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By The Irrawaddy MARCH, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.3

(Page 7 of 11)

Moe Thee Zun fled to the border in 1989 and joined the "Students Army."


TA MOK on trial: Putting the butcher on the scales of justice

Ta Mok, known as "the Butcher" for his atrocities against Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge era, has been arrested and put in prison. Now it looks like the government of Hun Sen, himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge, may be ready to put him on trial for his crimes against humanity. But Ta Mok’s trial should not become just a showpiece to win international approval. Justice must be done, and that means bringing others to trial, writes Aung Zaw.

For years, academics and Cambodia watchers disputed the true identity of Ta Mok, the man known as "the Butcher." The name of the top Khmer Rouge leader, who was recently arrested near the Thai-Cambodia border, still evokes images of horror in the minds of survivors of Cambodia’s "killing fields." Ta Mok earned his nickname during his tenure as a Khmer Rouge commander responsible for sweeping purges of suspected dissidents in southwestern Cambodia. His role as a major participant in the reign of terror imposed upon Cambodia in the 1970s is undisputed.

Ta Mok’s arrest came as international pressure was building on the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to trial for their atrocities. Just two days before his arrest, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discussed the matter with Thai government leaders during a visit to Bangkok.

Now that he is in custody, he is likely to become the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried for his crimes. Pol Pot, mastermind of the nationwide pogrom which led to nearly two million deaths, died last year under mysterious circumstances. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who also held important positions in the Khmer Rouge, surrendered to the government last year and remain unmolested in an enclave in the western part of the country.

Ta Mok was charged under a law banning the radical leftist group that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Analysts said the maximum sentence he would face is life in prison, since the country doesn’t have the death penalty.

While it is quite certain that Ta Mok, 72, will be tried, it remains unclear where the trial will take place. A team of legal experts appointed by the UN has recommended an international trial outside Cambodia. But they advise against a Western venue, suggesting instead an ad hoc tribunal somewhere in Asia, possibly in Australia or the Philippines. The UN also recommended that 20 to 30 other Khmer Rouge leaders should be tried for crimes against humanity.

At a press conference in Thailand, Albright said, "We want the top leaders brought to justice and we do support an international tribunal on this." In response to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s position that reconciliation is more important than retribution, Albright argued, "On the contrary, we think that [trials are] the way to reconciliation."

China, a major backer of the Khmer Rouge in the past, is opposed to international trials, and may use its veto in the UN Security Council to block any attempt to mete out justice outside of Cambodia. It is also believed that Beijing has advised Hun Sen against allowing trials to be held in a foreign country. The Cambodian Prime Minister has publicly come out in favor of getting foreign assistance to set up a domestic court to try the case in Cambodia.

Hun Sen has also expressed concern that attempts to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice could plunge the country into civil war if Phnom Penh is perceived as reneging on the amnesty it granted to those who have already surrendered. When Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary turned themselves in to the government last year, Hun Sen let them know that all would be forgiven if they promised to keep the peace. Observers believe that all three, who occupied more prominent positions in the Khmer Rouge than Ta Mok, should also be brought to trial. Hun Sen’s reluctance to go back on his deal with them raises the question of whether trials held in Cambodia could reasonably be expected to function independently, without political interference from the government.

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