The acting president of the main opposition party yesterday said he never questioned the existence of the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous torture centre, while Prime Minister Hun Sen slammed the alleged comments and urged lawmakers to criminalise statements denying genocide.
Speaking at Wat Langka in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said Kem Sokha, acting president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, should be held to account for conspiracy-laden comments that first surfaced in a recording on the website of the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit on May 20.
“I hope that whoever announced such things will bear the responsibility. This issue is at the national level. In Europe, whoever dares to say that Hitler did not kill those people must be guilty,” Hun Sen said.
In the online recording, allegedly from a speech Sokha gave two days before in Prey Veng and Takeo provinces, Sokha can be heard doubting the authenticity of S-21, or Tuol Sleng prison, where nearly 13,000 people are thought to have been tortured from 1975 to 1979. The victims were either murdered at the prison or driven to the “killing fields” of Choeung Ek, where they were executed.
Sokha says on the recording that S-21 is an invention of the Vietnamese, who toppled the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.
“If [the Khmer Rouge] knew they themselves were murderers, why didn’t they destroy [the evidence] instead of keeping the scene for display and photography,” he is quoted as saying. “This was staged, brothers. I personally believe that it was staged.”
While it is true that Vietnamese advisers helped preserve S-21 and lay the groundwork for the museum that is on the site today, researchers and Cambodia’s war crimes court have proved that the prison was run, staffed and managed by the Khmer Rouge.
The warden of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was sentenced to life behind bars by the Khmer Rouge tribunal last year for his role at the prison.
“I would like to appeal to the lawmakers of the Cambodian People’s Party and Funcinpec to do a proposal law urgently for the parliament to approve,” Hun Sen said in his speech yesterday.
With varying degrees of stringency, most countries in Europe – the staging ground for the Nazi genocide against the Jews – have laws on books that criminalise Holocaust denial and hate speech, as does Israel. Free speech protections in the United States, meanwhile, shield Holocaust deniers from prosecution.
By passing the laws, countries hoped to prevent the resurgence of the kind of ideology that lead to the murder of an estimated six million Jews. In Germany, where the Nazi party rose to power, the laws are some of the toughest, including bans on the display of Nazi insignia and propaganda.
Panhavuth Long, a Khmer Rouge tribunal monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative, said he’s never heard of such a law being proposed in Cambodia, but worried about its potentially deleterious affect on the right to free expression.
“This is always the downside, whether the proposal on genocide denial is really a kind of recognition [that the crimes took place] or is it somehow limiting free speech.”
As an alternative, Long said, the government could pour more money into the cash-strapped court to help it discover the extent of the genocide that took place under Democratic Kampuchea. From 1975 to 1979, nearly two million people were killed through starvation, disease, targeted killings and executions.
“There are two separate issues, Khmer Rouge atrocities and genocide,” he said.
The current case against defendants Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan has been split into several mini-trials, the first of which focuses largely on the forced transfer of Cambodians from Phnom Penh, while remaining charges include genocide against the Cham Muslims and the Vietnamese.
After staying silent on the allegations, Sokha fought back yesterday for the first time, saying the recording was edited to place his words out of context. He also claims the speech dates back months, not weeks, and is emerging now because it is the run-up to the election.
Asked to explain further, Sokha said he used the word “staged” to describe the way the Khmer Rouge created a theatre out of Tuol Sleng, forcing intellectuals and ordinary people to confess to membership in the CIA and KGB. His comments on the Vietnamese, he said, related to their early support of the Khmer Rouge during the civil war.
“As I am a victim, I know clearly about the torture and cruelty that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on Khmer people,” said Sokha, who lost his father during the regime. “So I regret that politicians took a chance to take my words . . . exaggerating them to deceive the public.”
Chum Mey, an S-21 survivor who says he heard the speech on the radio and obtained a copy from Cambodian People’s Party commentator Sathya Rak, would not give Sokha the benefit of the doubt.
“I know Kem Sokha’s voice clearly. He said he was in Prey Veng and Takeo province,” Mey said, adding that he listened on May 18 at about 8:30pm.
If Sokha did not apologise within 10 days, Mey said, he would organise a protest.
Additional reporting by Mom Kunthear