Just a week after King Norodom Sihanouk signed the Khmer Rouge tribunal bill into law, the man who was for millions the face of the genocidal regime Friday issued his first-ever public statement regarding his role in the Khmer Rouge, denying any part in the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians.
In “An Open Letter to All Compatriots,” Khieu Samphan, 70, former prime minister during the Khmer Rouge regime, said he did not wish “to poke a stick into the wounds” of fellow “gentle people,” but said he was “forced to make a statement” clearing his name as momentum gathers for an international tribunal.
Last week, the King approved legislation setting up a mixed tribunal of international and Cambodian judges to try “those most responsible” for “the most serious” of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities between 1975-1979. The government and the UN must now work out particulars before the tribunal can begin its work.
Khieu Samphan’s letter, dated Thursday but released Friday and containing the aging leader’s wide-scrawled signature, states that he was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge as well, and not privy to any of its secrets.
“Obviously, I had no rights to attend the…main decisions….To this day, I do not know when decisions were made. As for the killing of people, I know nothing at all,” Khieu Samphan writes in his letter.
In fact, the letter goes on to state, Khieu Samphan was himself mistrusted by the regime.
“I was prohibited from walking without permission…All of this prevented me from knowing anything that happened in the country,” he writes.
It was “accidentally” that Khieu Samphan learned of atrocities against his wife’s family, the letter states. He learned the full scale of Khmer Rouge cruelty only after the Vietnamese invasion toppled the ultra-Maoist movement in 1979.
“I knew only what the Communist Party of Kampuchea told me until the movement fell, and the relatives and victims and the witnesses told me about the very cruel killings. And I listened to it, and it made my hair stand on end,” he writes.
Khieu Samphan also said he “denies absolutely” a published report by legal experts in the US which link him to the torture, starvation, overwork and killings that were the hallmark of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I was just an intellectual,” the letter continues, “without intentions besides my duties to the nation, for a changing and very complicated decade. I knew clearly my weak points, but I thought that I could not escape while duty to the nation fell on me. I never had ambitions to be a leader, and I never thought of killing other people.”
While the letter closes with Khieu Samphan sending “my respects to the gentle people and the victims who were killed or treated cruelly during Democratic Kampuchea,” it also argues the regime “was the legal state of Cambodia, born from the people’s struggle against external and foreign interference.”
The statement comes days after a similar denial by “Brother No 3,” Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister.
The letter was met with contempt among some observers. Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a government adviser, said he was unimpressed with Khieu Samphan’s defense, calling it a cynical attempt to avoid prosecution.
“It means that he doesn’t want the tribunal to call him to the court, and he doesn’t want to stand in front of the court. If he knew the Khmer Rouge had killed millions of people after 1979, why didn’t he walk away from them after that?” Kao Kim Hourn said.
Khieu Samphan did not leave the Khmer Rouge until 1998.
That top leaders who have long remained silent about one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities are suddenly issuing public statements is at least one indication of the tribunal’s credibility and power, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Friday.
“It seems to me it shows they think it’s going to happen, and they’re worried about it. And they should be,” Wiedemann said.