The government announced Thursday that no attempt will be made to bring surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership to justice for atrocities committed during their 1975-78 rule until after July’s scheduled elections.
“Efforts [to bring about a tribunal] at a national or international level should not distract or disturb the holding of the upcoming election in Cambodia,” the government spokesman’s office said in a written statement released Thursday.
International efforts to bring those responsible for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge have gained momentum as the rebel movement collapses in the wake of internal splits and mass defections.
After the death of former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot on April 15, the UN and US vowed to continue the fight to bring remaining leaders to justice.
The Phnom Penh government has named only three surviving cadre that they believe should be prosecuted—military leader Ta Mok, political leader Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the ideologue behind the movement.
Human rights groups and foreign governments, however, have suggested the net be cast much wider in determining which individuals should be brought to justice.
According to an Associated Press report Thursday, the US State Department this week wrote to the Cambodian government urging it not to grant amnesty to Khmer Rouge leaders as part of a peace deal, in the hope that as many as 20 could be brought before a tribunal for crimes against humanity.
One individual reportedly targeted by the US was Ke Pauk, a former rebel commander believed responsible for the deaths of thousands of Cambodians, who recently defected to government forces.
According to Phnom Penh diplomats and analysts, Thursday’s announcement may have been prompted by government fears that defectors like Ke Pauk might be brought to trial.
At a ceremony last weekend to welcome rebel defectors—including Ke Pauk—into the government’s ranks, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen chided the international community for taking so long to push for a tribunal, asking whether it wished to frighten defectors away from the government.
With the government anxious to bolster its own army ranks with rebel defectors, analysts say it cannot afford to scare away wavering hard-liners with the fear of prosecution.
“The government’s aim is to win over all the Khmer Rouge apart from the leadership,” explained one military analyst. “Bringing cases against Khmer Rouge leaders now might put doubts in people’s minds that they can defect.”
A political analyst agreed. “The issue is rather a sensitive one,” he said. “The government has made peace with [former rebel cadre] Ieng Sary and other Khmer Rouge. If there is then the threat that they may be prosecuted, they might choose to go into the jungle.”
According to Thursday’s statement, however, the government remains committed to holding “the long-overdue trial” of Khmer Rouge leaders.
But, it says, the immediate concern of the government is to focus its attentions on “strengthening the overall situation and political stability in order to establish a solid basis for the holding of a free and fair election.”
To some analysts, that means securing the continuing loyalties of defecting rebels in the name of “national reconciliation,” in an effort to boost the CPP’s electoral chances.
According to Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the institute responsible for gathering data on Khmer Rouge atrocities, time constraints would prevent any trial being held for many months to come even if charges were brought today.
But an announcement allaying defectors’ fears of prosecution, at least in the short term, might prevent them from being wooed by the opposition, Youk Chhang speculated.
“I think they might be afraid that the opposition may use the Khmer Rouge to disrupt the elections,” he said. “They might accuse some candidates of involvement in the crimes against humanity.”