Modern Cambodia is an ancient Khmer civilization still struggling with the baggage of its horrific past — the extermination of nearly a quarter of its own population through starvation, overwork, and execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia under the Khmer Rouge.
A recent law, hastily drafted and approved in just four days by a special session of the National Assembly’s Permanent Committee, resembles Holocaust-denial legislation in France and Germany. The law bans statements denying crimes by the communist regime that ruled from 1975-1979 and killed an estimated 2 million people, and carries a sentence of up to two years in jail and fines of up to $1000.
Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the legislation following recent comments made by Kem Sokha, deputy head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), allegedly saying that the notorious Tuol Sleng prison was run by Vietnamese soldiers who ousted the Khmer Rouge rather than the regime. Kem Sokha also allegedly claimed that some of the artefacts at the notorious Tuol Sleng jail were fabricated by Vietnamese forces that invaded Cambodia in 1979 and forced the Khmer Rouge from power.
His comments have angered survivors of the Pol Pot regime. Chun Mey, a prominent survivor of the prison, staged a mass protest after Kem Sokha did not come forward with an apology for his remarks after a 10-day period. Roughly 20,000 protesters met at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, and marched from the park to the headquarters of the CNRP on Sunday.
Analysts have pointed out that the new law was politically motivated against Kem Sokha and the CNRP ahead of late July elections. There have been indications that Kem Sokha’s claims were taken out of context in a bid by Hun Sen’s party to exploit the issue politically. According to a recording and transcription said to be of Kem Sokha’s remarks, his claim was that the Tuol Sleng museum was created by the Vietnamese to discredit the Khmer Rogue and justify their invasion. It was not believable to him that the Khmer Rogue would have easily allowed evidence of their atrocities to survive. In fact, it was Ho Van Tay, a Vietnamese combat photographer, who first documented Tuol Sleng to the world. Whatever Kem said about the Vietnamese role in the creation of Tuol Sleng, it appears that he never denied that the Khmer Rouge committed the atrocities.
With the Khmer Rogue tribunal still going on and the charge of genocide still legally ambiguous, the urgency with which the genocide denial law was passed was uncalled for. Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay adds that the law would have an influence on the Khmer Rogue tribunals still going on. Furthermore, such laws should be well-thought-through rather than hammered through parliament, because they have a big impact on the freedom of individuals to freely seek the truth. The right balance must be struck between freedom of speech, and justice for the victims of the genocide, a consideration that is clearly not the minds of Hun Sen and his allies.
During an hour-long session on Friday morning, 86 ruling party and Funcinpec lawmakers offered no pushback of the highly criticized law. Instead, after each of the brief, five articles were read out, lawmakers stood up to praise the law their party had drafted a week ago and, at times, to share their own suffering under the Khmer Rouge.
No opposition members were present. All 27 Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party lawmakers were stripped of their elected posts Wednesday by the National Assembly’s CPP-controlled permanent committee. In fact, the law would not have come into existence if not for Hun Sen’s request.
The Cambodian people deserve better.