SAMLOT DISTRICT, Battambang province – With criticism mounting in recent months over the failure of police to carry out an arrest warrant for Khmer Rouge navy commander Meas Muth, the Interior Ministry has said that it needs to gauge public opinion before taking action.
“It does not mean we have ignored the order to implement the arrest warrant, but our officials went down there to study the social impact, the security and the opinion of the people,” said Mao Chandara, chief of police for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, when asked in June why Meas Muth had not been arrested despite a warrant being issued by the court in December.
“So when they come back, we will do an evaluation of their study.”
A refusal by Cambodia’s government to arrest charged suspects in cases 003 and 004, which are openly opposed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, would be a breach of its agreement with the U.N., which helped establish the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in 2006 to prosecute senior members of Pol Pot’s regime.
Hem Sarom, the police chief in Battambang’s Ta Sanh commune, where Meas Muth lives, said on Tuesday that two cars carrying three or four Interior Ministry officials arrived at Meas Muth’s house a few months ago. The officials then interviewed his neighbors, he said.
“After Muth was charged, a group came to ask the opinions of villagers,” Mr. Sarom said. “First, they came to meet me, then they went to Meas Muth’s house, which I pointed out for them. Then they questioned villagers and most said they don’t want him taken to the ECCC.”
But in interviews with reporters on Tuesday, those living near Meas Muth in the tiny Ta Sanh Choeung village, including close acquaintances, said that nobody from the Interior Ministry had come to the area to speak to locals.
“I never saw any police asking people’s opinions,” said Hay Mab, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who laid down his weapons in the late 1990s and has known the former navy chief for about 15 years. “I never heard about it.”
Mr. Mab said that if officials from outside the commune had come to the area and started asking questions, word of the visit would have spread.
“It’s difficult to say whether [Mr. Sarom] is lying or not, but because police and soldiers are part of the government, perhaps they just echo their leaders,” he said.
Sitting by his pepper plantation, Meas Muth’s former bodyguard Chan Sam An spoke fondly of the Khmer Rouge, saying that anyone killed by the regime got “a taste of their own medicine.”
Mr. Sam An also said that no police or officials had visited the area lately, adding that he suspected the official narrative was a fabrication.
“I never saw any police officials come to question villagers,” he said. “I think [Mr. Sarom] is lying because I never saw police here. If you don’t believe me, ask more villagers around here.”
A further six people interviewed in Ta Sanh Choeung village said they had neither seen nor heard of anyone being interviewed about Meas Muth.
Meas Muth’s wife refused to allow reporters to interview her husband. In June, he said by telephone that he was more “concerned with planting my corn and cassava” than the actions of the tribunal.
Samlot district governor In Soarith said Wednesday that he knew nothing about an Interior Ministry opinion-polling trip to the area.
“I didn’t see any police officials from the Interior Ministry here, but I saw ECCC officials come along with an American prosecutor to do a workshop asking people’s opinion about the case in 2014,” he said.
Mr. Chandara, the ECCC police chief, said he could not comment Wednesday because he was ill and at the hospital.
Mr. Hun Sen has said that prosecuting Khmer Rouge officials beyond the senior leaders currently on trial could threaten the stability of the country and send former communist soldiers back into the forest.
“[The ECCC] expands the scope, nearly making the people flee back into the forest,” the prime minister said during a speech in February.
“The scope has been expanded again and again. The value of peace and the cost of human lives have to be considered,” he added. “If a war occurred, how many people would be killed?”
While those in Ta Sanh Choeung village say they were never asked about the prospect of Meas Muth’s arrest, the overwhelming sentiment here is that he should be left alone.
“We are sorry that the tribunal issued an arrest warrant. He’s an old man and he’s instructed us to do good. Sometimes, he passes by and asks us about our crops,” said a former Khmer Rouge cadre who gave his name only as Im.
One dissenting voice was Mr. Mab, who joined the Khmer Rouge at the age of 14 and said Meas Muth should face the charges against him—including accusations that he purged his own soldiers and killed foreigners at sea—but that he doubted it would happen.
“I don’t expect the police will come to arrest him because it seems like the government won’t cooperate with the Khmer Rouge court,” he said. “I heard through the media that the head of government said [more charges] would create civil war. In my opinion, I don’t think so—who would fight and with who?”
“I didn’t see [Meas Muth] kill anyone, but I want to see him arrested as I want to know the truth.”