Former Khmer Rouge commander Prom Soo is not worried about the prospect of a genocide trial.
“It won’t give me a headache,” he smiled.
Prom Soo is no stranger to political adversity. He has witnessed the defection of Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge trial of Pol Pot, and the arrest of Ta Mok-all high-profile leaders whose fates were dictated by the political turbulence of the past three decades.
Prom Soo now considers himself an ordinary Cambodian citizen who wishes to see peace and prosperity in his homeland.
“It’s no use talking about the past,” he told Perspective during a journey from his hometown of Sisophon to Battambang-a backbreaking drive that takes nearly 90 minutes along a road lined with potholes and deep craters.
Prom Soo joined the Cambodian government under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s policy of national reconciliation after the defection of Ieng Sary in 1996.
Life has been quiet enough for him and other defectors until word was spread recently that about 80 former rebels might be called before the planned genocide tribunal.
The news has unnerved some defectors, but Prom Soo took it in his stride.
“I am not worried,” he said. “If any bad things happen (as a result of the trial), the government will have to take the blame.”Prom Soo joined Long Norin and other former Khmer Rouge leaders in calling for national reconciliation at a public forum held in Battambang on January 27.
Critics see him as an “apologist” for the Khmer Rouge, but Prom Soo insists that the past must be forgotten for the sake of national unity, reconciliation and prosperity.
A veteran soldier, Prom Soo is now fed up with war. He saw how violence and hatred plunged his country into destruction.
With peace and stability, Cambodia can work more closely with Thailand in areas of development and trade, he said.
Thailand, for example, can provide agricultural training for Cambodians living along the border.
This will help improve the quality of life of the Cambodians and enhance security along the border, he said.
A public forum is a good thing, he noted, but it is unlikely to affect the international calls for a Khmer Rouge trial.
“It all depends on the United Nations, the United States, Japan and Hun Sen,” he said. “The ball is in their court.”
Songpol Kaopatumtip In Battambang
For many Cambodians it is an old wound that should be left untouched. For others, it is an opportunity to prosecute those responsible for the death of nearly two million Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979.
The contradictions were played out at a recent public debate in the northwestern Cambodian town of Battambang, where calls for a genocide trial generated a heated war of words among the participants, many of whom are former top Khmer Rouge leaders.
Organised by the Centre for Social Development, a non-governmental organisation, the event came amid some anxiety among the ranks of the former rebels over who would be prosecuted.
Public opinion is divided over whether a Khmer Rouge trial will be advantageous or disadvantageous to true national reconciliation.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and the Cambodian government continue to wrestle over control of the planned trial. Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly wants a genocide tribunal to convene by April 17, the 25th anniversary of the day the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh and evacuated the capital’s population to labour camps.
But negotiations with the UN have proceeded slowly as Hun Sen tried to strike a balance between winning international confidence and maintaining his control over the judicial process.
Indeed, it is the government’s ability to handle the trial that drew some strong comments from about 100 Cambodians who coverged on the provincial agricultural station on January 27 to hear the debate, entitled “Khmer Rouge and National Reconciliation.”One speaker said the United Nations should take control of the trial because “it would be fair” to all sides. He was supported by another man who said that only an international tribunal could ensure justice for the Khmer Rouge victims.
The trial, he added, would be a lesson for current and future Cambodian leaders that “they must think about the consequences before exercising their power.”The most biting remarks came from a local human rights activist, who argued against granting amnesty to those responsible for the “Killing Fields”. “Where is justice,” he asked, “if we give amnesty to people who kill millions?”He challenged those accused of genocide to come forward. “Why worry about a trial if you are not guilty?”But national reconciliation was the theme of statements delivered by those opposed to a trial.
Long Norin, the private secretary to former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, said Cambodians would be drawn into “conflict” if Khmer Rouge defectors were not allowed to escape trial.
The Cambodian government granted amnesty to Ieng Sary in September 1996 as part of its strategy to integrate Khmer Rouge troops into the national armed forces. Ieng Sary’s defection caused a split in the remaining Khmer Rouge forces, and in December 1998 Phnom Penh announced the defection of Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan, the two remaining top Khmer Rouge leaders.
In private talks with Perspective prior to the public forum, former rebels admitted that the planned genocide trial would be an acid test of Hun Sen’s policy of national reconciliation and building a new Cambodia based on defections (see sidebar story).
The question of who should be prosecuted was in their minds. “We want to know who will be put on trial,” one said. “Will Ta Mok (the notorious Khmer Rouge military commander arrested last year) be the only scapegoat?”The same question was raised by speakers at the forum.
A young man from the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Phanom Malai said everyone whose hands were stained with blood must be tried, not just the most prominent leaders of the movement.
But he was afraid that there would be more trouble if lower level commanders and village chiefs during the Khmer Rouge rule were prosecuted for genocide.
“These people have their families and friends,” he noted. “They may go into the jungle and take up arms again.”Long Norin argued that the trial would do no good for the country. It would undermine national reconciliation at a time when “we must unite to develop the country and eradicate poverty.”He said the trial should apply to persons from all regimes both before 1975 and after 1979 and not just to the Khmer Rouge leaders. If possible, he added, the trial should be delayed to allow historians to “compile all historical records and bring out the truths.”Long Norin was supported by In Sopheap, a former Khmer Rouge ambassador to Switzerland and another aide to Ieng Sary.
“A trial will divide our country,” he said. “We will never have national reconciliation.”Altogether 24 people, including a Buddhist monk and a nun, spoke at the forum, which took place from 8.12 a.m. until noon. At the end of the session, speakers against a trial outnumbered those in favour by 16 to 8.
But observers noted that most of the participants came from areas formerly held by the Khmer Rouge.
Calling for justice for the “Killing Fields” victims, Sun Kimshun, a member of parliament for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said the trial would set a good example for national leaders.
“We are not a barbaric country where human lives can be taken at the whim of political leaders,” he said, adding that a trial must be convened “without delay”.
Sun Kimshun’s remarks stunned former rebels who listened attentively as he spoke.
The MP represents the province of Pailin, which is home to Ieng Sary and other top leaders of the now-defunct movement.
Appealing for national reconciliation, a nun quoted the Lord Buddha: “Hatred does not cease by hatred.””Even if we punish the wrongdoers, we cannot bring the victims back to life,” she said.
But for Lao Boonhai, a representative of a non-governmental organisation, the trial is long overdue.
“A trial of the Khmer Rouge is not an act of revenge,” he said. “Our society must be guided by justice.””Cambodians like to talk about unity and reconciliation,” he added. “I am over 50 years old and I haven’t seen any real unity and reconciliation.”
Editor’s Note: Prasit Saengrungruang arranged interviews for this article, while Salika Chimplee acted as the interpreter during the public forum. The Centre for Social Development plans two more forums on this issue: in Phnom Penh Email: [email protected]
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