Khmer Rouge Furor Riles Cambodia
PAILIN, Cambodia (AP) _ The question of whether to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide hung over celebrations Thursday marking the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of their brutal regime.
Defeated Khmer Rouge leaders have threatened to resume their guerrilla war if they are put on trial. One former Khmer Rouge general, now governor of the northern city of Pailin, said Thursday that a genocide tribunal would wreck what is now Cambodia’s first peace in decades.
``Stop talking about a trial,″ Ee Chhean said in a speech aimed more at international opinion than the 1,000-strong crowd in Pailin. ``If there is a trial, then there will be no peace. Our soldiers have fought in the past, but today, they sit here in reconciliation.″
Ee Chhean’s address was one of several Thursday marking the anniversary of Vietnam’s capture of Phnom Penh on Jan. 7, 1979, putting an end to the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror that caused the deaths of as many as 2 million people.
Nearly all the Khmer Rouge have made peace with the government over the past two years in exchange for what amounts to immunity from prosecution.
But amid growing outrage by the public and human rights groups, Prime Minister Hun Sen reversed his stance last week and came out in favor of a trial for the last two Khmer Rouge leaders to surrender _ the top architects of the movement’s genocidal campaign.
The prime minister, however, made no attempt to arrest Khieu Samphan and Nuon Cheahe even as they took a state-sponsored VIP tour of the country. Now they are staying in the relative safety of Pailin, a western city largely controlled by Khmer Rouge supporters.
Ee Chhean, one of the first Khmer Rouge officials to make peace, spoke about reconciliation _ but never used the words genocide, mass murder or apology.
``If outsiders want to create problems, they are pushing Cambodia towards conflict,″ he said.
The movement fought a guerrilla war for decades after being ousted. But now it is all but extinct and many in Cambodia feel Hun Sen should hold its leaders accountable for Khmer Rouge crimes.
In Washington, the State Department said Thursday that U.S. officials have strongly urged Cambodia to try the Khmer Rouge leaders.
``We believe that Khmer Rouge accountability for their actions is consistent with the goal of national reconciliation,″ said deputy spokesman James P. Foley.
In the capital of Phnom Penh, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party marked Thursday’s anniversary at its headquarters before a crowd of more than 5,000.
Party members and supporters observed a moment of silence to remember those who lost their lives under Khmer Rouge rule, and those who gave their lives liberating the country from its grip.
Afterwards, Hun Sen and two party officials released white doves, symbolizing the fragile but newfound peace the country has won after decades of civil war. Hundreds of multicolored balloons were then sent aloft.
The ceremony was capped by the graceful, twirling moves of Cambodian classical dancers, bedecked in the sequined costumes and spired headdresses once worn to entertain ancient Khmer kings.
In contrast to outright condemnations of the Khmer Rouge at previous anniversaries, CPP president Chea Sim tempered his speech by welcoming the latest defections.
``This is a major success of our people who have suffered for many years,″ Chea Sim said.
The CPP is led by former Khmer Rouge members, including Hun Sen, who split from the movement amid bloody purges in the late 1970s and became the core of the government installed by Vietnam in 1979.
The Khmer Rouge killed about one Cambodian in five after seizing power in 1975, emptying the cities and herding the population into slave labor camps in a Maoist-inspired attempt at collective agriculture.
Vietnam invaded Christmas Day 1978, following repeated attacks by the Khmer Rouge on Vietnamese villages. The outgunned Khmer Rouge lost the capital two weeks later.
No Khmer Rouge leader has ever been punished.