Defections Further Peace, PM Asserts
Their armed struggle failing along with their health, two of the three remaining hard-line Khmer Rouge leaders walked out of the jungle this weekend into the embrace of a Phnom Penh government that has long vowed to arrest them.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday welcomed the defections in Pailin of nominal Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, 67, and Nuon Chea, 71, saying the reintegration of the pair will be good for Cambodia’s peace and development.
The pair said their only wish was to become “simple people.”
Their conditional surrender, which left only military commander Ta Mok at-large, raised new doubts about efforts to bring to trial the leaders of the brutal Democratic Kampuchea regime of 1975 to 1978. More than a million Cambodians died of execution, starvation and forced labor during the Khmer Rouge’s radical Maoist rule.
Hun Sen on Saturday dodged questions on whether Khieu Samphan, former head of state of Democratic Kampuchea, and Nuon Chea, the regime’s former prime minister and Pol Pot’s long-time deputy, will stand trial for crimes against humanity.
“We should not talk about any court. This is a time when we should talk about reconciliation,” Hun Sen told The Associated Press as he left his niece’s wedding Saturday.
Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea reportedly had not revealed the location of Ta Mok—a previous condition for defection—but an army commander indicated Sunday that the government was willing to drop the issue.
“We had to do whatever we could to get them to defect from Ta Mok. Then, Mok will be the only person to take all the responsibility and guilt,” RCAF Deputy with Ta Mok for Khmer Rouge crimes. Longtime Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in the jungles of Cambodia earlier this year.
On June 19, Hun Sen said in a pre-election speech that he might consider welcoming Khieu Samphan only if he would handed his two comrades over to the government.
“If Khieu Samphan does not hand over these two remaining Khmer Rouge leaders to the government, Khieu Samphan will not be forgiven,” Hun Sen vowed then. He made no mention of any possibility of Nuon Chea defecting.
Om Yentieng, a longtime political adviser to Hun Sen, denied that the prime minister had changed his stance. He repeated Hun Sen’s promise of welcome in exchange for Ta Mok and hinted that the pair were cooperating in tracking down the elusive one-legged commander
“We need to work to continue our operation to arrest Ta Mok,” Om Yentieng said.
However, Meas Sophea said Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea had not revealed Ta Mok’s location. Known as “the Butcher” because of his reputation for brutality, Ta Mok is believed to be hiding out somewhere in the jungles along the border. Thai officials on Saturday denied harboring the commander and his remaining 100 or so men.
Just five years ago, the Khmer Rouge remained a feared guerrilla force of at least 10,000 men, holding much of the timber-rich land along the Thai border and active in nearly a third of the country.
Defections and infighting have since crippled the movement.
Ieng Sary’s defection in September 1996 was a huge blow. He brought nearly 5,000 troops with him and deprived the rebels of Pailin’s lucrative gem trade, which for years financed their armed struggle.
As part of the deal, the former rebels were allowed effective autonomy in running Pailin’s lucrative cross-border trade. Ieng Sary was also granted an amnesty for a 1979 death sentence handed down by a “People’s Tribunal” following the Vietnamese invasion that ousted the Khmer Rouge, and given immunity from a 1994 law banning the Khmer Rouge.
Then co-premiers Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh argued that the deal was necessary to end the civil war.
Less than two years later, the government negotiated the defection of most of the last major stronghold of Anlong Veng, north of Siem Reap town. The late-March mutiny sent Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan fleeing into the jungle, taking a captive Pol Pot with them. Pol Pot, the notorious “Brother Number One,” had been purged in a power struggle with Ta Mok in 1997 and died a captive in the jungle in April.
Weary Nation Weighs Justice, Reconciliation
Hopes for Tribunal Appear Set Back
Those who saw Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea said the aging revolutionaries appeared frail but in fair health. They were staying at the home of former comrade Ieng Sary, Meas Sophea said. Ieng Sary defected to the government in 1996, bringing the gem-rich northwest region of Pailin with him.
Ieng Sary brokered talks between the rebel leaders and Hun Sen, Meas Sophea and Ko Chean, another top general, said Sunday. The prime minister had spoken to Khieu Samphan at least once by telephone, and he agreed to the defections after Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea sent letters Friday asking for mercy.
“As I told you on the telephone, my only request is that I come to live in the society as a simple person,” Khieu Samphan wrote. “I have no other suggestions.”
Hun Sen’s written response came the same day.
“Not only I, but the entire Royal Government and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, would like to express warmest welcome to your excellencies who have returned to live in the national society,” he wrote.
The Khmer Rouge’s dwindling military might was dealt a devastating blow three weeks ago with the defections of eight key military commanders.
Hun Sen on Friday hailed the surrender of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea as a definitive end to decades of civil war.
“This is a step our nation needs to take to rehabilitate and rebuild our homeland so that we can leave behind the suffering and destruction that has plagued us for years,” he wrote to King Norodom Sihanouk.
Hun Sen had previously vowed to arrest Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea to face trial along Chea “should be arrested and tried for mass murder before there is any discussion of national reconciliation,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Sunday.
“To allow these men to return to society as if one of the worst massacres of the 20th century never took place—that’s unthinkable,” Sidney Jones, the group’s Asia director, said Sunday.
A UN fact-finding team is expected to make a recommendation to Secretary-General Kofi Annan next month on whether there is enough evidence to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to trial. But any tribunal would be difficult, if not impossible, without the help of the Cambodian government, UN officials have acknowledged.
The latest defections, added to the 1996 defection and amnesty of Ieng Sary, leaves a dwindling pool of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to bring before a court. If the Cambodian government decides to protect the defectors, only Ta Mok—now hiding with about 100 troops in the jungles near the Thai border—would be available. Long-time Khmer Rouge supremo Pol Pot died in his sleep at a jungle base in April.
In public, at least, Prime Minister Hun Sen has supported a tribunal. He and Prince Norodom Ranariddh sent a letter to Annan in mid-1997 inviting the UN to set up an international court to try Khmer Rouge leaders.
Lately, though, Hun Sen has sent mixed messages. In a recent interview with Asiaweek magazine, he said any Khmer Rouge trials should be in Cambodian courts, not an international tribunal. And though he has insisted that no one is immune to prosecution, he has ducked specific questions on whether his government would turn Ieng Sary over to a tribunal.
Some analysts have speculated that, with the Khmer Rouge finally neutralized, Hun Sen will not want to risk angering Ieng Sary, who still controls a semi-autonomous zone in the northwest.
This weekend’s developments, with Hun Sen welcoming two men he previously vowed to hunt down and arrest, muddy the waters further.
Government officials were cagey when asked whether Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea—both senior leaders and policy makers in the 1975-78 Democratic Kampuchea government—would face a trial now that they had emerged from the jungle bases where they have hidden for nearly two decades.
“We do not talk about court cases against any of them yet….
Now it is the phase of national reconciliation,” Meas Sophea, RCAF deputy chief of general staff, said Sunday.
Long-time Hun Sen adviser Om Yentieng said it was up to courts, not the government, to prosecute the aging pair. “I think for these old people, if anyone wants to say, ‘Oh you are a criminal,’ they should let the prosecutor fulfill that role.”
He added that Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea do not need an amnesty because they were not convicted under the 1979 “People’s Tribunal” that sentenced Ieng Sary and Pol Pot to death.
Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said there is ample evidence to convict at least one of the defecting pair.
“With Nuon Chea, it is very clear he was involved in dealing with security, prisoners and torture,” Youk Chhang told The Associated Press. Khieu Samphan’s case is not so clear-cut, he said, but still strong enough to warrant a trial.
“Right now, I think a trial is most likely to happen,” Youk Chhang said by telephone from the US. “Without a fair trial for these guys, it would create an uneasy feeling among survivors of the genocide and cause mistrust against the government.”
National reconciliation, the watchword of both the new coalition and its predecessor, carries weight against justice for many Cambodians. After decades of civil war and political infighting that spilled over into street battles last year, most people say what they want most is peace.
Even So Ye, whose brother’s liver was eaten, initially said she welcomed the news of the latest defections. “My idea is that I am not angry about the Pol Pot time. Now, it is time for us all to live together,” she said, echoing the statements being read on national television and radio over the past few days.
Besides, she said, there is no point in seeking a trial. Like many in Cambodia, So Ye has simply tried to forget.
“If I am angry, I will just suffer more….There is no one to file a complaint to,” she said. “I think in Cambodia there is no such thing as justice.”