Hun Sen, in his first appearance in almost two months, embraces key rebel defector Ke Pauk, who is implicated in thousands of executions between 1975-79, in Phnom Penh April 29.
THE United States, which once supported the Khmer Rouge during the Cold War, has now circulated among UN Security Council members a draft plan to try senior KR leaders for crimes against humanity in a UN court.
The diplomatic push has included the recent visit of a senior US diplomat to Phnom Penh and Thailand for consultations on a stated "major US objective in this region", and both the Thai and Cambodian governments publicly support a trial for the Khmer Rouge.
That is the good news.
The bad news is that the Thai government says one thing while the Thai military does another, and China - armed with a Security Council veto - appears set against international prosecution of its former close ally.
US Secretary of State Madeline Albright discussed the US proposal with Chinese officials in Beijing on April 29. An aide commented afterward that China was "not enthusiastic" about the plan.
"Their position is that a new government in Cambodia should deal with this issue rather than an international tribunal," the aide said, according to Reuters.
Further complicating the issue is the continuing eagerness of both Hun Sen's government and Prince Ranariddh's resistance generals to cut deals with hardline rebels, while former Democratic Kam-puchea deputy premier Ieng Sary unsurprisingly mimics the position of Beijing from the well-secured confines of independently administered Pailin.
However, there appears to be guarded optimism within some US circles lobbying for a KR trial that - when the time is politically ripe for Hun Sen to do so - even Sary may not be immune from independent questioning.
The most startling recent example of a suspected mass murderer being coddled by mainstream Cambodian politicians was Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's warm embrace with former DK zone commander Ke Pauk at a "Peace Day" celebration at Olympic Stadium on April 29.
Hun Sen's strategy is one of accepting all defections in exchange for loyalty to the CPP-led administration, terms apparently open to all Khmer Rouge except for Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. It has been dubbed "the win-win policy".
"It is not a new strategy. We have applied this since 1987 when we began to talk with the King. [It is a policy] of talking instead of fighting," government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
The "win-win policy" appears to be working against bringing defecting Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.
Although Kanharith said that Hun Sen's and Prince Ranariddh's request last year for an international tribunal is still valid, Hun Sen stated after a May 2 meeting with King Sihanouk in Siem Reap that the request is effectively on hold until after elections scheduled for July 26.
"My position is that we should put all our efforts on the organization of the election," the Second Prime Minister said. "After the election let the newly established National Assembly make a decision, and if possible, we will even hold a referendum."
More worrisome is the possible effects of a pervasive suspicion among the CPP leadership that long-term US foreign policy on Cambodia aims to undermine the Hun Sen government in favor of the former anti-Vietnamese resistance.
"I suspect that there may be a political trick behind the tribunal. Why did the United States not push for one a few years ago? Only after the death of Pol Pot and the fall of Anlong Veng did they do so," Hun Sen noted.
"There might be some intentions to push Khmer Rouge leaders back into the jungle to continue the use of the Khmer Rouge as a political counter-weight."
Resistance general Nhek Bun Chhay also does not appear to have a morality problem in entering alliances with the Khmer Rouge, including Ta Mok himself, despite his statements to the contrary.
Both he and the Cambodian military are courting Ta Mok's deputies in hopes of winning their friendship, but Nhek Bun Chhay appears to distinguish between the core hardline leadership and younger Khmer Rouge only when it is politically expedient.
Hun Sen, on the other hand, has said he will only negotiate for the surrender and arrest of Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. "We are fishing for the big fish. Ta Mok may be beyond the horizon, but he is not out of Hun Sen's sight," the Second Prime Minister said in Siem Reap.
"You know already about how Pailin, Malai and Anlong Veng were occupied [by the government]. But this is not a matter of rust destroying iron, it is of iron wiping out rust."
The only major Cambodian politician to keep his hands clean of the Khmer Rouge has been Sam Rainsy, who believes an already thread-bare social fabric will become even more tattered by letting top rebels back into greater Cambodian society.
"It is disgusting and dangerous. It is for short-term, partisan interests," Rainsy said, explaining that he believes if Khmer Rouge are forgiven of crimes against humanity, other Cambodians will lose respect for the law and feel free to commit lesser crimes.
Come election day, Rainsy also thinks that Cambodians will register their displeasure with the "win-win policy" by voting for his self-named Sam Rainsy Party.
"[The win-win policy] does not address the real issues of the nation: the rule of law, impunity, deforestation," he said. "You may have a little war along the border, but the violence infiltrates into the rest of the country. I will campaign on real peace, a lasting peace and a decrease in the level of violence in general."