​Bones and justice: KR law languishes in limbo | Phnom Penh Post

Bones and justice: KR law languishes in limbo


Publication date
27 April 2001 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Phelim Kyne

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Blame it on the spate of Hollywood productions that have set the town abuzz in recent

months, providing everything from tantalizing glimpses of sexpot Angelina Jolie to

rare well-paid employment for the local slacker expat set in Matt Dillon's Beneath

the Banyan Trees.

Hurry up and wait? Hun Sen on April 25 pledges "justice" for KR victims.

On April 25, Prime Minister Hun Sen solemnly spoke in defense of preserving the skulls

and bones salted around the country's scores of killing fields as a necessary evil

in "finding justice" for the estimated 1.7 million victims of the Khmer


For those happily uninformed about the fractious progress toward the establishment

of a tribunal to bring those responsible for those deaths to justice, Hun Sen's evocation

of those piles of bleached skulls at Choeng Ek and Toul Sleng was a moving testimony

to the man's commitment to addressing the sins of his country's past.

But for those who have followed the process more closely, the Prime Minister's speech

was but another attempt - theatrical, complete with props - to diffuse and confuse

the issue.

While Hun Sen's vow to submit the fate of the bones to a national referendum following

a KR tribunal's completion would suggest his strong personal support for the process,

events over the last two months have been a damning testimony to government foot

dragging and intransigence that make the prospect of an effective tribunal ever more


That foot dragging became outright obstructive in February, when the Constitutional

Council froze the bill's process due to objections about its references to the death

penalty, forbidden under Cambodian law. The Council duly forwarded the draft law

to the Council of Jurists (COJ) to delete Article 3 of the bill's references to the

1956 criminal code, which decrees capital punishment for homicide, torture and religious


The Constitutional Council's ruling was at the time criticized even by the National

Assembly's Legislative Commission Chairman Monh Saphan, who pointed out that the

Constitutional Council's objections were spurious in light of the bill's Article

38, which specifically disallows the use of the death penalty.

Even more curious was the timing of the Constitutional Council's announcement - less

than two days prior to the King's departure for routine medical treatment in Beijing.

While government spokesmen insisted that Chea Sim as acting Head of State could sign

a finalized KR bill into law if the King was unavailable, recognition that the King's

moral authority was esential for approval of the law among the Cambodian public effectively

delayed the law's progress until his return in April

But the surprise this month had nothing to do with rumors back in February that the

King would in any case refuse to sign off on the bill to either cock a snook at Hun

Sen or at the behest of his Chinese patrons, but rather that after two months the

Council of Jurists have yet to delete the offending passages and refuses to say when

they will do so.

While bureaucratic indolence is not unknown in Cambodia, the failure of the COJ to

act swiftly in light of the importance of the task assigned them suggests that it

has either not been encouraged to prioritize the revision of the draft law, or has

been prevailed upon to delay action as long as possible.

Such suspicions are not ungrounded in light of past efforts by Hun Sen to complicate

the tribunal process.

Previous pretexts vehemently articulated by the Prime Minister to limit international

influence in the tribunal process or narrow its scope to the point of futility -

ie arguing that former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary should not be subject

to prosecution - have all quickly and expeditiously been given the lie.

The Prime Minister's assertions last autumn that a tribunal would send former KR

cadre back to the forests to restart the country's three decade civil war took many

by surprise, including residents of the former KR strongholds of Anglong Veng and

Pailin, who in various recent forums have expressed growing support for the formation

of a tribunal to answer their own questions about events between 1975-1979.

Similarly, the Prime Minister's warnings that his avowed support for a tribunal

was threatened by restive former KR dissidents within CPP ranks were proven equally

hollow by the unanimous vote of support for the draft law bill in the National Assembly

on Jan 3.

The behavior of coalition partner Funcinpec has been equally suspect with regards

to illustrating its commitment to a tribunal.

While Funcinpec officials such as NA Legislative Commission member Klok Buddhi

insisted back in February that the requested Constitutional Council revisions to

the draft law could "...easily be certified as an urgent matter" requiring

only three days notice to gather a quorum of legislators to debate and approve, National

Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh apparently had more pressing matters

of concern.

The prince instead went on holiday in France, delaying the scheduled April 18 commencement

of the National Assembly session for "medical reasons".

More gallingly, the Prince has not yet seen fit to put the yet-to-be amended bill

on the NA schedule of draft laws for consideration.

Instead, the NA has announced that the National Assembly will focus instead on investment-related

bills, items not normally perceived as the most pressing of priorities for the 1.7

million victims of the Khmer Rouge and their survivors.

While such marginalizing of the draft law might gratify long-time KR supporter China,

which funded the reconstruction of the National Assembly and sent an official observer

to Funcinpec's annual congress in March, it is highly doubtful whether it represents

the will of the Cambodian people.

Meanwhile, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party further muddied the waters by leader Sam

Rainsy's March 6 request that the US refuse to fund a trial that he and his fellow

SRP legislators unanimously voted in support of on Jan 3.

An indication of the public distaste for the handling of the KR tribunal process

and their recognition of its true intentions is a shift in speculation from "if"

elderly former KR military chief Ta Mok will die in prison, to a matter of "when".

On July 7, 2000 , following an agreement between the UN and the Cambodian government

on the substance of the KR draft law a beaming Sok An assured UN Chief Legal Counsel

Hans Corell that the bill could be passed by the NA "within weeks".

Corell, perhaps prescient of the coming nine months of flip-flops, delays and obstinacy

that would undermine Sok An's spoken commitment, in turn warned that UN patience

with Cambodia's slow progress toward formation of a tribunal was not limitless.

It can only be hoped that as the one-year anniversary of the UN-Cambodian agreement

nears, the UN's mute assent to the Cambodian government's slow progress in rendering

true justice to those piles of skulls might finally come to an end.

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