Ta Mok, the infamous one-legged military leader of the Khmer Rouge, was arrested last weekend in Cambodia. “The Butcher,” as he is known, was one of the last holdouts from the guerrilla group. An unrepentant hardliner, Ta Mok commanded the loyalty of a dwindling band of insurgents, who were troublesome, but posed no real threat to the Phnom Penh government. Ta Mok has the distinction of being the only Khmer Rouge leader to have been captured by the Cambodian government, and the timing could not have been more convenient. Now, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has a scapegoat for the Khmer Rouge evils and a device to silence the growing call for an international trial of the Khmer Rouge. That plan must be thwarted.
The Cambodian government has said that it will try Ta Mok in a military court. The military-court system was subjected to international scrutiny — and found wanting — last year, when it tried former Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh, ousted in a coup by Mr. Hun Sen in 1997, on charges of treason. Predictably, Mr. Ranariddh was convicted, then later pardoned by King Sihanouk. The proceedings were widely condemned as a show trial, manipulated by Mr. Hun Sen to allow him to hold national elections shortly afterward. Clearly, it is not the forum to deal with the grave issues raised by the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
A panel of United Nations experts has recommended that the former Khmer Rouge leaders be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. The report followed a request in 1997 by Mr. Ranariddh and Mr. Hun Sen, who were then serving as Cambodia’s two co-prime ministers, to set up an international tribunal to try the leaders of the guerrilla movement that killed nearly 2 million people during its four years in power. Mr. Ranariddh, whose party is now part of the government, supports the panel’s recommendation. Mr. Hun Sen, who currently serves as sole prime minister, has changed his mind, however. He now feels that an international trial would be divisive and could plunge Cambodia back into civil war. He is wrong. The trial should proceed.
It is not hard to understand Mr. Hun Sen’s change of heart. Since he made that earlier request, he has ousted Mr. Ranariddh in a coup, lured several former Khmer Rouge leaders out of the jungle and won an election that consolidated his grip on power. The Khmer Rouge who have given up the fight enjoy the prime minister’s patronage and protection; a few remain in the bush. Following Ta Mok’s arrest, they pose even less of a danger than they did before.
From the prime minister’s perspective, the real threat is a trial that would reveal links between the government and the Khmer Rouge, as well as the promises that were made to secure the rebels’ surrender. Given the suspicious timing of the arrest — coming on the heels of the U.N. report and warnings from U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — there is every reason to believe that Mr. Hun Sen has much to hide. (There are discrepancies that cast further doubts on the prime minister’s motives. Reportedly, Ta Mok was captured a week ago, and the news was only made public in response to the growing call for an international trial.)
The prime minister now says that he prefers a truth commission modeled after the South African panel. It is more likely that Mr. Hun Sen is wary of any process that he cannot control. A truth commission would be a government body, and Mr. Hun Sen would ensure that it provided the conclusion he wanted. That is not good enough for the rest of the world.
The crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge were singular in their monstrosity. Almost one-fifth of the guerrillas’ own countrymen were killed in an orgy of violence designed to “cleanse” Cambodia of foreign influence. Rousted by a Vietnamese invasion, which also brought Mr. Hun Sen to power for the first time, surviving Khmer Rouge leaders have never shown the slightest remorse for their actions.
They are accused of crimes against humanity. The Cambodians were the victims, but the entire world will suffer if these misdeeds go unpunished. Future tyrants must know that they will be held responsible for their acts. There are crimes that admit no forgiveness. Even as prime minister of a sovereign state, Mr. Hun Sen does not have the power to release those criminals from the debt they owe the world.
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