Apologies and Outrage

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ANTHONY SPAETHAlready, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge has taught the world that it's possible to murder an estimated 2 million of your own people, run away to the jungle afterward and avoid retribution for decades. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader known as Brother Number One, evaded an international trial by dying in that jungle last April at the ripe age of 73, a young bride at his side.But Pol Pot's achievement has been trumped by two former colleagues: Nuon Chea, 71, once honored as Brother Number Two, and Khieu Samphan, 67, Cambodia's head of state during the Killing Fields era. Last week, the two aging comrades abandoned their jungle hideouts, announcing they wanted to come in from the political cold. Instead of tossing them into jail, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declared they should be greeted with bouquets of flowers, not with prisons and handcuffs. No flowers were evident, but Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were installed in a luxury hotel in Phnom Penh and given VIP treatment, then sent with their families for a sojourn at a seaside resort. Both made a public apology for the legions who died of torture, forced labor, assassination and starvation, with Khieu Samphan, blithely adding: Let bygones be bygones.That both men might get that wish says a lot about Hun Sen and his desire for complete control of Cambodia. A former Khmer Rouge commander himself, he became the group's biggest enemy by heading the Vietnamese-installed government that chased them into the jungle. Apparently nothing can stop Hun Sen from getting what he wants. When denied an electoral mandate in the country's first postwar elections in 1993, he demanded a power sharing arrangement with the victor, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. When he got tired of sharing, he booted Ranariddh out of the prime ministership, sent tanks to shell the prince's house and then won a set of dubious elections last July. He portrays amnesty for Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea as necessary for national conciliation. We have to dig a hole and bury the past, he intoned last week--a jarring, if apt, metaphor considering the horrendous details of Cambodia's history.PAGE 1  |  
 
Not long ago, Hun Sen was assuring his people he backed the idea of putting Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. Why the about-face? Hun Sen is showing he is the boss, the chief of the Khmers, much more than King Sihanouk and everyone else, says veteran Cambodia analyst Raoul Jennar in Phnom Penh. On television, we saw the defectors shake hands with Hun Sen and sit with him at his home. It shows people that everyone in society is paying respect to the chief, even the people who were his bitterest enemies. At week's end, Hun Sen issued a clarification stating that he wanted an investigation of Khmer Rouge crimes but that any prosecution would have to be handled by the courts, not the politicians.Ordinarily Cambodians seem less than happy over the turn of events. The people might get angry if Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok are not brought to justice, says a shopkeeper in the capital. (Ta Mok, a one-legged commander nicknamed the Butcher for his ferocity, is the last Khmer Rouge leader still in the jungle.) Eam Chann, one of a handful of people who survived imprisonment in Tuol Sleng , the Khmer Rouge torture center in Phnom Penh, agrees: Just to say sorry is not enough. They must be put on trial. From Beijing last week, Sihanouk announced he would not consider giving the two defectors a royal pardon like the one he granted another Khmer Rouge leader, Ieng Sary, in 1996. (Ieng Sary's defection touched off the final disintegration of the Khmer Rouge.) But technically, the king has nothing to pardon--and won't unless Hun Sen's government arrests, tries and convicts Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.Pressure from the outside world could make a difference, but the international community is hardly united. Just days before the two defections, Hun Sen held talks in Beijing with ex-Premier Li Peng; both China and neighboring Thailand are worried that a showcase trial of the Khmer Rouge will inevitably highlight their own one-time support for the group. The key is the desire of Beijing and the Thai military, or the former Thai military, to put this matter to rest, says scholar Steve Heder, currently in Cambodia doing work for the War Crimes Research Office of Washington's American University Law School. But both the U.S. and the United Nations were serious about this tribunal and continue to be. If the rest of the West and Japan take a stronger stand, things could be very different. Washington immediately condemned Hun Sen's embrace of the defectors. We think that these people should be brought to justice, said a State Department official. A team of legal experts studying the feasibility of a Khmer Rouge trial are due to give their report to the U.N. this month, around the same time that a meeting of Cambodia's aid donors will take place in Tokyo. They will have to move fast, warns Heder. If not, justice for Cambodia may be buried with the many other victims of the Khmer Rouge.Reported by Caroline Gluck/Phnom Penh and Douglas Waller/Washington  |  2