Survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime’s Tuol Sleng prison, which oversaw the killing of more than 12,000 men, women and children, have demanded that Kem Sokha, acting president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), apologize for comments he made recently denying the facility’s bloody history.
The Victims Association of Democratic Kampuchea demanded the apology at a press conference held on Saturday inside the grounds of the former Khmer Rouge prison, where they played snippets from a recording of a speech they say Mr. Sokha delivered on May 18 in Prey Veng and Takeo provinces.
In the recording, Mr. Sokha appears to accuse Vietnam of setting up the former school building to look like a Khmer Rouge prison and torture center.
“The Vietnamese created this place with pictures [of the victims]. If this place is truly Khmer Rouge they would have knocked it down before they left,” Mr. Sokha said in the recording.
“You should know that if the Khmer Rouge killed people, would they keep it to show to everyone? If they knew they killed many people, why would they keep this place?”
In a separate audio file on the website of the Council of Ministers, an undated speech that Mr. Sokha is also said to have delivered recently in Prey Veng province, follows the same line.
“Why would the Khmer Rouge be so stupid as to keep Tuol Sleng after killing many people, and keep it as a museum to show tourists?” Mr. Sokha said. “This is just staged. I believe it is staged, isn’t it?”
While the Vietnamese communist forces provided the Khmer Rouge with much training and direct military support in their 1975 victory over the Lon Nol government, the two sides soon fell out. The new communist government of Vietnam, with the aid of Khmer Rouge defectors, eventually toppled the regime in 1979 and kept an occupying force in the country for the next 10 years.
Tuol Sleng, which the Khmer Rouge called S-21, has since become a museum packed with photographs of former inmates and is one of the most popular, and harrowing, tourist attractions in the country.
The center also provided much of the evidence the Khmer Rouge tribunal used to sentence S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, to life in prison last year after convicting him of crimes against humanity.
At Saturday’s press conference, Chum Mey, president of the Victims Association of Democratic Kampuchea and one of the few people to have survived his time at Tuol Sleng, said he organized the event himself after hearing Mr. Sokha’s speech over the radio.
“It hurts me more than ever when Mr. Kem Sokha publicly states that Tuol Sleng prison is artificial and that Democratic Kampuchea was a theater organized by communist Vietnam,” he said. “These expressions unquestionably insult those who lost their lives in the Democratic Kampuchea regime, and especially those who died at Tuol Sleng prison.”
Mr. Mey demanded that Mr. Sokha come to the former prison to apologize and retract his words in person.
“If Khem Sokha will not come to apologize, I will take other measures,” he said. “We will conduct a mass demonstration against him at his office.”
Contacted Sunday, Mr. Sokha declined to comment on his words and would neither confirm nor deny that he said them.
“I have no comment,” he said. “I have no concern. I’m concerned about the election.”
However, in an interview he gave to Radio Free Asia on Saturday, Mr. Sokha appears to confirm having made the comments.
“This was what I have learned from history,” he said. “I have learned that the Khmer Rouge had some connections with the Vietnamese. Therefore, this is just my idea, which is not an accusation. But I would like to say sorry if my ideas are different from others.”
Opposition lawmakers Mu Sochua and Yim Sovann, both CNRP candidates in July’s national election, said they had not heard Mr. Sokha’s words so could neither confirm nor deny his alleged comments about Tuol Sleng.
Mr. Sovann, however, said it was not party policy to claim that the Vietnamese had fabricated Tuol Sleng’s role as a prison and torture site.
“Vietnam used to support the Khmer Rouge in the past and the Khmer Rouge created Tuol Sleng prison,” he said. “This is my party’s position.”
Mr. Sovann also agreed that it was the Khmer Rouge who imprisoned and tortured people there.
Still, the opposition does have a history of taking a hard line against Vietnam. CNRP president Sam Rainsy regularly refers to Vietnamese as “yuon,” a common ethnic slur.
He has regularly accused the government of bowing to Vietnamese orders and is currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid an 11-year prison term on charges—which he believes to be politically motivated—tied to his challenges of Phnom Penh’s negotiations with Vietnam over their disputed border.
On Saturday, the U.N.’s visiting human rights envoy to Cambodia Surya Subedi told politicians in the country to refrain from “exploiting racial sentiments” in their electioneering.
“I urge all sides concerned to refrain completely from exploiting racial sentiments to garner support for their electoral campaign and work towards building a tolerant and cohesive society in Cambodia,” he said at a press conference.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the country’s leading archive of Khmer Rouge era records, said there could be absolutely no doubt that the regime had used Tuol Sleng as a prison and torture center.
“S-21 is an undeniable crime site of the Khmer Rouge; it is so clear cut,” he said.
Mr. Chhang would not comment on why Mr. Sokha would challenge that history, whether out of a genuine misunderstanding of the past or political calculation.
“His statements remind me that things can be forgotten if we don’t keep reminding the public,” Mr. Chhang said.
“There are thousands and thousands [of pieces] of evidence proving it was a crime site of the Khmer Rouge,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)