Today’s Inductees Defended by Gov’t
The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces plans to integrate 150 former Khmer Rouge soldiers today from a unit believed responsible for last April’s massacre of 22 people in a mostly ethnic-Vietnamese fishing village.
Two government spokesmen on Thursday disputed suggestions that some of the 150 soldiers to be integrated today in Kompong Chhnang province are guilty, although analysts—and local police—say they believe the men were involved.
Asked whether he was concerned the defectors carried out the massacre, Defense co-Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath replied that impunity in the attack may have to be a bitter pill swallowed along with national reconciliation.
“I am concerned for the Khmer Rouge as a whole,” Prince Sirirath said. “They were involved in the mass murder of 2 million of their own people. Everyone has blood on their hands, and I don’t know if justice can be rendered to the families of the victims.”
Today’s integration ceremony of hard-line Khmer Rouge troops is the third this week after the rebels’ entire rank-and-file defected to the government Dec 4.
General Neang Phat, a Defense Ministry spokesman who is on the government’s integration commission, indicated that it will be nearly impossible to find out exactly who committed the massacre because old Khmer Rouge divisions have been mixed together following Tuesday’s integration ceremony in Anlong Veng and Monday’s in Samlot.
And he insisted today’s inductees were not part of the Division 785 group that allegedly attacked the village.
“This group is not involved with the massacre,” Neang Phat said. “I asked them, and they said they were not.”
A human rights official on Thursday scoffed at the notion that guilty soldiers would confess when asked about the massacre. “Well, they are not going to say yes, are they?” the rights official asked rhetorically.
A top provincial police official, who asked his name not be used, said he believes the men who will don RCAF uniforms today carried out the massacre. “There was no other group there,” he said. “They were the only ones based there.”
In the early hours of last April 18, about 30 men, some wearing black masks and others wearing Khmer Rouge fatigues, descended on the 100 or so sleeping families in the fishing village of Chnouk Trou. They attacked without warning.
An hour later, 26 homes and five small stores had been torched, and two cars destroyed. Twelve ethnic Vietnamese, eight ethnic Khmers, and two ethnic Chams were killed in the raid. No arrests have been reported.
Survivors said their attackers yelled racial slurs during the attack and singled out ethnic Vietnamese for execution.
One day after the massacre, a top Interior Ministry official blamed Khmer Rouge Division 785 troops. Three days after that, the now-destroyed Khmer Rouge radio proudly claimed responsibility for the massacre.
“On the night of April 18, 1998, people and soldiers fought the fish-robbing yuon people’s nest in Chnouk Trou, Kompong Chhnang province,” the rebel radio announcer crowed.
The Khmer Rouge have historically singled out ethnic Vietnamese as racial enemies.
Survivors of the attack have been split over whether the men were Khmer Rouge or bandits who live in the area. A military analyst at the time was surprised Division 785 had been blamed, saying the group hadn’t stirred up trouble there before.
The rights official, who said he believes accusations of Division 785’s involvement are warranted, said the government and military have not investigated the massacre for lack of will. “In any case here, if [the government and military] want to find out, they can. When they want to find out, they do find out,” he said.
However, government spokesman Sieng Lapresse argued not all of Division 785 troops would have been involved. He said the government’s investigation resources are overwhelmed.
“We try very hard and we especially would like to promote human rights and justice in society,” Sieng Lapresse said. “And especially at this moment, we want to prove to the world that we care about human rights.”
A military analyst said he doubted the issue of blame for the massacre, in light of the Khmer Rouge’s track record for atrocities, would alter integration plans. “I would not see them distinguishing between atrocities just because this occurred last year,” the analyst said.
In an April interview, a top rebel commander who defected last March identified the commander of Division 785 as Ta Them. Sok Phal, director of the Ministry of Interior’s information department, at the time of the massacre blamed two Division 785 commanders, known as “Thak” and “Them,” for leading the assault.
Ta Them was one of eight commanders who led the sweeping Dec 4 defection to the government that both sides say heralded the end of the Khmer Rouge.
Ta Them appeared Tuesday at a ceremony in the former hard-line military headquarters of Anlong Veng officially integrating 1,700 former rebel soldiers. It is unclear if he has been assigned a position in the RCAF.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)