PHNOM PENH — On Friday, Cambodia’s parliament will debate a controversial draft law that will punish people who seek to downplay the crimes of the Khmer Rouge era. The government said the law is necessary; critics disagree and said it is politically self-serving.
The origins of the draft law can be found in comments made by Kem Sokha, the deputy leader of the opposition.
In a recording released by the government last month, Kem Sokha can be heard purportedly describing the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 torture and execution center as Vietnamese-inspired propaganda.
Kem Sokha said the government has manipulated his words. The government said it did not.
Whatever the truth, the Draft Law on the Denial of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea will be presented to parliament on Friday.
Under its provisions, those found guilty face up to two years in jail. Legal entities - which commentators say can include political parties - could be liable for the conduct of their members.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy believes the authorities likely edited Kem Sokha's remarks to try to make him look bad as they have done with his public comments in the past. But, speaking via Skype Wednesday to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Rainsy said that does not mean he is opposed to the law against denying Khmer Rouge-era crimes.
"I think Mr. Kem Sokha can be a victim of the same manipulation. And, about the law to punish those who are accused of denial of genocide, I fully, I fully support," Rainsy said.
Others are less enthusiastic and note the timing of the draft law: Cambodians go to the polls next month.
Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the purpose of the law has been made clear by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“I’ve listened to his long speeches on this and he said many, many times that he wants this law to basically target one person - and that is Kem Sokha," Ou Virak noted. "And it’s very, very political. It has nothing to do with denial of atrocities and the crimes that took place under the Khmer Rouge. It has everything to do with politics before the election.”
Ou Virak predicts that the law will create fear and self-censorship among ordinary Cambodians, and hamper fledgling reconciliation efforts.
The government said it will not chill debate and insists that people who deny such crimes must be punished to prevent the country sliding into chaos.
Others find that unconvincing. Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the country’s leading research organization on Khmer Rouge-era crimes. He said that over nearly two decades of research. “I have not met a person or a survivor that denied that the Khmer Rouge committed horrible crimes," he said. "Everybody believed this including the Khmer Rouge themselves.”
Youk Chhang worries the law will limit the need to debate freely and learn the truth behind the Khmer Rouge period - particularly among the young who did not experience it firsthand.
He also takes issue with the government’s line that Cambodians need not fear the law simply because some European nations have legislation that outlaws genocide denial.
Youk Chhang said a similar law in Rwanda, which experienced genocide in 1994, has shown the potential for abuse: in Rwanda’s case, journalists, politicians and academics have been jailed.
“The law does not heal, you know. The law actually prosecutes and compensates. But now we think about reconcile a society that’s been broken for over 34 years. So when you think about reconcile, when you think about development, when you think about a better Cambodia, I think that education and free speech should be embraced,” Youk Chhang said.
But with the ruling party controlling parliament and with Hun Sen pushing for the law’s adoption, it is likely that it will soon be on the books.
Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Bangkok