Where Fear Reigns

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TERRY McCARTHY Phnom Penh Hun Sen was ebullient. The Cambodian Prime Minister, better known for his brooding scowl and outbursts of temper, was presiding over his daughter's wedding, and he couldn't stop smiling. Five thousand guests sat at tables spread around the grounds of his home outside Phnom Penh; a large video screen had been installed so everyone could see what was happening at the head table. Hun Sen was doubly happy, he told the crowd. Not only was his daughter getting married, but that very day his troops had arrested Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge leader known as the Butcher, who had been the last of the rebel commanders still at large in the jungle. While his daughter might have wished for a less grim wedding toast, diplomats worried about something else: Hun Sen told the gathering Ta Mok would be tried in a Cambodian court--without mentioning the international tribunal the United Nations has been planning for months. Nor did he speak about arresting other Khmer Rouge leaders, collectively responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and '79. Most of them now live near the western town of Pailin, having supposedly surrendered to the government. In an interview with Time five days after the wedding, Hun Sen says he is scared of putting all the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial at this time. His words suggest that Ta Mok could become the scapegoat, while the other aging leaders evade justice, as did Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge's Brother Number One, who died last year in his house in the jungle.

A former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected to Vietnam and then fought a 20-year war against Pol Pot's guerrillas, Hun Sen has led a life dominated by one issue: survival. Fears for his political and physical health have been so overpowering that every decision he makes--from a simple car journey to the appointment of a general--seems to depend on whether it will increase his security. Not far from the wedding site stands a small building with dark glass windows and aerials on the roof: Hun Sen's emergency war room. He retreats here (it includes a small bedroom) during the outbursts of fighting that sporadically threaten his rule. You see this? says Cambodia's 47-year-old leader, pointing to a closet with a mirror on the front. Inside is a secret trap door into the basement. When you are a soldier, you have to know the ways of escape.

Hun Sen is applying that principle to the momentous issue of putting Khmer Rouge leaders on trial for one of the century's worst crimes against humanity. Only two years ago, he requested U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's assistance in setting up an international tribunal to try the men. Last month three independent U.N. jurists presented Hun Sen with a report on how up to 30 Khmer Rouge officials could be put on trial in another Asian country. Yet after two decades of denouncing the genocidal regime of Pol Pot, Hun Sen now is balking at such a plan--even though the enfeebled Khmer Rouge guerrillas have given up their futile jungle war. We have no confidence in an international court of law, he says, adding that now isn't the time to pursue more arrests. We have to be cautious to avoid any panic among leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

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Everyone wants to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, so long as justice does not dig too deeply
--TIME Daily, Jan. 22, 1999

Cambodia's warm welcome for two Khmer Rouge ringleaders suggests justice won't come quickly
--TIME Asia, Jan. 11, 1999

But as the dust settles after Sunday's vote, a question: Was the fix in?
--TIME Daily, July 30, 1998
 
The real panic seems to be his own. Hun Sen apparently fears that a trial could disturb the balance of power he has created within the country, an equilibrium that has left him on top after years of political and military conflict. To his credit, Hun Sen has brought peace to Cambodia after 30 years of fighting. But he still sees enemies both inside and outside his party, and in his mind, no doubt, they could somehow use the trial to destabilize him. When he speaks of a tribunal, he talks in circles. Hun Sen has nothing to lose by a trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders--only to gain, he says about himself. The problem is not the Khmer Rouge, but their relations with others. If we didn't need national reconciliation, I would not be scared of a trial. It's a position that isn't winning him many fans abroad. In Bangkok earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Washington would disagree with Hun Sen ... that bringing these people to justice would be destabilizing for Cambodia. On the contrary, we think it is the only way to bring reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a strained concept in a country with such a brutal history. It is the weakness of Cambodian politicians--you just have love or hate. Hun Sen is like that, says Khieu Kannarith, long an associate of the Prime Minister and currently State Secretary of Information. If Pol Pot was paranoid, Hun Sen has inherited some of that paranoia simply by being his enemy for 20 years. Hun Sen treats politics as he treats his favorite game, chess: there can be only one winner, and the art of the game is to think more moves ahead than your opponent. In order to kill your enemies, you should know how to move your pawns, he says. If you lead with your big pieces, you put them in danger. For Hun Sen there are no opponents, only enemies; no debate, only plots. And power has only two settings: all or nothing.

Hun Sen started with nothing. The villagers in Peam Koh Sna where he was born, four hours up the Mekong from Phnom Penh, remember him as a clever, quiet boy with a talent to persuade people by speaking, says Chin Tho, a 58-year-old tobacco farmer. But Hun Sen's family was poorer than average, and he never finished school. To this day he is more at ease campaigning among farmers in the fields than in talking to suited politicians in the city. By 19 he was a company commander in the Khmer Rouge, with a pistol strapped to his hip, fighting the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol. He survived the war, although he lost his left eye, and then survived the purges of an embittered Pol Pot by escaping to Vietnam. Many of the cadres who did not flee eventually were tortured to death in Phnom Penh's infamous Tuol Sleng prison.

Hun Sen returned after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and became part of the Hanoi-backed government. He was mercilessly pilloried by Khmer Rouge propaganda as a puppet of the Vietnamese, Cambodia's longstanding enemies. This became a political liability after Hanoi withdrew and the U.N. staged elections in 1993: Hun Sen lost to Prince Norodom Ranariddh's party, which campaigned in the name of the ever-popular monarchy. But Hun Sen would again prove a survivor, bullying his way back into government by threatening civil war. A power-sharing agreement with Ranariddh became increasingly fractious, and in July 1997 Hun Sen staged a coup, driving his opponents--and many frightened foreigners--out of the country. Hun Sen found himself isolated and threatened by the international community, which cut off most aid to protest the coup and its aftermath. During those tumultuous weeks, Hun Sen's forces executed 100 or so of his opponents in cold blood.

  |  2  |  
Everyone wants to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, so long as justice does not dig too deeply
--TIME Daily, Jan. 22, 1999

Cambodia's warm welcome for two Khmer Rouge ringleaders suggests justice won't come quickly
--TIME Asia, Jan. 11, 1999

But as the dust settles after Sunday's vote, a question: Was the fix in?
--TIME Daily, July 30, 1998
 
The political killings continue. Hun Sen denies that Cambodia is a country of impunity, but his promises to investigate and arrest those who carried out the murders have amounted to nothing. He may not have personally ordered the killings, but many suspect the involvement of some of his lieutenants. The murders were especially brutal: some of the victims first had their eyes gouged out or hands cut off. There is no political will to stop the culture of violence, observes Christophe Peschoux, who works with the U.N. Human Rights office in Phnom Penh. It is the chronic problem of Cambodia: they cannot manage conflict. Either they use intermediaries, or they reach for the gun. They cannot sit down around a table and discuss differences.

Hun Sen is both beneficiary and victim of this culture. Despite his grip on power, he lives in a heavily fortified two-hectare compound--known as the Tiger's Den--half an hour's drive outside Phnom Penh. He says he fears assassination--there was an attempt on his life last year in the northern town of Siem Reap via a remote-controlled rocket attack--and regrets he cannot even go out to a restaurant. In a way I am living in a prison without walls, he says. Compared to other people it seems I am very lonely, but I have the habit of working, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m. His only relaxation is chess, which, he says with a grin, he usually wins.

Hun Sen certainly plays the international community with the skill of a master. Thomas Hammaberg, special representative of the U.N. Secretary General, will travel to Phnom Penh later this month to see if Hun Sen will consider dropping his opposition to trying the Khmer Rouge at an international tribunal. It won't be an easy task. If one wants to work with Hun Sen, says the Cambodian leader about himself, one should study Hun Sen's résumé closely. I don't like being pressed.

But Cambodia cannot wait forever for justice to be done: the masterminds of the Killing Fields will soon all be dead. This is the only chance we have to set up a system so people will respect the law, says Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which is trying to compile complete records of the Khmer Rouge killings. How can you walk away from 1.7 million lives? The Khmer Rouge taught fear, and they taught it well. In the end it is fear that stands between Hun Sen and the trials. If he waits too long, that fear will become his epitaph.

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Everyone wants to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, so long as justice does not dig too deeply
--TIME Daily, Jan. 22, 1999

Cambodia's warm welcome for two Khmer Rouge ringleaders suggests justice won't come quickly
--TIME Asia, Jan. 11, 1999

But as the dust settles after Sunday's vote, a question: Was the fix in?
--TIME Daily, July 30, 1998