Former Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary warned against attempting to bring leaders of the movement to trial, implying that his followers would reignite the civil war if rebel defectors were threatened with arrest.
In a Khmer-language statement received Thursday, Ieng Sary called efforts toward a trial “incitement” that threatens the peace achieved with the recent defections of senior rebel leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.
“Anything that leads to the division of national reconciliation should be avoided,” Ieng Sary wrote in the statement, dated Jan 25. “If civil war returns again as a result of the trial, who will be responsible for it and how will it be solved?”
Ieng Sary, 75, the former rebel third-in-command who defected to the government in 1996 and now controls the autonomous zone of Pailin in the northwest, is seen as a prime candidate for an international tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders.
His warning comes as a UN panel of legal experts finalizes its report on setting up a tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders. The panel’s recommendations are due mid-month.
Several mid-level former rebels in Pailin have said they would fight rather than allow their leaders to be arrested and brought to trial. Ieng Sary’s statement, his first since he brokered the Khieu Samphan-Nuon Chea defections Dec 25, added to those fears.
Of the six surviving Khmer Rouge central committee members, four live in Pailin: Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Khieu Thirith, Ieng Sary’s wife.
Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia that has been gathering evidence for a possible Khmer Rouge trial, said Ieng Sary’s statement reveals worry among the former rebels living in Pailin.
“It shows that they are scared they will be punished,” Youk Chhang said. “I think it will have little effect. We all know who they are, who they were and who they will be.”
Youk Chhang said the center has documents showing Ieng Sary was aware of torture and executions during the Democratic Kampuchea rule.
When the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975, its leaders set about trying to set up a pure communist agrarian society. They emptied cities, executed anyone considered “intellectuals” and forced the entire population to work on slave-labor farming collectives. More than 1 million died of execution, torture, starvation, disease or exhaustion.
In the statement, released by the Democratic National Union Movement he set up after his own defection in August 1996, Ieng Sary acknowledged that the “historical mistakes” that Khmer Rouge leaders made during their rule should not be forgotten.
But he said a trial would do no good. “Given the fragile situation and the current political atmosphere in our country, the Democratic National United Movement sees that a trial of this person or that person is not the solution to the problem,” he said.
“The wound that has not yet healed is being poked with a stick,” he said, referring to a comment made by Prime Minister Hun Sen days after the Dec 25 defections were announced.
At that time, Hun Sen said no one should talk of arresting Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea because it would reopen old wounds and threaten the peace. Those comments, plus the lavish welcome the aging Khmer Rouge leaders received in Phnom Penh, prompted international condemnation.
Hun Sen later said he still supports an international tribunal, but has also suggested the scope be widened to include international players, including the US and China, that helped support the Khmer Rouge.
Even if a tribunal is set up, getting the potential defendants to court could yet prove a problem.
An intelligence operative based in Pailin said Thursday the former rebels are preparing defenses against any attempt to arrest Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea or any other former rebels living in the area.
In an interview in April 1998, Ieng Sary said he would be willing to stand trial for his role in the Khmer Rouge regime, but only if it served the “national interest.”
The former foreign minister of Democratic Kampuchea said at the time that he was not involved in any atrocities, but was only following the orders of Pol Pot, the long-time Khmer Rouge leader who died in the jungle last year.
Ieng Sary’s own 1996 defection spelled the beginning of the end for the Khmer Rouge. Only military leader Ta Mok now continues to oppose the government.