Denial of Khmer Rouge Atrocities to Become a Crime

Taking Europe’s treatment of the Holocaust as an example, denying Khmer Rouge atrocities is being criminalized in Cambodia.

Luke Hunt

Cambodia’s political parties are pushing boundaries in their quest for votes during the lead-up to the July 28 elections. Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned of war if his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) fails to win at the polls, monks are being gagged after making political comments. There is even talk about Facebook being shut down ahead of election day.

The opposition has not fared much better with Kem Sokha, acting president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), claiming that S-21, the torture and extermination camp from where at least 12,000 people were sent to their mass, unmarked graves, was a Vietnamese conspiracy.

“The Vietnamese created this place with pictures. If this place is truly Khmer Rouge they would have knocked it down before they left,” Sokha said during a political trip into the countryside. “You should know that if the Khmer Rouge killed people, would they keep it to show to everyone? If they knew they killed many people, why would they keep this place?”

Opposition politicians, in particular Sam Rainsy, have a long history of leveling rants against the Vietnamese in a play for easy votes through raw nationalism and old-fashioned enmity between Cambodia and its eastern neighbor.

But this was a truly dreadful call. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal has long since dealt with S21 – also known as Tuol Sleng – and sentenced its former commander Kaing Guek Eav (alias, Duch) to life in prison. The court is currently hearing where he sat within the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and who else is responsible.

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Khem Sokha is also on record as saying: “Why would the Khmer Rouge be so stupid as to keep Tuol Sleng after killing many people, and keep it as a museum to show tourists? … This is just staged. I believe it is staged, isn’t it?”

Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea, and former Head of State, Khiea Samphan, even apologized before the court for atrocities committed during their 1975-1979 reign. The court has also heard about how Duch was ordered to destroy the evidence at S21. However, advancing Vietnamese troops thwarted the attempt and Duch fled, angering Nuon Chea.

Hun Sen’s response has been to follow the European example with the Holocaust of World War II by making it an offence to deny atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. This is setting off yet another debate: Can governments really legislate what people think?

Regardless, this election campaign is shaping-up to be a closely fought battle in which politicians are being tempted to say anything in a crass bid for votes. Given the fact that the Khmer Rouge was driven from power in 1979 by the invading Vietnamese, and that the ensuing civil wars were finally extinguished 15 years ago, it might be time to leave the ultra-Maoists out of the political equation.