Cambodia passes law making denial of Khmer Rouge genocide illegal

New law threatens to reopen old wounds in the country, where 1.7m died at the hands of the rebel group

The prime minister of Cambodia has rushed through new legislation which makes it illegal to deny the war crimes and genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime – a law observers believe he will use to attack his political opponents ahead of an upcoming election.

Premier Hun Sen called a special session of the country’s parliament to pass the legislation, which fixes a jail term of up to two years for anyone convicted of disputing the actions of the rebel group, responsible for the deaths of up to 1.7m people.

The authoritarian Mr Sen took the initiative following recent comments made by an opposition politician who claimed some of the artefacts at the notorious Tuol Sleng jail were fabricated by Vietnamese forces who invaded Cambodia in 1979 and forced the Khmer Rouge from power.

“Anyone who says there was no Khmer Rouge genocidal regime in Cambodia has to be punished,” Hun Sen said earlier this week.

More than three decades on, the issue of the Khmer Rouge regime and their attempt to turn the country into a Maoist, agrarian society, remains complex and deeply sensitive. Hun Sen was himself a former Khmer Rouge commander before he switched sides and fled to Vietnam in the mid 1970s.

Yet even though it was Vietnamese forces who forced the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh, their 10 year occupation of the country created antipathy and anger. In many cases this has added to an historically distrustful relationship between the two countries.

Recently, Kem Sokha, deputy president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, claimed that exhibits at Tuol Sleng genocide museum, a former torture and interrogation centre from where 17,000 people were dispatched to their deaths, had been faked.

His party claimed the comments were taken out of context but pro-government media has seized on the remarks.

As it was, the new anti-genocide denial legislation was passed without the presence of any opposition members of parliament. A committee controlled by Hun Sen this week ruled that the opposition MPs must relinquish their seats because they had left old parties to join a new, merged party to contest the election scheduled for July 28.

Even before this week’s set-back, the National Rescue Party faced a tremendous challenge because its leader, Sam Rainsy, is forced to live in exile to avoid jail over what are widely seen as politically motivated criminal charges against him.

Analysts say they believe Hun Sen has acted to cement his support and to enable himself to further attack the opposition. “The motive is very clear – it’s election season,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, speaking from Phnom Penh.

He added: “The prime minister is trying to distract people from what is happening today by looking at what happened in the past.”

Mr Virak said that while the crimes of the Khmer Rouge were widely recognised, he did not believe the new legislation would help reconciliation in the country.

Ou Ritthy, a young social activist, said: “I find this passed law very political. Hun Sen keeps reminding Khmer people that he cares about the survivors, but he doesn’t realize that such a law was prepared too quickly and it would be lacking in proper research and input from the public.”

As this political drama has been playing out, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a UN-backed tribunal has been hearing more evidence about the actions of the Khmer Rouge and the impact on the population of Cambodia. A third of the population were killed or starved to death.

The court is trying two former senior members of the regime, Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two and who was considered the right-hand man of Pol Pot and the militants’ ideologist, and the former president, Khieu Samphan.

Among the witnesses to testify this week was Sydney Schanberg, a former correspondent with the New York Times who was among more than 100 Westerners detained the Khmer Rouge when they invaded Phnom Penh in April 1975. His story was featured in the film The Killing Fields.

Testifying by video-link from the US, Mr Schanberg, 79, recalled how he had watched the Khmer Rouge force people from the city, ordering them into the surrounding countryside. He said: “All through the day you saw these people being driven, like you drive cows, out of the city.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement