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Comment: Listen to the voice of the people

For the past several months, Hun Sen and the United Nations have waged an ongoing war of words over the prospective trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders.

The latest clashes surround the appointment of judges, the choice of governing law, and the precise roles of foreign legal experts in the trial process. As discussions have progressed, both the UN and Hun Sen have dug in their heels and errantly turned the debate into one pitting Cambodia's national sovereignty against a Western thirst for justice.

Unfortunately, fading almost entirely out of the debate has been the voice of the Cambodian people. At home and abroad, neither the media nor political leaders have been active enough in ascertaining the opinions of the millions who suffered under Khmer Rouge oppression and who now fuel Cambodia's young democracy.

I do not profess to know the opinions of the entire Cambodian citizenry, nor even a minute fraction thereof. However, based upon my limited observation, I find it improbable that every voter from Svay Rieng to Battambang supports Hun Sen's position in its entirety. On the contrary, I suspect that many of those who have borne the brunt of Khmer Rouge terror and successive government corruption have cultivated differing ideas about how justice will best be achieved.

The voice of the people can and should play a significant role in the shaping of the Khmer Rouge trials. The truth is this: if public opinions are not drawn forth and amplified for all to hear, they will play little role in the trial process. Hun Sen and other top officials will be left with relatively unfettered power to craft the process in their discretion. Although as leaders of a democratic state, Hun Sen and high government officials should indeed drive the process and speak on behalf of the populace, their actions should reasonably reflect the will of the Cambodian citizenry, expressed by the latter after reviewing ample, balanced and accurate information.

Giving proper weight to the popular will entails, in my estimation, a three-step process. First, the Cambodian people must be provided with enough unbiased and accurate information to arrive at well-founded opinions about the Khmer Rouge trial process. Of utmost relevance are legal and historical information, which set the table for a trial and give the people an ability to realistically assess the options for justice. Without widely disseminated, impartial sources of information, citizens cannot maximize their participation in the trial process and their contribution to justice.

The second step is to draw forth and amplify public opinions. To do so effectively, a concerted effort is required on the part of political bodies, NGOs and the media. Cambodians have endured a long legacy of oppressive regimes, and some may be loath to voice opposition to government policies. Others, weary and frustrated by a long period of unresponsive governance, may simply want the trial to move forward, conserving their voices until it produces a result. Geographic, linguistic and regulatory barriers may also present obstacles.

Though it is clear that gathering and reproducing public opinion in Cambodia is far from facile, it is nevertheless an essential task to undertake in a burgeoning democracy. Laudable projects have already been undertaken by some NGOs and publications to disseminate opinions and encourage public discourse. The upcoming Khmer Rouge trials, as a matter of paramount national concern, call for redoubled efforts. Publication and broadcasting of citizens' opinions not only serves to inform leaders of the public will: it also educates fellow citizens and helps them to arrive at informed opinions of their own.

The third and final step in the process of weighing the popular will is that political decision-makers need to listen. The most obvious leaders who should listen are those in Phnom Penh. However, the international community must likewise lend an ear.

Neither side should bullishly forge ahead without proper reference to the will of the citizenry, whom Hun Sen and others represent and whom the international community champions as the foundation of a democratic state.
Rather than dictating to the Cambodian public what they should believe about the Khmer Rouge trial, leaders in New York, Phnom Penh and elsewhere should endeavor to provide the people with impartial information and to foster public discussion on the topic.

Again, it may be that I am mistaken and that the position set forth by Hun Sen has the unanimous support of his constituents. However, if some Cambodians seek to amend that position, they hold the power most apt to make a difference. Cambodia's elected leaders can only be as bold as their constituents permit them to be.

Even in an imperfect democracy, where elections may not precisely reflect the popular will, leaders ultimately have to face the ballot box. If Cambodians are dissatisfied with how the government handles the Khmer Rouge trial, they must voice their opinions and show elected leaders that shunning the public will cost them votes in the next election.

Some would argue that the UN position will effectively defend the will of Cambodia's dissidents. However, that contention fails on two grounds. First, there is no reason to believe that the UN plan reflects the opinion of any significant fraction of Cambodian citizens. In order to ascertain that fact, the public voice must be heard. Secondly, even if some fraction of Cambodia's populace supports the position from New York, the UN's reach extends only so far.

If Cambodian officials are willing to swallow the mild financial sanctions threatened by the West, they will almost certainly win their battle with Kofi Annan. The UN has very limited authority to interfere in criminal matters on Cambodian soil without government consent, especially as the bulk of Khmer Rouge atrocities were directed against Cambodian nationals. Thus, the UN's voice cannot act as a surrogate for that of the Cambodian public. There is simply no substitute for the power of constituents in an electoral system.

I should add that, even if Cambodians do agree with the Government's position at every turn, they should voice that support as openly as I have encouraged them to voice dissent.

Whether the message to Phnom Penh expresses disgust or approbation, neither Cambodian leaders nor those from abroad should be allowed to forget that, in this emerging democracy, the national power emanates from the people.

John D. Ciorciari is an American lawyer and graduate of Harvard Law School, currently residing in Phnom Penh.

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