The government has rewarded the leaders of last year’s Khmer Rouge mutineers in Anlong Veng, appointing seven former rebels to the rank of one-star general, including the controversial and allegedly bloodstained Ke Pauk.
While a top Defense official characterized the appointment of Ke Pauk as a choice between peace or renewed civil war, analysts expressed misgivings the public’s trust had been violated.
Military analysts described the seven appointments as a mix of positions of real responsibility and symbolic posts that could be downsized in five years.
And while the importance of the RCAF posts are comparable to those handed out in 1996 to Pailin’s defectors, Ke Pauk is the highest-ranking Democratic Kampuchea figure ever to receive a job in the royal government. He was the movement’s deputy military commander during its brutal 1975-79 regime, scholars say.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith agreed that the jobs were partly symbolic and partly meaningful, but cautioned that it is dangerous to not to integrate the Khmer Rouge into jobs of responsibility.
“Sometimes it is symbolic and sometimes it is a necessity but it must prevent a recurrence of fighting,” the CPP secretary of state for Information said Tuesday.
Ke Pauk’s guilt or innocence can only be judged by a court of law, but a government posting does not remove the possibility that he would be called to stand trial, Khieu Kanharith said.
“By appointing this man to this or that position, it doesn’t mean that you pardon him,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the legal aid organization, International Human Rights Law Group Cambodia Project, agreed with Khieu Kanharith’s assessment, noting that the government has not done anything illegal and that only a court can be the final authority.
Should the decision be unpopular, the only check to the government’s appointment of Ke Pauk, he said, could be to “lose the confidence from the people.”
A group of cyclo drivers interviewed Tuesday near a Phnom Penh market said that international court or not, the government should wait until top defectors such as Ke Pauk are judged before hiring them.
“I want to know who is guilty and who is innocent,” said Samy, 49.
The cyclo drivers noted that if the government can “guarantee” nationwide peace, then posting former Khmer Rouge to top jobs is warranted.
However, Von, 55, worried that the government will have less ability to keep the former Khmer Rouge in check if they are given defense and military jobs.
Defense co-Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath said Monday that the defections were geared to give the Khmer Rouge a piece of the franchise and a chance to play a role in government. Without it, the Khmer Rouge would find themselves “unusable to the new society.”
“The new government is just trying to promote the idea that national reconciliation is better than renewing the civil war,” Prince Sirirath said. “For the new Royal Government, buying peace is much better than renewing the civil war.”
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a leading compiler of evidence against Khmer Rouge leaders, agreed with the assessment that the government has made a purchase.
“It is just like you go to the market. If you get a fish, you pay the price,” said Youk Chhang.
However, Youk Chhang questioned whether a true defection should include such “compensation” and whether the Ministry of Defense should embrace former enemies of the government.
The seven job assignments range from those generally reserved for officers close to retirement to possibly key jobs in the command structure of the armed forces, according to analysts.
Three appointments that are possibly integral posts in the military include Yim Phanna, who led the March 24 Anlong Veng mutiny, taking up a deputy commander’s position in the Siem Reap-based Military Region 4.
Im Heung, who led the Mar 30 Preah Vihear Temple defection of hundreds of troops from several divisions, is now deputy director of the army’s operations office.
And Chea Keo, who defected several months before the Anlong Veng mutiny and helped the government establish clandestine contact with other hard-line commanders, is a deputy in the tactical office for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Two former division commanders have taken up the commanders’ posts of Anlong Veng-based divisions 23 and 24.
Alternately, Pich Chheang, who was ambassador to Beijing during the 1975-78 Democratic Kampuchea regime, and Ke Pauk have been appointed to advise the Ministry of Defense in jobs that military analysts say are generally reserved for officers near retirement.
Such jobs may be trimmed if the RCAF carries out the promised reform of its bloated ranks, analysts said.
But in the middle of the appointments, Ke Pauk cuts a controversial figure, analysts agree.
According to historian and scholar Ben Kiernan, Ke Pauk was 13th in the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s structure and was the deputy chief of Demo-cratic Kampuchea’s armed forces.
“He brutally repressed the Northern Zone rebellion in 1977 and purged the northern half of the Eastern Zone with even greater brutality beginning on May 25, 1978,” Kiernan wrote by e-mail in December.
Researcher Craig Etcheson has said he believes the Ke Pauk-ordered purges resulted in 100,000 corpses in killing fields in Kom-pong Cham province.
Khieu Kanharith, speaking in November, underscored the government’s commitment to try Khmer Rouge leaders, saying “I know how cruel Ke Pauk was—I was there, you know.”
Prince Norodom Ranariddh told reporters in Siem Reap town last April 23, “You know Mr Ke Pauk, who is in Phnom Penh, he is responsible for hundreds of assassinations; he is a mass murderer.”
For his part, Ke Pauk has either shifted blame away from himself and onto five Khmer Rouge leaders who held power during the Democratic Kampuchea regime, or indicated that accusations of Khmer Rouge atrocities were exaggerated.
In a brief interview after last week’s integration of December’s Khmer Rouge defectors in Anlong Veng, Ke Pauk said his fate is up to the government in a possible international tribunal judging former Khmer Rouge leaders on charges of crimes against humanity.
“If the government say I have to go to a trial, then yes, I will go,” he said.
Chea Vannath, director of the think tank Center for Social Development, said Monday that she thought the government’s appointment of Ke Pauk showed a “lack of transparency.”
However, she cautioned that most people, including herself, are unfamiliar with the evidence against Ke Pauk.
“For me, I don’t know anything so maybe I should give the benefit of the doubt until he goes through a tribunal,” she said. “But suppose, just assume that his past is what the Documenta-tion Center said, I think the nomination has a lack of ethical value, a lack of morality.”
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)