Pol Pot’s death factory

Pol Pot’s death factoryWith China backing the Cambodian leadership with ready cash, the tribunal on the Khmer Rouge genocide might never take offPranay Sharma Phnom PenhAngkor Vat and Tuol Sleng are the two ‘must sees’ in Cambodia. Every year they attract more than a million people from outside. The beautiful temples of Angkor Vat, Bayon and Ta Bhrum that came up between 11th to 14th century AD represent the most glorious period of Cambodia's history. The Hindu and Buddhist kings who built these temples continue to impress visitors even today with their beautiful architecture and sculptures depicting stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata or the Samudra-Manthan.Large numbers also visit the Tuol Sleng high school building in the heart of capital Phnom Penh. In stark contrast to Angkor, Tuol Sleng represents the darkest and most traumatic years of Cambodia. The Maoist Khmer Rouge leaders who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 had turned the high school into a killing factory. Tens of thousands of Cambodians were brought here and butchered. Only 10 got out of it alive.It is an irony that today India is but a small dot on the political radar of Cambodia, while China, the main-backer of the Khmer Rouge, looms the largest on that screen. China's influence on political leaders can be best exemplified by the inability of the Extraordinary Chambers of Courts in Cambodia, better known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, to take off. The tribunal was doomed since its inception. It was set up in 2001 after prolonged negotiations between the Cambodian government and the UN. It was meant to function jointly. In 2004, the Cambodian Parliament unanimously passed the resolution to set up the tribunal. Foreign legal experts were supposed to work in close cooperation with their Cambodian counterparts.The tribunal has run into political rough weather. Earlier, the Cambodian government had to slow down the process; it has now demanded that foreign lawyers willing to work here will have to pay $5,000 as registration fee. The demand has outraged the International Lawyers Association and has led to a stalemate. Prime Minister Hun Sen has maintained that people of his country, including those born after 1979, have the right to know what happened to their family and friends during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule. Nearly three million Cambodians were murdered; others died of torture, disease or starvation. Its main architect, Pol Pot, died in 1998. Most senior leaders Khieu Samphan, Iang Sary and Nuon Chea, are still free. But there is a growing feeling that top Khmer Rouge leaders, who are frail and old, may die without being put on trial. Indeed, the steps taken by his government do not match the enthusiasm expressed by Hun Sen in his public utterances.The mandate of the tribunal is specific. It is only supposed to deal with the four-year period when the Khmer Rouge was in power. It is going to deal with ‘senior leaders’ of the regime who were responsible for formulating policies and not every Cambodian who served under the Khmer Rouge. The mandate is on ‘individuals’ and not countries. It excludes alleged atrocities before or after the Khmer Rouge regime. However, there are fears that the tribunal might inadvertently open up the proverbial Pandora's Box: "too many skeletons" may tumble out once the trial starts.The biggest worry haunts China. Beijing has denied any knowledge of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. But China was its main backer, helping it with financial, military and other logistical support to sustain its control over the country. It also had more than 15,000 advisors in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge rule. There are few takers for China's claim that they were out of the loop and did not know what was happening in Pol Pot's killing fields.Hun Sen served as a low-level officer in the Khmer Rouge. He later defected to Vietnam and joined the Hanoi-backed Heng Sary regime as foreign minister. Today, he is China's main man in Cambodia. The relationship between him and China has grown out of mutual-dependence. In 1997, after he staged a coup to throw his coalition partner and the ‘first prime minister’, Prince Norodom Ranaridh, out of power, Hun Sen faced international isolation. Seizing the opportunity to get its foothold back in Cambodia, the Chinese leadership extended support to Hun Sen. The relationship between the two has grown stronger since then; today China is willing to back Cambodia with major financial support to ensure that he remains in power.The prime minister, though, apparently, not a corrupt man, buys loyalty with a mixture of strong-arm tactics and money power. By allowing potential rivals and senior leaders and ministers to make money, Hun Sen has managed to keep the reins under his firm control. China is now Cambodia's biggest investor with over a billion dollars spent in different projects: defence, infrastructure development, mining, textile, hotels, forestry, agriculture, fisheries, oil and gas. It has given over $600 million in aid that was written off on maturity. The no-strings-attached financial and other help that China provides has helped the Hun Sen government legitimise its support-base among the people. "China does most of its work silently," Hun Sen told a group of   western diplomats once when they tried to link their countries’ aid to Phnom Penh with an improvement in its human rights record and transparency in governance.Though some among the older generation may be aware of China's role during the Khmer Rouge rule, most people see it as a friend that is trying to help them in their hour of need. The tribunal can break open all that and bring back memories of the dark days when Pol Pot was being propped up by Beijing. China is worried what the revelations may do to its image not only in Cambodia but also in Asia and the world at a time when it is trying to project itself as a responsible power.Hun Sen has been sensitive to China's concerns in the past. He has been one of the main votaries of the ‘one-China policy’ and closed down Taiwan's Trade and Economic Office in Phnom Penh, barred his officials and ministers from interacting with them and stopped a visit by the Dalai Lama and the activities of the Falung Gong. He will do everything in his power to stop the tribunal from taking off.India has had cordial relations with Cambodia since the late 1940s. Cambodia joined the Non-Aligned Movement soon after its independence in the early 1950s from France. India was one of the first countries to recognise the Vietnam-backed Heng Sarnrin regime in 1980 and participated in peacekeeping operations in Cambodia when it was torn apart by years of civil war. But it has not been able to turn the warm relationship into a strategic partnership. This is because South Block in Delhi has been slow in recognising the former countries in Indo-China like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar as a potential strategic space, unlike China that has been developing its sphere of influence in the region for long. India is just about waking up to the importance of Cambodia and its neighbours in the region. India is at a distinct disadvantage if it tries to rival the fast growing Chinese influence in Cambodia and the neighbourhood. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the region that is in constant need of financial support. The Chinese are willing to offer ready cash to the leadership in Phnom Penh to buy their loyalty. The Indian bureaucracy will definitely not allow a similar approach. However, this should not stop India from offering a more attractive credit line and financial support to Cambodia, especially since Hun Sen, who has travelled to India on a number of occasions, has always had a ‘soft-spot’ for Delhi for its support to him during his political crisis.  Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong is scheduled to visit Delhi in May, 2007. Perhaps the Mandarins in South    Block will finally discover the merit in engaging with Cambodia in a much more meaningful way then they have done in the past.