Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge and Genocide Denial

Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge and Genocide Denial

Above Photo: Panic as the Khmer Rouge attacks Phnom Penh, 1975. (© unknown)

I recently read a superb article by Joe Freeman in the Asia Times Online.  It is by far the best thing I have read summarising the state of play in pre-election Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge haunt proceedings like Banquo’s Ghost.

It also deals with the farce of the Khmer Rouge Trials in the International Court, and hypocrisy and intrigue in the election run-up, as the country still tries to come to terms with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.

I have added the photographs for illustration and edited some of the article, and added a link below to the full article.

Killing Fiields 1981 (Getty Images)

PHNOM PENH – On a muggy day last September, outside an unassuming three-story villa on a residential corner, photographers from local news outlets trotted out chairs to make the wait easier. They took shelter in the limited shade, stealing hopeful glimpses up at the balconies to watch for movement.

However, there would be no sightings that day of Ieng Thirith, 81, the one-time minister of social affairs under the Khmer Rouge regime. A war crimes court in Phnom Penh had just released her on mental health grounds, ruling that the old, frail woman was unfit to stand trial because she was losing her mind. Her husband, ex-minister of foreign affairs Ieng Sary, also on trial at the time, would make an exit six months later, in March, when the 87-year-old died of heart failure.

Except for disagreements over the conditions of her release, the decision to send Thirith home met little resistance at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the United Nations-backed tribunal established to try senior leaders of a regime that, by some estimates, killed about a quarter of the country’s population. Despite that murderous record, there were no protests or demonstrations after Thirith’s release. A neighbor told reporters he had no problem with Thirith or her husband, and that what they stood accused of all happened a long time ago.

Tuol Sleng - the Khmer Rouge Torture Centre in Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng – the Khmer Rouge Torture Centre in Phnom Penh

The scene in front of Thirith’s house stood in stark contrast to the mass demonstration held on June 9 against one of Cambodia’s main opposition figures, Kem Sokha, in response to comments he allegedly made portraying the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, as a “staged” creation by Vietnamese occupiers. Chum Mey, an 83-year-old survivor of the prison where nearly 13,000 Cambodians were tortured to death or driven to an execution site via trucks, led the protest.

But it appeared that local authorities loyal to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) helped with organization. Clearly printed signs were unfurled, a stark contrast to the marked-up banners seen at makeshift opposition rallies. Transportation was available to take protesters to and from the site. There were even, according to one observer, temporary mobile public toilets, not seen in widespread use on the streets of Phnom Penh since the lavish funeral ceremonies for Cambodia’s King Father Norodom Sihanouk in February.

A national election season is underway in Cambodia, and government opponents say the CPP is pulling out all the stops to ensure its continued dominance. On July 28, Cambodians will head to the polls to elect lawmakers for five-year terms to the 123-member National Assembly, of which the CPP currently holds 90 seats. Yet some here are predicting a strong showing for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), of which Sokha, a former human rights activist, is the acting president.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned in public speeches of dire scenarios should the CNRP make significant electoral gains. Development will grind to a halt, he warned in one speech. Chaos will ensue, he predicted in another. After a member of the opposition proposed a plan to reduce interest rates for farmers, Hun Sen characterized the idea as a yearning for a return to the Khmer Rouge era, when the radical Maoist regime eliminated private property and blew up the national bank.

Tuol Sleng Prison

Tuol Sleng Prison

The claims, slammed by critics as unlikely and outlandish, generated no more than shrugs from the opposition. The recording of Sokha’s alleged claim that S-21 was a Vietnamese creation, however, was different. Sokha has said the government spliced his words to create what he has called a faux-recording. To date, however, he has not fought back with sufficient recordings of his own or apologized in person to S-21 victims, sowing doubts in the minds of skeptics.

Real or not, the recording provided the impetus for proposed new legislation that would make it a crime punishable by prison terms and a sliding scale of fines for denial of Khmer Rouge era atrocities. The draft law sailed through the National Assembly earlier this month and was forwarded to the senate, which passed the law on June 14.

Any pretense that the legislation would be debated on its merits was dropped when a CPP-led committee stripped 27 members of the opposition of their seats and government salaries after they merged to form one party to contest the upcoming polls. The lawmakers and election monitors have argued that the switch is legally allowed as long as it is done within six months of the election.

Tuol Sleng Victims of the Khmer Rouge

Behind the tussle is a conspiracy theory about S-21 that hews closely to the controversial “staged” line in the alleged recording of Sokha’s comments. After battling with the Khmer Rouge in the preceding weeks, Vietnamese forces took over Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, and discovered S-21, or Tuol Sleng, a high school turned torture center.

A Vietnamese army colonel helped preserve the site and the mass graves better known as the Killing Fields. Some have suggested that the prison and mass graves were manufactured to justify Vietnam’s long occupation of Cambodia, which lasted from 1979 to 1989.

Vietnamese solders assist two children who were searching for their mother in S-21 at the fall of Phnom Penh

Vietnamese solders assist two children who were searching for their mother in S-21 at the fall of Phnom Penh (© unknown)

“In neither case did the Vietnamese invent an institution,” wrote renowned Cambodia historian David Chandler in a widely cited article. “Instead, the documents from the S-21 archive, the photographs of prisoners, and the interviews that have been conducted with survivors and former workers at the prison all convince me that S-21 was a Cambodian institution, serving the purposes of the terrified and leaders of a terrified and terrifying Cambodian regime.”

The prison’s warden, Kaing Geak Eav, alias Duch, was convicted to life in prison by the Khmer Rouge tribunal last year. Nevertheless, Chandler writes, “on several occasions, Cambodians have suggested to me that S-21 was invented out of whole cloth by the Vietnamese, so as to blacken the reputation of the Cambodian people and to indict them en masse for genocidal crimes. None of the Cambodians who spoke to me could be considered a ‘Khmer Rouge’.”

The conspiracy theory, historical tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam, and anti-Vietnamese statements frequently made by opposition members playing on Hun Sen’s historical ties to the country’s former occupiers stand to reason that what Sokha allegedly said was, in the end, not entirely out of the ordinary. Those questions were set aside when Hun Sen, less than a week after the supposed recording was posted, proposed the new law in a public speech.

Phnom Penh Deserted during the time of the Khmer Rouge

Phnom Penh Deserted during the time of the Khmer Rouge

Under the legislation, anyone who challenges the existence of crimes or glorifies crimes that took place during the Khmer Rouge era will be prosecuted, just like in Germany, where, it should be noted, the sweeping ban on Nazi ideology and insignia has not prevented a resurgence of Neo-Nazi groups and activities.

“The Law on the Denial of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea,” has been unofficially translated as “The Law on the Denial of the Khmer Rouge Crimes” – Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the Khmer Rouge government. The law provides for up to two years in prison and a maximum of US$1,000 in fines for violators. For legal entities, political parties included, accused of breaking the law, fines can reach as high as $150,000 and the entity could face dissolution.

An unofficial translation of the text said the law was intended to “punish individuals who refuse to acknowledge, diminish, deny, or challenge the existence of crimes or glorify crimes committed” during the Khmer Rouge period usually defined as lasting from April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979.

Human rights groups have already warned about the legislation’s potential chilling effect on free speech – though, to be fair, the same could be said in Germany, Israel and Rwanda, where similar laws are in place…..

Joe Freeman is a reporter and editor at the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia.

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. )

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  1. Phong

    Many Cambodian until now believe the genocide was made by Vietnamese solders!

    • Peter Alan Lloyd

      Unfortunately that’s correct. It’s an unwillingness to face the truth.

      Others believe that ‘only’ ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese and other foreigners were killed and that it wasn’t Khmer killing Khmer, as though that somehow reduces the seriousness and excuses the horror of what went on.


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