To overcome the past, Cambodia needs fair and open trials

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 4:44am

More than three decades on, Cambodia still needs reconciliation to put its tragic past behind it. Due to official obstruction and judicial wrangling, only one of the five top former Khmer Rouge officials has been sentenced by a UN-backed war crimes tribunal for their role in the deaths of up to two million people. If it is the intention of many prominent government officials and businessmen who served the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime to let time and tide cheat justice and bury the past, they have had a victory.

The tribunal has just freed the "first lady" of the regime, 80-year-old former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, because dementia had rendered her unfit to stand trial. Six years after the court was set up, the late Pol Pot's second-in-command, Nuon Chea, 84, former head of state Khieu Samphan, 79, and former foreign minister Ieng Sary, 85, are still on trial. All are in poor health and, at the present rate, they may die before justice runs its course.

The compassion shown Ieng Thirith contrasts with the former regime's brutality. It also contrasts with the treatment of prominent government critic and independent radio station owner Mam Sonando by the present regime, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former commander in the Khmer Rouge. Mam Sonando, 71, has been jailed for 20 years for an alleged secessionist plot in eastern Kratie province. The accusation has outraged rights groups, who say there is no evidence to support it and that he has been punished for exercising his right to freedom of expression. Mam Sonando is to lodge an appeal. If that fails, he, too, may die in jail.

While the perpetrators of atrocities go unpunished, and free speech is severely punished, countless Cambodians have good reason to lack confidence in the future, despite the country's economic progress. If he wants to bury the past decently and secure social stability, Hun Sen needs to ensure a fair and open judicial process, for both the guilty and the innocent.