Khmer Rouge Defections Put Cambodia at Crossroads


The warm embraces and the appeals to forget the past exchanged this week by Cambodian officials and two senior Khmer Rouge defectors underscore both the hope and the horror of Southeast Asia’s most tortured country.

The hope is that, for the first time in 30 years, Cambodia faces no armed rebellion. By choosing reconciliation over retribution, perhaps Prime Minister Hun Sen can get on with the task of rebuilding a nation torn asunder by genocide, poverty and lawlessness.

And the horror is that, since the end of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge genocide that claimed more than 1 million lives, not one person has been charged in a court of law nor brought to justice. In fact, quite the contrary: Many of today’s influential public figures were members of the Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Maoist movement that carried out its genocide to rid Cambodia of intellectuals and foreign influence and establish a “purified” agrarian society.

Hun Sen himself was a Khmer Rouge commander during the “killing fields” era--although he has never been linked to atrocities. His interior and finance ministers also were members of the Khmer Rouge, as were thousands of steely-eyed young guerrillas who switched uniforms and joined the Cambodian army after a U.N.-brokered peace agreement that led to elections in 1993.


Of the nine younger leaders whom the late revolutionary Pol Pot groomed to eventually take over the guerrilla group, six now hold senior ranks in the Cambodian army.

Pol Pot’s top deputy, the notorious Ieng Sary, defected to the government and in 1996 received a royal pardon from a death sentence for his role in the genocide. His “private” army now wears government uniforms, but Sary remains in Pailin in northwestern Cambodia, still controlling the gem-mining industry that helped finance the Khmer Rouge insurgency.

Hun Sen has backtracked on pledges he had made to the United Nations in 1997 and this year to support international calls that Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea be tried for genocide. Beaming as he greeted the defectors Tuesday in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, he said, “The deal is a bouquet of flowers for this pair, not bullets or a pair of handcuffs.”

Khieu Samphan, 67, who studied economics in France, and Nuon Chea, 71, a founder of Cambodia’s Communist Party, issued apologies of sorts at a news conference Tuesday. Nuon Chea said, “Naturally, we are sorry--not only for the lives of the people, but also for the animals.” Khieu Samphan added, “Let bygones be bygones.”

Human rights advocates were outraged, with one suggesting that Khieu Samphan’s comment was tantamount to Adolf Hitler visiting Auschwitz and saying, “Let’s forget the past.”

Amnesty International condemned Hun Sen’s decision not to bring the two men to trial and on Wednesday asked King Norodom Sihanouk to intercede. The king did so, saying that he would not approve amnesty for the two men. Sihanouk, who is receiving medical treatment for a number of ailments in Beijing, made the comments in a statement faxed to news organizations.

Gnanam Devadass, Amnesty International’s regional representative in Hong Kong, said, “We will continue to deal with the question of impunity through international pressure.”

Despite Hun Sen’s public reluctance to support an international tribunal, such as those set up after massacres in Rwanda and the former Yugoslav federation, there may still be room to negotiate, Western diplomats in Phnom Penh said.


The resumption of international aid to the country, for instance, could be dependent upon Cambodia’s support for a tribunal.

For his part, Hun Sen points to the success of his two-year campaign to destroy the Khmer Rouge by offering defectors amnesty, money and government positions. To have done otherwise, he says, would only have succeeded in keeping the guerrillas in the jungle and prolonging the civil war.

Still, international moves toward a trial are continuing on several fronts.

In Phnom Penh, the Documentation Center of Cambodia--established in 1994 and supported by shoestring grants from the U.S. State Department, Norway and Yale University--has collected 325,000 pages of original documents that shed light on the Khmer Rouge.


U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a three-member commission to study the Khmer Rouge era. Commission members visited Cambodia in November and are preparing a report for Annan.

After being hit by major defections, the Khmer Rouge ended its civil war Dec. 4, leaving just three senior commanders--Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok--still in the field. Now only one-legged Ta Mok, hiding with about 100 fighters in the jungles along the Thai border, is left.

Pol Pot died of an apparent heart attack in the jungles in April, a few months after his comrades turned against him and sentenced him to house arrest in a brief trial. He had been tried for betraying the revolution, not for the deaths of more than 1 million of his countrymen.