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THE BEST THING THAT COULD COME OF THE DEATH OF POL Pot would be a new focus by both Cambodian government officials and the Western media on the country’s bleak present and its uncertain future–rather than dwelling on its awful past. Pol Pot made good copy for the media; mad mass murderers always do. But for many years the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, exiled in border regions, have also bordered on the irrelevant. They have been far less important to Cambodia than the misconduct of politicians in and around Phnom Penh.
Still, news about Cambodia has tended to be dominated by the Khmer Rouge: the country has been defined by perceptions of their threat. “”Pol Pot” was the only Cambodian name that most people in the West had ever heard of. It’s hard for editors to tell readers that actually Pol Pot is a man of the past–thank goodness. None of this is to suggest that Pol Pot and the crimes of his Khmer Rouge did not matter to ordinary Cambodians. They did; hardly a family did not lose relatives to murder, disease or starvation in the terrible years of 1975-78. The only sad thing about Pol Pot’s death is that he was never brought to trial. Trials can be cathartic, and they also establish an important body of evidence, if not the truth. But in Cambodia none of the attempts to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice has got anywhere. Nobody wanted to do the job properly.
The greatest blow against the truth occurred in August 1996. Cambodia’s two prime ministers–Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier, and the royalist leader Prince Ranariddh–competed to offer amnesty to Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s deputy. Amnesty International protested strongly. “”Impunity,” said Amnesty, “”is one of the main contributing factors to continuing cycles of human-rights violations worldwide.” That is certainly true of Cambodia today–disastrously so, given the suffering of the country in the last three decades, and given also the huge effort there by the U.N. peacekeeping operation in 1992-93.
That operation resulted in moving elections. The royalists won a resounding victory, but the ruling People’s Party (the former communists) under Hun Sen refused to give up power. So the U.N. allowed a coalition of the two parties, in which both Ranariddh and Hun Sen would be prime ministers. The prince was no match for Hun Sen, who has retained most real power. More effective opposition has come from Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister who fell out with both prime ministers because he wanted to slash corruption, and who set up his own Khmer Nation Party. On March 30, 1997, Rainsy was holding a peaceful, legal political meeting in Phnom Penh when men thought to be working for Hun Sen flung grenades into the crowd. More than 100 people, including women and children, were killed, horribly.
Last summer Hun Sen accused Ranariddh of collaborating with Pol Pot. Ranariddh fled the country to avoid arrest by his co-prime minister, who staged a violent coup against the coalition government. Since then Hun Sen’s thugs have murdered at least 60 and perhaps more than 100 of Ranariddh’s colleagues. Ranariddh returned briefly this month after his father, King Sihanouk, on Hun Sen’s recommendation issued a pardon for any crimes he might have committed.
There are to be elections in July–the first since those in 1993. There is a real risk that these will be a travesty designed only to perpetuate Hun Sen’s power. The ASEAN states, the European Union and the United Nations are all nervously wondering how far to finance or monitor the elections, given that no voting is likely to be even halfway free or fair. But the outside world is not powerless. Cambodia’s tiny economy is totally dependent on foreign aid, which should be made contingent on Hun Sen’s doing everything to create a neutral political environment. At present, the nation lives in fear.
Prince Ranariddh must be allowed to participate fully in the electoral process. So must all his party offices in the provinces (much more difficult, since Hun Sen’s police and militia are the only force in most rural areas). All other parties should be allowed to open offices throughout the country and have equal access to the state press, radio and television. This applies especially to Rainsy’s party. Despite the grenade attack and other threats, Rainsy has continued bravely. His thin, intense presence is far more popular in Phnom Penh than that of either prime minister. Rainsy seems to be emerging as the leader of choice for all those disillusioned with both Hun Sen’s violent corruption and Ranariddh’s ineffectual lack of vision.
But if Rainsy is to have any chance, Hun Sen’s lawlessness must be curbed–by the donor nations and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, all of whom are committed under the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement to uphold democracy in Cambodia. Of course it would be easier for the world to look the other way and allow Hun Sen to intimidate, murder, bribe his way to victory and then say, “”At least that’s resolved.” But victory on those terms will be another defeat for Cambodia. It will postpone even longer the emergence of the rule of law and civil society–which any country must have if it is to prosper and progress.
If the international community means it when it says “”never again” of Pol Pot, it must say “”no” to Hun Sen now. And mean it.
SHAWCROSS is the author of ”Sideshow,” a history of Cambodia in the 1970s, and is presently working on a book on the United Nations.