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

(Page 8 of 11)

Human rights lawyer James Ross said that Hun Sen's argument that an international tribunal could lead to a new war is wrong because the Khmer Rouge barely exists, which is why all their leaders surrendered in the first place.

Hun Sen has taken great pains to demonstrate his respect for international norms since 1997, when he shocked observers by booting his coalition partners out of the country. Since then, he has allowed elections and made an uneasy peace with his opponents in a bid to win international recognition and Asean membership, as well as much needed foreign aid. Some see Ta Mok’s arrest as a real windfall for Hun Sen, as it gives him an opportunity to placate demands for justice without going after more sensitive targets. There has been little support so far for another alternative that he has proposed: a South-African style "Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

One observer said, "Hun Sen would just like to have a quick trail for Ta Mok, put him in prison and end the whole matter. That he can continue to cut deals with the other Khmer Rouge leaders, who are making money off of gems and illegal logging."

It remains to be seen, however, whether the world will be any more satisfied with a showpiece trial, even if it is held in an international court and features a first-class villain of Ta Mok’s stature.

According to Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review, that may be precisely what the Cambodian government has in mind. "He’s reviled by everyone and he has no protection. I think that’s their program, to make him the fall guy." But Thayer warns that it may not be that simple: "They’re opening a Pandora’s box. He’s only one of literally hundreds of people who are guilty of the same kind of thing."

All the Cambodian leadership was close to the Khmer Rouge at one time or another, and many current leaders are former Khmer Rouge. Not surprisingly, none of them are too keen on an international tribunal.

While the international community ponders the possibility of bringing the rule of law to bear upon those who perpetrated some of the worst atrocities of this century, Cambodians are less interested in legal and political intricacies than in simply coming to terms with the past. Tep Yee, a Cambodian woman who lost six of her relatives during Khmer Rouge rule, said that she wants to see Ta Mok and Khmer Rouge leaders in court so that she can understand how they could be so brutal.

Whether they are held in Cambodia or in another country, future trials of Khmer Rouge leaders should be as open as possible and should lead to national reconciliation. Both the international community and the people of Cambodia, most of whom lost at least one member of their family to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, will want to hear what Ta Mok and other Khmer Rouge leaders have to say about their actions in the past. So far, all they’ve heard from Ta Mok are unconvincing pleas of innocence.

Putting Ta Mok on trial may help to heal the war torn country, but it will not be enough. Ta Mok is not the only person responsible for Cambodia’s suffering. The Cambodian people must, of course, choose their own route to national reconciliation, but unless they have help from the rest of the world, their chances of seeing justice done will be slim.

James Ross said, "While it would be good to have a trial in Cambodia, the politicization and lack of independence and competence of the courts make it an impossibility."

"To provide real justice for the Cambodian people there is no choice but to have an international tribunal."

Meanwhile, time may be running out. At 72, Ta Mok may not live to see a long, drawn out trial through to the end. The strongest argument in favor of summary justice may be sheer impatience to see something done before it is too late. "We don’t expect foreigners to find justice for Cambodians," Hun Sen told reporters recently, adding, "We should try Ta Mok soon, we don’t have to wait . . .

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