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Will Sihanouk testify in Khmer Rouge trial?

By Verghese Mathews - posted Thursday, 31 August 2006

Ta Mok, a name so familiar to a generation of Cambodians, died in Phnom Penh in the early hours of Friday, July 21, 2006. In detention since his capture in 1999, the much feared, one-legged Khmer Rouge military commander died in a military hospital of complications resulting from a long history of high blood pressure, respiratory illness, cardio-vascular problems and tuberculosis.

While there were those who mourned his death, there were arguably legions who were both truly disappointed and deeply frustrated that Ta Mok had taken along with him, to the hereafter, many dark secrets of the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the dreaded Khmer Rouge (KR) regime.

His untimely but not unexpected death is without doubt a great loss to the forthcoming Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT). He could surely have shed at least some light as to why the KR did what they did to their own people and what unfortunate alignment of the planets motivated their frenzied attempt to reinvent Cambodia and why that dreaded exercise went so dreadfully wrong.


Ta Mok is not the only one to have cheated the KRT of its very limited number of primary sources. The man accused of being most responsible for the crimes, Pol Pot, Brother No 1, died unceremoniously in suspicious circumstances on 15 April 1998 - at a time when Ta Mok had wrested control of the KR from him.

The loss now of such a critical witness like Ta Mok should sound the clarion call to both the UN and the Cambodian Government that the KRT should not be delayed any longer and that every resource ought to be marshalled to accelerate the tribunal process.

Apart from possible deaths of the remaining ageing KR leaders, there is also residual fear in certain circles that some, if not most of them, who live and move freely in Cambodia, may quietly disappear from the country before the trial proper begins early next year. This is not an unlikely event.

Media reports last month, for example, that former head of state Khieu Samphan "had packed up his pickup truck in the middle of the night and left town", quickly gained currency and raised anxiety among those who continue to harbour doubts about the KRT.

A subsequent explanation that Khieu Samphan was merely transporting a bed to his son's house killed further international media interest of the incident but failed to assuage the doubts of the cynics.

Viewed in this context of diminishing primary witnesses, the July 15 offer of former King Norodom Sihanouk, now referred to as Father King, to testify at the KRT tribunal, makes fascinating reading and is truly intriguing.


He declared on his website that he did not lack the courage to appear before the KRT and again pointedly reminded everyone, "My family, my wife's family and many people who supported Norodom Sihanouk were tortured and killed by Khmer Rouge Pol Pot."

Will Sihanouk testify? It would be difficult for Sihanouk not to steal the limelight should he appear at the KRT. Even his worst detractors will grudgingly admit that Sihanouk is an extremely astute politician who has been intimately involved with developments in his country for the last half a century. He is both enigmatic and extraordinary. He also knows how to capture attention.

An important point to note here is the firm belief in some quarters that Sihanouk is very serious and that his was not a frivolous offer. Sihanouk is a man of history and as he looks back at his colourful and eventful life, he may perhaps pause to admit that one of the most universally misunderstood and most trying periods of his life was the period of the KR when he, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath and present King Norodom Sihamoni ended up as virtual prisoners in the palace.

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Copyright: OpinionAsia, 2006.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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