One year ago this week, Cambodian lawmakers passed a bill criminalising the denial of atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge regime in the mid- to late-1970s, when nearly two million people lost their lives.
Publicly refusing to recognise, opposing, denying or challenging the accepted narrative of what occurred would cost offenders up to two years in prison and as much as $1,000 in fines.
Since then, however, no one in Cambodia has denied those atrocities – at least not publicly – no one has been successfuly prosecuted for the denial, and no one has been sent to prison or fined. In fact, no one has said much at all about the Law on Refusing to Recognise Crimes Committed During Democratic Kampuchea – the title of which includes the official name of the Khmer Rouge state.
After passing on June 7 last year, the legislation faded into darkness faster than its meteoric flight through parliament.
Rubber-stamped in the heat of the election season, the law was roundly derided for its politicised nature and its potential to limit free speech. And despite the passage of time, legal experts can’t find reasons to view the law in any other terms.
“I think the speed by which the law was passed and the subsequent absence of prosecutions would suggest the law was intended to be a political statement,” said Christopher Dearing, legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), the country’s pre-eminent archive of Khmer Rouge history.
Because of the Holocaust, laws criminalising genocide denial are relatively common in Western Europe. Rwanda also has measures to punish those who deny the slaughter of more than a million Tutsis in 1994, though observers have decried the way it is used to silence opposition voices.
Cambodia has never had such a bill, but Cambodia has also never had such an election as it did last year, when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s popularity nearly toppled long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.
About two months before the election, on May 20, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party went into smear campaign mode by releasing an audio recording on the Council of Ministers website of Kem Sokha describing the Khmer Rouge torture centre S-21 in Phnom Penh as an invention of the Vietnamese.
At that stage of the campaign, opposition leader Sam Rainsy had not yet been granted a Royal pardon to return from self-exile in France, where he was avoiding prison sentences for defamation and for uprooting posts on the border with Vietnam.
Sokha, his deputy, was bearing the brunt of the mudslinging. While juggling accusations that he had claimed S-21 was an elaborate conspiracy, instead of a hellhole in which nearly 14,000 people were tortured and then executed, he was also being forced to deny lurid allegations that he had a mistress and engaged in sex with a minor.
Hun Sen used his widely listened-to speeches to talk about both issues. In a speech soon after the recording was posted, he floated the idea of a genocide denial law. Weeks later, the Law on Refusing to Recognise Crimes Committed During Democratic Kampuchea passed a CPP-dominated National Assembly (opposition members had been kicked out of parliament after a merger between two parties formed what is now known as the Cambodia National Rescue Party).
In addition to the fines and sentences for individuals, a proviso also allows legal entities to be held criminally liable if their representatives are found guilty of breaking the law – wording that seemed directed right at the opposition deputy.
Sokha, who declined to comment for this article, has previously said his words about the notorious detention centre were spliced and rearranged.
Chum Mey, the S-21 prison survivor who sued Sokha for defamation and led a march against him, declined to comment yesterday, except to say that the lawsuit is still on.
“I have already filed a complaint with the court. I still demand him to appear in court to clarify clearly, and I will take a recording tape to play for him. He said that after the election he would appear in court to clarify, and now the election has finished, so he must appear in court.”
Last year, after Rainsy returned in July and the CNRP made huge gains in the polls later that month, the full-on attack against Sokha began to recede. As the focus switched to allegations of election rigging, and elected opposition members refused to take their seats in the National Assembly in September, the law faded into legal obscurity.
“I think it may be that, for political reasons, they wanted to discredit Kem Sokha,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project. “But as a result, not so effective. Didn’t work.”
For Sokha, it represents a time better left forgotten. He may, however, find the S-21 recording gaining new life this week, after comments he made at a religious ceremony on Wednesday in which he seemed to blame the 2011 Koh Pich bridge stampede – which killed more than 350 people – on Vietnamese machinations.
For Mey, who sells his memoir on the grounds of S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, it’s apparently a piece of legislation he doesn’t care to highlight, though his lawsuit against Sokha and his demand that he apologise all added some weight to the momentum behind the bill.
For ruling party lawmakers who pushed the legislation through parliament, it’s hard to say what they think of it a year later.
Cheam Yeap, senior party lawmaker and National Assembly spokesman, hung up the phone and did not return a follow-up call. Chheang Vun, also a spokesman for the assembly, told a reporter to come to his office because he doesn’t like interviews over the phone.
However, ignoring doesn’t mean discarding.
Dearing, from DC-CAM, said that the absence of prosecutions is good, but the fact that the law still exists is “troubling”.
“Any laws that regulate speech carry immense implications for individual freedom and consequently democratic culture,” he said. “Without prosecutions, I think the law still poses great risks.”
Sam Oeun of the Cambodian Defender’s Project claims that the impact on speech is already being felt.
“After the law defined that, the people are a little bit scared, so they stopped talking about that.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA