Cambodia on Sunday saw the burial of the man who some observers say was not only a key figure in the massacre of millions of his people, but also a key piece of evidence for the now-endangered Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Dozens of former mid-level Khmer Rouge leaders attended the Anlong Veng funeral of Ke Pauk, who died there Friday from complications due to high blood pressure and diabetes. He was 72.
Family members Sunday said Ke Pauk had suffered a stroke in his Siem Reap province home Jan 25 and came home from a Surin, Thailand hospital five days later. The stroke left him paralyzed on the right side. He never fully recovered, family members said.
His death is one more blow to efforts to convene a tribunal to bring the leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime to justice.
“It is sorrowful that Ke Pauk died before the trial,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said Saturday, announcing Ke Pauk’s death while dedicating a bridge in Kompong Cham province. “Ke Pauk was responsible for the deaths of lots of people in this area.”
The UN pulled out of negotiations with the government Feb 8, saying Cambodian leaders could not guarantee the independence of the tribunal.
Ke Pauk was the highest ranking Khmer Rouge member to die since Pol Pot, the leader of the genocidal regime, died in 1998.
The latest death compounds the ongoing tragedy of the nation, Documentation Center Executive Director Youk Chhang said. Both the UN and the government share the blame for disrupting the Khmer Rouge tribunal, he said.
“It was clear it was never a priority for either side,” Youk Chhang said.
Ke Pauk’s death adds urgency to efforts to bring both sides back together, Youk Chhang said.
“So now, it has to be the top of both sides’ agenda,” he said.
Between 1975 and 1979, at least 1 million people died from disease, overwork, starvation and execution under the Khmer Rouge.
According to the US report “Seven Candidates for Prosecution: Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” issued last year, Ke Pauk, who was director of Cambodia’s North and Central zones under the Khmer Rouge, “played a direct and substantial role in executions…by investigating and facilitating the arrests of suspected traitors in his [zone].”
In September, Ke Pauk denied responsibility for the butchery of the Khmer Rouge era.
“I was a very small member,” he said. “I, one member, was standing in a very small part of the country.”
Despite criticizing the proposed war crimes tribunal as unfair, Ke Pauk said he was willing to appear before it.
His death denies justice not only to his own victims, but to many others, Youk Chhang said.
“You’re missing part of the evidence,” Youk Chhang said. “It is clear he would have been called and he would have testified.”
Ke Pauk’s prosecution would also have made the prosecution of fellow zone commander Ta Mok easier, Youk Chhang said. Ta Mok is currently one of only two cadre now in custody.
Authorities could have used either man as a witness against the other to show zone commanders were aware and responsible for the carnage.
“Without him, Ta Mok will have a lot of room to argue,” he said.
While acknowledging no one “can control nature,” Ke Pauk’s dying peacefully and as a wealthy man (he was an adviser to RCAF) was a victory for the former cadre, Youk Chhang said.
“I don’t know what he was thinking when he died, but I’m sure he is happy to see his life end this way,” Youk Chhang said.
Others were disheartened by Ke Pauk’s death for other reasons.
“His death is regretful. We have lost one of our leaders,” former Khmer Rouge soldier Khoem Them said. “Even though he was listed as one of the cruel Khmer Rouge leaders, he wanted and tried to be considered as a struggler” for his nation, Khoem Them added.
The Ministry of Defense over the weekend offered “to share condolences with the family” of the dead former cadre.
Ke Pauk leaves behind a wife, Sou Soeun, and six children. On Saturday, The Associated Press news agency quoted Sou Soeun, 65, as saying her husband was “a man of clean morals.”
Sunday’s burial throws sharp relief on the looming deadlines in the tribunal, Youk Chhang said. Ta Mok’s term of imprisonment is scheduled to expire March 6.
If authorities are serious about bringing justice to the country, they must act before then, he said.
“Between now and then, the thing must be resolved,” Youk Chhang said. “Otherwise, hope is fading.”
(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann and Saing Soenthrith)