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.”