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Hun Sen draws a veil over Cambodia's past

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2 April 2009 13:58

While attention is focused on the formal legal process that has now begun against Duch, the head of the Tuol Sleng Extermination Centre, far too little attention has been paid to concerns of the Cambodian Government, and in particular Prime Minister Hun Sen, to limit the scope of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia or ECCC.).

Any doubt that the Government is opposed to extending the tribunal's reach beyond the five former Khmer Rouge figures currently in custody — Duch, now on trial; Nuon Chea, or Brother Number Two; Khieu Samphan, Chief of State; Ieng Sary, Foreign Minister; and Ieng Thirith, Minister for Social Affairs — was dispelled in a speech by Hun Sen on 28 February at Sihanoukville.

The question of whether there should be an effort to try more former Khmer Rouge figures became an issue before the ECCC in December of last year when the UN Co-prosecutor, Robert Petit, sought to extend the reach of the tribunal beyond the five former Khmer Rouge figures now in custody. A motion filed by his Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang, opposing such a development and stating that to take such action would threaten 'national stability' was made public in January.

Given Chea Leng's close links to the government — she is the niece of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An — there was a presumption among foreign observers that she would not have acted without approval at the highest level. Now, to reinforce that point of view, Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned that putting more Khmer Rouge cadres on trial for crimes committed during Pol Pot's 1975-79 reign of terror could plunge the country back into civil war.

'I would prefer to see this tribunal fail instead of seeing war return to my country,' Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, said a day after the joint U.N.-Cambodian court resumed its trial of Pol Pot's chief torturer. 'If as many as 20 Khmer Rouge are indicted to stand trial and war returns to Cambodia, who will be responsible for that?,' Hun Sen added.

If nothing else, Hun Sen has been consistent in his wish to have the issue of the Khmer rouge period and those associated with it relegated to the past. As he said as long ago as 1998, Cambodia and its population 'should dig a hole and bury the past'.

Many observers see this as a self-interested desire, given Hun Sen's own links to the Pol Pot regime before he defected to Vietnam in 1977. But since no evidence has ever been found to link Hun Sen to Khmer Rouge atrocities it is probably more correct to surmise that he is concerned about the many other former Khmer Rouge figures at large in contemporary Cambodia, some in positions of considerable influence.

For the Khmer Rouge tribunal to embark on a new search for persons who might be brought to trial might not lead to 'civil war', as Hun Sen suggests, but it could lead to embarrassment for a regime that has chosen to draw a veil over the past.

Photo by Flickr user willposh, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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