THERE has been plenty of US grandstanding over an international criminal tribunal
for the Khmer Rouge leadership, but behind the scenes lurks a more immediate and
delicate issue: suspects must be caught before they can be tried.
One US official recently told the Post that detailed information on the whereabouts
of Ta Mok and other top rebels is now being sought.
And the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that US officials looking to
gain custody of Pol Pot before his death had held secret talks with KR representatives
for the first time in more than two decades in Bangkok.
The US later sent its ambassador-at-large for war crimes, David Sheffer, to Phnom
Penh and Bangkok to discuss trying the top membership of the 1975-79 DK regime. He
indicated that American preparations included contingency plans to bring certain
individuals into custody.
Sheffer told reporters in Phnom Penh on April 29 that the Americans are now taking
a more proactive approach to the Khmer Rouge issue than the United Nations because
the need for action has overtaken the need for trial research.
"What we do recognize is that events on the ground are moving precipitously,"
he said. "There is no opportunity for delay... there is only opportunity for
action and we need to take those actions."
He said it was necessary to move quickly so that the international community is prepared
in case top KR leaders are caught.
Asked if the US had made a list of wanted Khmer Rouge, Sheffer first responded that
it would be up to the chief prosecutor of a tribunal to decide such matters, but
he later mentioned that US interests centered on "the most senior living Khmer
Rouge leaders who conceived, planned and directed the crimes against humanity, genocide
and war crimes... during April 1975 to January 1979".
The most spectacular potential option of catching top KR would be for US or Thai
special forces to capture Ta Mok and others.
A covert grab does have a precedent. Israeli special agents in 1960 secretly scouted
a Buenos Aires suburb for months before capturing Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
Argentina - which was kept unaware of the operation - was outraged that its sovereignty
had been violated, although the Argentinians never demanded the return of Eichmann.
Relations between the two nations were cool for some time.
Analysts agreed that this scenario is fraught with serious political difficulties
and that the presence of mine fields could mean severe casualties for any armed force
not familiar with rebel areas.
One Thai government source told the Post that the Thais would never send their
own military in for such an operation. "We would not accept payment from the
US to have a Thai special forces unit enter Cambodia and capture Khmer Rouge leaders,"
the source said, adding that the recent US push for a trial has Ta Mok and other
senior rebels so paranoid that not even Thai intelligence knows exactly where they
are hiding now.
UN rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg said in a Post interview that he believed
primary responsibility for capture rests with Cambodia. He stressed that no matter
what procedure is used, the Cambodian government must be closely consulted during
every step of an international tribunal effort.
A Phnom Penh-based military analyst said that the most likely event that would lead
to the apprehension of rebel leaders would be if the Cambodian army successfully
gains control of its northern border. Senior Khmer Rouge would then presumably flee
across the border where he said they would be arrested by the Thai military and turned
over to the Americans or the United Nations.
But the analyst noted that the Thai military has kept friendly contact with the KR
since they were first pushed to the border in 1979, and it would be difficult to
convince them to arrest their old mates.
Although Thai military commanders and rank-and-file troops rotate in and out of the
border areas every year, Thai Military Intelligence is a constant presence.
Their stated reason for maintaining contact with the KR is national security - no
matter what the political affiliation of a military presence opposite its border,
Thailand must keep an eye on it.
But the relationship is entangled in business, and convincing the military and big-time
border traders - who deal mostly in timber and gems - to give up their cash cow will
be a hard sell. Besides, once a senior Khmer Rouge is put on trial, one never knows
what he will say about his former business contacts.