PHNOM PENH – As leaders of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge near trial at a UN-backed court, Prime Minister Hun Sen has claimed much of the credit in voters’ eyes ahead of elections Sunday, experts say.
Despite the opposition’s efforts to link members of his government to the regime that left up to two million dead, Hun Sen has succeeded in painting the tribunal as a victory for his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said Youk Chang, an expert on the Khmer Rouge.
Many voters “would see this as one of the CPP’s efforts, and see this as one of the issues they have supported,” said Youk Chang, who heads the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which compiles evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.
With the CPP set to sweep Sunday’s general elections, opposition parties have hardly discussed the tribunal in their campaigns, fearing that any mention of the court would just highlight what the public sees as a triumph for Hun Sen, he said.
“By not tackling this issue, they lose major support, because the Khmer Rouge affected everybody,” he said. “That’s why they lose support from the public.”
The court’s work is broadly backed by the public, according to a February survey by the US-based International Republican Institute, which found 86 percent of respondents supported trials for top Khmer Rouge leaders.
The Khmer Rouge’s blood-soaked rule lasted only from 1975-79, but the ultra-communists endured as a guerrilla movement that only gave up arms a decade ago.
Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge foot soldier, though he later turned against the movement. His CPP, expected to dominate general elections Sunday, has styled itself as the nation’s liberator.
His government asked the United Nations to help create the court, but then repeatedly cut off negotiations during a decade of talks on the tribunal.
Sam Rainsy, the main opposition leader, has accused members of Hun Sen’s government of collaborating with the regime — pointing specifically at Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and Finance Minister Keat Chhon.
Hor Namhong responded with a defamation suit, while Keat Chhon has said he will eventually explain his past.
Diplomats say that while testimony at the trials could produce new revelations, no one in the current government played a high-level role in the ultra-communist regime.
“The faction of the Cambodian Communist Party now in power, which has totally changed its ideology to embrace liberal economics, is the faction that eliminated the Khmer Rouge,” one diplomat said.
The first trial is expected to begin by October, and one of the court’s top judges, French magistrate Marcel Lemonde, said the tribunal was aware that the hearings could make political waves after the elections.
“Transitional justice after mass violence (is) at the frontier of politics and the judiciary,” he said. “The judges cannot ignore the political repercussions.”
Five senior Khmer Rouge officials have been detained so far, including so-called “Brother No. 2,” Nuon Chea, deputy to the regime’s leader Pol Pot, who died before facing justice.
The regime’s former head of state Khieu Samphan, as well as the foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith are also being held.
But the first person expected to face trial is Kaing Guek Eav, better known as “Duch,” who ran the infamous S-21 torture camp in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian officials at the tribunal downplay the possibility of any other Khmer Rouge official facing trial “due to budget constraints.”
Lemonde, however, said that ongoing investigations could lead to more arrests.
“The budget is not what determines the number of the accused,” he said, but declined to speculate on who other suspects could be.