Most Cambodians want a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders, but they are divided over whether it should be run by local authorities or with the help of the UN, said participants at a public forum in Phnom Penh Thursday.
“I don’t want to see the Cambodian leaders act as executioner, leader and court by themselves,” said Throng Chenda, a law student at Norton University. “I don’t want them to use the nation for their political ends.”
Others asked why foreigners should be trusted to run the tribunal when they did little at the time to prevent the genocide.
“It is an internal problem,” one speaker said. “We don’t need foreigners.”
The forum, at the Juliana Hotel, was the second in a series organized by the Center for Social Development. The roughly 200 participants included monks, soldiers, students and farmers, and were meant to represent a broad cross section of Cambodians, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
The younger brother of Pol Pot’s deputy, Khieu Samphan, was the solitary opponent of a trial. Although he himself was never a member of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Seng Kim said he opposed any kind of trial because it would inflame old hostilities and lead the country back to civil war.
“I would like to forget the past,” the university professor said.
He said that many of the new generation of Khmer Rouge had been profoundly influenced by their leaders, and their ideological convictions still run deep.
“Don’t think that those people won’t get up again for their leaders,” he warned.
Speakers sometimes wept as they recalled their experiences under the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime.
Khun Savak Keth, 55, was starved and forced to do hard labor, he said. All his relatives were killed.
“That I survived until today is by luck,” he said.
Only an international tribunal would have the authority to summon representatives of foreign countries, including China and Vietnam, that contributed to civil war in Cambodia, he said. Only an international court would have the power to demand compensation from them.
Yet others said they’re afraid that once the international community is satisfied they’ve conducted a thorough trial, it will quit Cambodia and leave the country to face the consequences alone.
Bean Pitoun, an 18-year-old Phnom Penh university student, disagreed. She said she never heard about the atrocities under Pol Pot until she learned about it in school. Though some of her own family were among the victims, she didn’t believe the stories of mass murder until she went to the Tuol Sleng museum and saw the evidence for herself.
“I don’t want a Cambodian court to try the Khmer Rouge because it is biased to the government and corrupt. I have no confidence in it,” she said. “I want the international court because it is just and neutral.”
Peter Horne, a representative of the international good governance group Moral Re-Armament, said Cambodia might learn from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his native South Africa, which dealt with abuses under the apartheid regime.
He stressed that every situation is unique and said he did not suggest Cambodia try to duplicate South Africa’s commission. It is only an example of what a rigorous tribunal might accomplish, he said.
“For my people [the commission revealed] the real truth of what we’ve been part of, so we cannot turn back.”