PALO ALTO — Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, told the United Nations Secretary General while he was visiting Phnom Penh the other day that he would not allow any more Khmer Rouge war-crimes trials after the second one that’s now underway.
“The prime minister clearly affirmed that case three is not allowed,” his foreign minister reported.
What’s so strange about that? All of the remaining defendants, four surviving leaders of the genocidal regime, are on trial right now. One of the most notorious Khmer Rouge jailers has already been convicted and was sent to prison in July.
Well, Hun Sen’s declaration to Ban Ki-moon runs afoul of two serious problems. First, the Khmer Rouge trial, administered by a joint U.N.-Cambodian court, is supposed to be completely independent of government or U.N. interference.
As Ban put it, Hun Sen needs to “provide full cooperation and fully respect the independence of the court.”
But then this is Cambodia, and Hun Sen is essentially an elected dictator who wields full control of everything that happens in his country — except the Khmer Rouge trial. He has been interfering in the court since the day it opened its doors. In fact, it’s a miracle that the court has managed to carry out a trial and issue a conviction, given Hun Sen’s public animus toward the proceedings.
Hun Sen is worried. He is a former Khmer Rouge commander, and while no one has pinned any particular atrocity on him, numerous members of his government and military were Khmer Rouge officers, too. Hun Sen fought the U.N. over the trial for many years but, under pressure, finally agreed after the U.N. allowed his courts to share jurisdiction.
Right now, down in the basement of the court’s international side, criminal investigators are at work looking for even more villains to put on trial for the deaths of 2 million people killed during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979. It’s like finding trees in the forest because these people live openly in Cambodian society, with little to worry them — until now.
Many of the possible future defendants are Hun Sen’s friends and compatriots. And while there is absolutely no evidence of this now, I wonder whether he worries that one or another of them, to save his own skin, might tell damning stories of the prime minister’s past once he is put on the stand.
The other problem is Hun Sen’s fatuous explanation for trying to forbid more trials.
“We have to think about peace in Cambodia,” Hun Sen told Ban. Last year, when the court said it was opening new investigations. Hun Sen warned: "If you want a tribunal, but you don't want to consider peace and reconciliation and war breaks out again, killing 200,000 or 300,000 people, who will be responsible? Finally, I have got peace in this country, so I will not let someone destroy it.”
More than a decade ago, before the Khmer Rouge insurgency finally collapsed in 1999, some Cambodians officials openly worried that aging Khmer Rouge soldiers living in the jungle might come out and cause trouble if their colleagues were put on trial. But that was a long time ago, and the politics of today are entirely different.
I spent much of the last two years reporting in Cambodia, and most Cambodians told me they aren’t even watching the trial. It’s televised, but 75 percent of Cambodians have no electricity and have to power their TVs with car batteries. Reception is not very good. Interest is even less. During the day, while the trial is on, Cambodians have to work. They are generally more concerned about survival than justice for a regime that left power before most of them were even born.
So where’s all this trouble Hun Sen worries about going to come from? The first trial, against the jailer Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, provoked not a single recorded incident of civil unrest. Hun Sen’s is a totally baseless claim. But he doesn’t care. He is a living definition of the word “impunity.” That enabled him also to order the secretary general to close the U.N.’s human rights office in Cambodia. Inconveniently, that office has been pointing out that Hun Sen’s government is depriving its citizens of one human right after another as the prime minister consolidates his dictatorship.
The trial has been a most interesting exercise for Cambodia. It exposed the state’s way of doing business — incompetent, rapacious, corrupt — to everyone in the world. Since half of the court is staffed by United Nations employees, mostly from Western nations, Cambodian business as usual, generally practiced behind locked doors, is now exposed for the world to see — like a doll house with no back wall. The scene inside isn’t pretty, but I have confidence the court will find a way to stand up to Hun Sen once again.