braver and more responsible for his actions,” Mr. Hun Sen said, making reference to the commandant of the prison, who was sentenced by the Khmer Rouge tribunal last year to life in jail for the atrocities he perpetrated at Tuol Sleng.
“However, for political gain, he [Kem Sokha] is treating this issue as a game,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
Drawing on the example of European countries that have outlawed denial of the Holocaust, Mr. Hun Sen then called for a new law banning denial of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Turning to National Assembly Vice President Khuon Sudary, who he was sharing the stage with, he urged her to push the law through Parliament before the July 28 national election.
“Talk with CPP lawmakers to urgently draft a law for the National Assembly to punish anyone who says publicly that the Khmer Rouge did not kill people and that there was no place of torture like Tuol Sleng,” he said. “We should make a law like in Europe to punish those who say there is no Khmer Rouge genocidal regime.”
Mr. Sokha on Sunday refused to either confirm or deny his comments on Tuol Sleng, and could not be reached Monday.
In a statement Monday, the CNRP did not deny the authenticity of the comments attributed to Mr. Sokha either. But the party did accuse the government of twisting Mr. Sokha’s words.
“Mr. Sokha has never denied that there was torture and killing of Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng prison,” the party said. “Mr. Kem Sokha openly condemns the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime because he himself and his family were also victims.
“Sadly, there are some opportunistic politicians who use Mr. Kem Sokha’s words to make exaggerated broadcasts and cause confusion,” the statement continues. “This is not the first time for such a trick.”
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), the country’s leading archive of Khmer Rouge era records, said Mr. Sokha may have handed the CPP a perfect political tool in the lead-up to July’s national election. But blaming Vietnam for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge was hardly new, he added.
“It has always been a part of the conversation about the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
“They believe that Cambodians are such a gentle people and cannot commit such terrible crimes,” Mr. Chhang said. “They search for something they can use to [explain] the crimes that were committed,” he said, referring to a school of revisionist history that blames the Vietnamese for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime.
Opposition lawmaker and CNRP candidate Son Chhay called Mr. Hun Sen’s idea for a new law against denial of Khmer Rouge crimes “ridiculous,” and said it would lead to an abuse of power.
“Hun Sen is not working to promote rule of law in this country; he is promoting an authoritarian style…to work against freedom of expression,” he said.
The opposition has long attacked Mr. Hun Sen for his close ties to Vietnam, which helped to install him and the CPP’s other top leaders after toppling the Khmer Rouge.
With or without a new law, Mr. Chhay said, the government had little tolerance for criticism of its eastern neighbor and erstwhile benefactor.
“If someone does something to disturb the interests of the Vietnamese, they will be punished—for example, [CNRP president] Sam Rainsy,” he said. “One thing we can be sure of is the prime minister doesn’t want anyone opening their mouths about things he dislikes.”
Mr. Rainsy was sentenced to a combined 11 years in jail in 2009 and 2010 for uprooting temporary markers along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border and posting maps of the area online. He considers the conviction political and lives abroad to avoid prison.
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Mr. Hun Sen’s close ties to Vietnam were a political liability for the prime minister and said a law criminalizing denial of Khmer Rouge crimes carried the risk of being misused to stifle free speech.
“It could be discriminatory,” he said of how the law might be used. “We need to debate the law because we are emotional at the moment, so I’m sure it would not be a good law” if rushed through in the next few weeks, he added.
Right groups already regularly accuse the government of misusing existing laws on defamation and disinformation to stifle legitimate public debate.
Mr. Mong Hay said the government had a raft of far more important laws to work on, highlighting a pending law on the status of judges that would aim to fortify the courts’ independence.
DC-CAM’s Mr. Chang said that rather than punishing those who held such views with a new law, school curricula and the ongoing Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal could be used to keep pressing the truth about the Pol Pot regime.
“We should use all these resources to educate the public. Rather than be punished, they should be educated,” he said. “Perhaps that’s a better way.”