Observers Split on Meaningfulness of Debate on Tribunal
As Funcinpec Senator Khieu Sorn got to his feet to debate the Khmer Rouge tribunal law last week, all he could think of was the dead.
“Six hundred people were brought to Kampot province, and 555 of them were killed,” he said Tuesday. Khieu Sorn was one of the 45 who survived; his wife and three children did not.
“It is very terrible to remember it,” he said. “They were killed unjustly. Now, I am a lawmaker and a representative of the people. I have to find justice for all of them. I dare to say everything. It is the truth.”
Khieu Sorn wept as he told the Senate how the Khmer Rouge had killed his family, and how the dead cry out for justice.
When the Senate approved the Khmer Rouge tribunal draft law on Monday, the vote came after three days of unexpectedly poignant, bitter and sometimes wrenching debate.
Many observers had thought the Senate would simply rubber-stamp the bill that had sped through the National Assembly with little discussion, but that’s not what happened.
Emotions ran high as the senators talked about their own experiences during the Khmer Rouge years. They asked probing questions about how the new law would be implemented, and directly
challenged Prime Minister Hun Sen’s contention that former Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary must not be prosecuted.
In short, they acted like a real Senate, some observers say.
“I was impressed,” said Bill Herod of the NGO Forum, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations. “Some senators told me they found it exhilarating, and they thought a lot of others did too.
“They’re finding their way, and growing into their positions as senators.”
A number of Western diplomats said they were surprised and pleased at the depth of the debate, and the willingness of some senators to raise issues that were painful or even politically perilous.
At least five senators, for example, directly challenged Prime Minister Hun Sen’s statement that trying Ieng Sary—Brother Number 3 in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy—would lead to civil war.
The senators say they had to challenge it, since the law is clear: the tribunal will decide who will or will not be tried.
“Don’t protect [Khmer Rouge figures],” said Senator Ouk Bun Chhoeun of the prime minister’s own CPP. “Let the court, the prosecutors and the judges do their work and decide.”
The senators dismissed the idea that prosecuting Ieng Sary will lead to war. “I don’t believe anyone will run into the jungle,” said Khieu Sorn. “This is 2001, and a democratic regime has been reborn.
“There is no violence and people have freedom. No one is willing to wear shoes made out of tires any more.”
Others, however, felt there was no real risk for the senators in speaking out.
“You don’t want to read too much into the prime minister’s comments,” said one diplomat. “They were strategic. He’s gone back and forth on this publicly, on purpose.”
By appearing to strongly defend Ieng Sary, Hun Sen is mollifying hard-liners within the CPP as well as former Khmer Rouge forces, the diplomat said.
Sam Rainsy Party Senator Kong Koam said Hun Sen may be powerful, but he is not above the law. He also criticized Senate President Chea Sim for trying to rush the law through the Senate without much discussion.
“Most of us were victims during the Khmer Rouge regime, so we have a lot of ideas to offer for consideration that could be inserted into the draft law,” he said.
Fellow opposition party Senator Ou Bun Long said it is a lawmaker’s duty to point out wrongdoing by the government, and to that end he pressed Minister of Cabinet Sok An to reveal the contents of a letter from the UN, said to be critical of changes to the draft law.
Sok An declined to produce the letter, saying it was nothing important.
“I think there is a problem in this letter,” Ou Bun Long said Tuesday. “They did not want to release it before the Senate approved the [draft law]. I wanted to see it first, before we debated, when we had time to correct what did not satisfy the UN.”
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, said that while it is clear senators are feeling more free to express themselves during deliberations, the outcome of the vote was known to all in advance.
“You can talk and talk and nothing changes,” she said. “When they vote, they vote along party lines, as dictated by the people at the top.”
Still, she said, developing a democracy is a long process. “Now, they have more freedom of expression on the floor,” she said. “Maybe the next step is they will have more impact on the legislation.”
Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said that senators were also well aware of the parade of high-powered Western visitors to Cambodia this week, from Admiral Dennis Blair, commander-in-chief of US military forces in the Pacific, to the US Congressional delegation led by Rep Richard Gephardt. This, he said, may have encouraged more debate than usual.
But Funcinpec Senator Sam Kanitha said the senators were speaking up because it is their job. “The people are afraid to say, but the senators dare to say,” she said, noting that the constitution guarantees legislators immunity.
“I am not scared at all of being killed. If I am afraid to speak up, how can I be the peoples’ representative?” she asked.