Former top Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan is now willing to come forward and speak
out in a public forum. The elusive former president of Democratic Kampuchea recently
sent word to Chea Vannath of the independent Center for Social Development (CSD)
that he is prepared to publicly face the victims of the 1975-79 regime.
However, Samphan made it a condition that either the international community or an
independent organization guarantees his safety at a possible public performance.
"He has been attacked twice before. Once under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum rule
in the 1960s and once after the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, so maybe he is worried
about his security," says Vannath.
Last week, Vannath and her CSD conducted the first of three public forums on "National
Reconciliation and the Khmer Rouge". The forum that took place in Battambang
on Jan 27 was the first time former KR cadres stood face-to-face with their victims
in order to openly debate how to deal with the horrific DK legacy of at least 1.7
Among the some 120 participants were a large contingent of former KR cadres from
Pailin, Malai and other northwestern districts, including a number of mid-ranking
intellectuals and one general. Several argued against a KR trial, claiming that it
would damage national reconciliation.
"The animosity and the killings for the last three decades were not only on
the part of the KR. There were other factions, too. If only one faction is prosecuted
for trial, it can lead to discrimination or a form of racism," said In Sopheap,
former KR counselor in China and the UN and ambassador to Egypt.
Long Norin, a long-time associate of former KR Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, pointed
to the pardons already handed out to KR cadres who defected to the government.
"If there is a trial against those who defected, it seems that the lesson we
pass on to our children is not to integrate, but to keep fighting until we win,"
Although the forum progressed without much drama, some participants seized the opportunity
to confront their old tormentors.
"Now, you speak such polite words. If you had spoken like that before, maybe
so many of our people would not have been killed," said a local representative
for the human rights organization ADHOC.
In spite of a majority of speeches against a trial, the participants still voted
overwhelmingly in favor of a KR tribunal in a secret ballot at the end of the forum.
Almost two-thirds believed that a trial would be an advantage for true national reconciliation.
But even without the anticipated agitation and streams of tears, the forum clearly
proved that Cambodia still has a long way to go in order to heal the wounds of its
atrocious past. With the law for the KR tribunal soon to be debated in the National
Assembly, the issue still remains extremely sensitive.
Analysts point out that if not properly conducted and complemented by extensive public
information and education campaigns, a tribunal may deepen the rifts in Cambodian
society, thus doing more damage than good.
Of course, the idea of a trial is unpopular with those former KR leaders who may
be eligible for prosecution. But it also sparks genuine anxiety among former rank-and-file
One recurring subject at the forum was the concept of the 'shrimp soup'. When you
eat it, you can either carefully pick out the few big prawns or indiscriminately
dig in and pull out maybe one big, but also a lot of small shrimps - a metaphor for
high and low-ranking KR cadre.
Whether caused by local propaganda or mere ignorance, the concern that they themselves
might be targeted for prosecution was expressed by a number of "small"
people lately accosted in Pailin. Also, as one long-time Cambodia observer pointed
out, arresting the leaders of tight-knit former KR communities can be extremely unsettling
for the already rather isolated people.
This was recently illustrated in Phnom Vour, when former KR commander Chhouk Rin
was apprehended, charged in connection with the kidnapping and murder of 13 Khmers
and three western backpackers in 1994. The arrest caused widespread anxiety among
Rin's former troops. Panic has only been avoided by Rin making phone contact with
his people and telling them not to be calm and not to cause any trouble.
On top of that is the risk that when the KR trial begins any Cambodian with a KR
past - big or small - becomes fair game in a country where mob lynchings are already
Genocide researcher Craig Etcheson acknowledged that a KR trial is a delicate and
"Sure, many of the KR rank-and-file don't understand what happened, either.
They really don't know that the KR regime killed so many people. And it will take
more than a tribunal - even of international standards - to make them understand.
Some kind of truth telling mechanism, civil law suits and social education is needed
- even before the trial begins.
"But a trial is still the essential starting point. As it progresses, everybody
will learn that only those who committed crimes will be punished. And most importantly,
it will release the fear that the victims have repressed for so many years. The KR
is already hated and isolated, but we have got to get to the point where they are
no longer feared," said Etcheson.
For Vannath, the process of national reconciliation begins with dialogue.
"A trial will only solve the problem on the surface. We Cambodians need to sit
down and talk about this issue, to exchange views and discuss openly. That also includes
hearing the opinion of the minority - in this case the KR," she said.
With that in mind, she embarked upon two road trips to Pailin and two to Malai. In
the process she met with Sary and convinced him that it was important for the former
KR to express themselves, too.
Although several of CSD's public forums have taken place in Battambang, the provincial
authorities obviously felt uneasy about this particular one. The day before, officials
suddenly demanded to know who had given authorization to the forum. Later the Battambang
Director of Information refused to broadcast the recordings from the forum until
he obtained permission from the Council of Ministers.
"I had many worries and concerns in connection with this forum. It is a relief
to me that it went so well. This is only the beginning of the beginning, but I think
that today we have made a big contribution to the process of national reconciliation,"
Vannath said after the forum.
Director of the Documentation Center for Cambodia, Youk Chhang, welcomed the public
forum as a good space for victims of the KR regime to give voice to their opinion.
However, he had misgivings about letting former KR leaders participate:
"Of course, they should also enjoy the opportunity to speak out. But they should
not be treated equally to the victims. We have already suffered so much and still
granted them so much patience. Now only the law can deal with the KR.
"Besides, what would a criminal say if you asked him whether he should stand
trial? What would a criminal say if you asked him what his punishment should be?"
What some former KR at the forum and officials in Pailin say is that they favor a
public ceremony, at which former leaders admit and apologize for the atrocities -
an idea initially brought forward by independent analyst Dr Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer
Institute for Democracy.
It is understood that Pailin Governor Y Chhien was very unhappy that some at the
forum had argued for a tribunal.
Nevertheless, officials in both Pailin and Malai remain positive about the idea of
"At least everybody can express their opinion. At the same, time we have a chance
to listen to others. On the basis of that, we can find a solution," says Pailin's
First Deputy Governor Ieng Vuth.
"It is important that we don't start painting colors on each other - red [rouge],
blue and white. That will only lead to racism," said Vuth, who might contemplate
participating in a public forum himself.
His next chance will be Feb 24 in Phnom Penh or March 30 in Sihanoukville, when CSD
organizes the next two forums.
"I told them that I wanted them to come to Phnom Penh too. But I also told them
to prepare for it, because it will be ten times harder than in Battambang,"
She is currently searching for a venue that will prove suitable for a public debate
on national reconciliation and the KR in the capital.
Maybe, just maybe, Khieu Samphan will be there as well.