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Pardoning Ieng Sary: the hardest choice to make

Pardoning Ieng Sary: the hardest choice to make

K assie Neou, the director of the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights, agrees - reluctantly - with Ieng Sary's amnesty.

Ieng Sary amnestied for his crimes? My first thought was that this is a prospect horrible to imagine.

Yet, after painful reflection, I have concluded that this may be the right course for Cambodia.

This is perhaps the most difficult question I have wrestled with in my life. Because, like most Cambodians, my

family and I suffered greatly under the regime in which Ieng Sary played such a prominent role.

In my case, it was not enough that the Khmer Rouge sent me and my family to the countryside to farm without adequate

food, shelter and medicine. This was routine - everybody's situation was the same.

No, for the crime of speaking English, I was arrested by the Khmer Rouge and pulled by a rope around my neck, stumbling

and falling, to the Kach Roteh prison camp near Battambang. This was only the beginning. I was shackled with all

the other prisoners with irons that bit into my skin. My ankles still bear the scars. I was tortured repeatedly,

for months. My only relief was when I fainted.

Every night, the guards came and called out the names of one or two or three prisoners. They were taken away and

never seen again - murdered by order of the Khmer Rouge. To my knowledge, I was one of very few prisoners who survived

Kach Roteh, which was really a torture and extermination camp. I survived only because of my ability to tell Aesop's

fables and classic Khmer animal tales to the teenagers and children who were our guards.

Members of my extended family, and a million other Cambodians, died in one way or another at the hands of the Khmer


So I - and we Cambodians, all of us - would be justified in demanding that Ieng Sary be judged for his part in

the genocide. I personally have good reason to hate Ieng Sary and want him severely punished.

Still, in my view, that would not be the right answer for Cambodia.

I have come to the difficult conclusion that the Royal Government was right to pursue negotiations with Ieng Sary.

It was right to make a deal, to give him amnesty.

The Ieng Sary case presents a real dilemma. Two very powerful principles are in violent conflict - peace and justice.

If Ieng Sary and his followers stop fighting, then the war will diminish and many fewer Cambodians will die. We

should not take lightly a chance to prevent the death or crippling of hundreds or thousands of our fellow citizens,

soldiers and civilians alike.

But amnesty means giving up the chance, however slight, to bring Ieng Sary to justice, and that is a painful prospect,

almost unbearable for some people.

Other countries have been faced by a similar problem. Many, like South Africa or some South American countries,

have chosen peace and reconciliation over justice. Guilty people have gone free. This is never an easy choice,

never a pleasant one. But I think that in Cambodia peace is what the people most deeply want after more than 20

years of savagery and war.

Furthermore, do we really believe that if a deal is refused, that we will have justice? Actually put Ieng Sary

on trial? More likely he and his group will stay where they are, fighting. If he is finally defeated militarily

at great cost of lives, he will probably retire to a pleasant exile in some foreign country.

So, making a deal and granting amnesty does not mean giving up justice, it is merely giving up the illusion of

justice. We can wish - I wish - that it were otherwise, but that is the hard reality.

All this does not mean there are no risks in negotiating with Ieng Sary and granting amnesty. There are. The Royal

Government needs to be alert and wise and enforce a hard bargain.

The Ieng Sary faction must become simple citizens of the Kingdom like other citizens, and subject to its authority.

They must not maintain a separate armed force. Control over the territory where they live must be returned to the

Government, which will administer it like any other part of the country. In return, Ieng Sary and his followers

should be allowed to live in peace and retain their homes and property.

Even so, Ieng Sary can never make up for the deeds committed by the Khmer Rouge. If he wants genuine reconciliation

with the population, he will do more. He should truly repent the deeds of the Khmer Rouge and make restitution

to the society he helped rip apart. It is not enough to say, after more than a quarter century as part of the Khmer

Rouge, that it was all Pol Pot's fault.

The Royal Government must also be sure that the willingness to make peace by Ieng Sary is not just a tactical move

in a long-term battle, designed to give his troops a rest to recover their strength before returning to fight.

It must not be just a switch from "armed struggle" to "parliamentary struggle" in Marxist terms,

with the goal remaining the same - seizing power to reimpose a terrorist Khmer Rouge regime like in the past. Ieng

Sary must genuinely commit to respecting democracy and human rights. The government needs to be able to ensure

that he keeps his end of the bargain, and revoke the deal if he does not.

It has taken a good deal of courage for the government to conclude an agreement with Ieng Sary. It will be criticized

severely, by honorable people who want to uphold the sacred principle of justice. And it will have to tolerate

and even accept that criticism, because justice is important. But if the government can enforce a good agreement

which saves many Cambodian lives, then it will be worth doing.

Worth even letting Ieng Sary live unpunished.

There was a time when I would have demanded that Ieng Sary be punished as well. But bitterness and revenge are

a poison. Forgiveness is hard but possible.

I do not know her views on the current controversy, but the Cambodian educator Renee Pan spoke two years ago about

her personal journey toward forgiving the Khmer Rouge. It meant, she said, keeping out of the fires of egotism,

anger and foolishness. The test was when she entered a Khmer Rouge-controlled border camp. "My heart didn't

harden, my voice stayed calm. It was in this way that I knew that my wounds had been healed, that my forgiveness

was real." An older Khmer Rouge in the camp asked her "Will the rest of the world forgive us one day?"

What is our answer? The Buddha teaches us love and non-violence. Other great religious teachers agree. Jesus said

"Love your enemy." For Cambodia, perhaps Ieng Sary is the greatest test of our true forgiveness.


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