Thursday, May 1, 2008

He Sure Knows How to Put His Foot in It – or What Was He Thinking?

Three months before the election another stumbling block looms on the horizon for Sam Rainsy. The Foreign Minister sued Sam Rainsy for slander in municipal court in Phnom Penh for his remarks Sam Rainsy made on the occasion of the commemoration the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in 1975.

He said at least two ministers in the current government were cadres of the Khmer Rouge regime.“One of them was a secretary and interpreter for Pol Pot and who is senior minister and Minister of Economy and another is the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs who was the director of Beoung Trabek prison,” Sam Rainsy said. “The director of a prison can point to someone and this person would disappear.”

Keat Chhon is the Minister for Finance and the Economy, and Hor Namhong is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Hor Namhong denied the charges maintaining he was never part of the Khmer Rouge. He did not elaborate what his exact role during those years was. It appears to be indisputable that he was the ‘head of prisoners’ at the Beoung Trabek prison. Usually, the ‘head’ or ‘chief’ or ‘spokesman’ for prisoners acts as liaison between the prisoners and the warden and the guards. Whether Hor Namhong’s function extended beyond that has not been proved.

The former King Sihanouk had made those same allegations naming exactly those persons in 1990, upon which Hor Namhong sued the former king there. He prevailed over the former king, as the court did not find any substance to those allegations. Sihanouk would have had the right to appeal that decision but waived it on the grounds that it might derail the peace process for Cambodia under way in France at that time. Naturally, it was entirely possible that the former king did not have more evidence to make his case. Appeals are meant to review lower court decisions for procedural errors, wrong assessment of presented evidence, or if new evidence is presented that had theretofore not been known.

An attempt at a clarification of the role of those two government officials was made by The Cambodia Daily, a respected newspaper founded by Bernhard Krisher, the former Newsweek correspondent in SE Asia during the Vietnam War era. This article can be accessed here:

Though it sheds some light on that aspect of the Cambodian history the reporters were unable to produce any concrete evidence as to any executive involvement of those two ministers.

As a result of Sam Rainsy’s remarks Hor Namhong filed a civil lawsuit for slander against Sam Rainsy.

Sam Rainsy maintains his remarks claiming that he was only repeating the former king’s words. He also called for the ECCC to take up this case as this issue dates back to the Pol Pot era, which the ECCC is charged with adjudicating.

Sam Rainsy also says he had not mentioned Hor Namhong by name, nor accused him of killing anyone. But his remarks are anything but ambiguous. He clearly accused both men of being Pol Pot henchmen.

In the run-up to the elections in a verifiably heated political climate these remarks are not only gaffes but blunders of the worst kind any politician in his right mind can make. After all, a truly independent court in France had dealt with the matter before. If Sam Rainsy had been a novice on the political scene in Cambodia one might have understood his words and subsequent attempted explanations. But given that he has been a longtime member of Cambodia’s political nomenclature this can only be viewed as amateurish pandering to the older part of the Khmer population and an attempt at enhancing his stature among Western countries. He himself had once before been the target of a defamation lawsuit brought by the Prime Minister, of which he was found guilty and sentenced to prison, which he only escaped by going into exile. A pardon by the King enabled his return to Cambodia’s political life.

Hor Namhong made it public that he would withdraw his lawsuit if Sam Rainsy apologizes to him. This he steadfastly refuses to do, thereby risking his chances of even participating in the election, for if the court decides against him, he might go to prison for up to three years - not a bright prospect for an opposition politician in an election campaign.

Whether both parties to the lawsuit are politically motivated by all this is a question only these two can truthfully answer. Everybody else can only speculate on it – it might be a mixture of both a political and personal nature; the ingredients are all there: hurt personal feelings, vague historical facts, previous court decisions, an election campaign, and efforts to enhance one’s public profile.

Sam Rainsy’s call for the ECCC is a lame diversionary tactic, as he well knows. The ECCC was instituted to try people who committed crimes against humanity during the Pol Pot era. If Hor Nam Hong and Keat Chhun were guilty of those crimes then the ECCC would have jurisdiction. At this time those two people have not been named in any indictment nor has the ECCC indicated that both men will be called before the ECCC.

Promptly, Reach Sambath, the ECCC spokesman, said that Hor Namhong’s lawsuit against Sam Rainsy is not under the jurisdiction of the KRT (Khmer Rouge Tribunal). He explained that the ECCC has a clearly defined power to judge 2 groups of people only: the top leaders and the top persons responsible under the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime for the crimes, which took place between 1975-1979. He added: “Other lawsuits, such as defamation lawsuits or spreading disinformation are not under the jurisdiction of the KRT.” He added that all of us, small or big, including politicians, should let the ECCC operate under the agreement between the government and the UN according to the National Assembly’s approval. We should not tell the ECCC to do this or that.”

Since Sam Rainsy saw fit to repeat Sihanouk's words he subjected himself to the same repercussions that Sihanouk faced, namely a lawsuit. Since this is Cambodia only a Cambodian court has jurisdiction. Cambodian law applies when a plaintiff files a complaint in that venue, no matter whether anybody believes that court to be partial.

And it doesn’t matter whether anybody believes these two people were indeed members of the Khmer Rouge top ranks and committed crimes against humanity. What matters is that any allegation must be substantiated with evidence; hearsay, innuendo, and rumors have no standing in court. The rule of law cuts both ways. People calling for the rule of law cannot be selective in its application.

The argument that Sihanouk would have won the appeal is worth nothing; it is purely hypothetical. Appeals are tricky and only a naïve person can believe those are won easily. His contention that the former king should go to court with him is outright ludicrous. What the king said in 1990 was repudiated by court decision. The former king has no reason to involve himself in events that would undermine his own perception as the father of the new Cambodia. Even though his record during the Pol Pot time is anything but spotless and even his present stature is very controversial, the former king will not speak against the current government, which he praises exuberantly on many occasions.

If Sam Rainsy is taking this chance deliberately, thinking that a verdict against him would make him a martyr, then he is a greater fool than many hold he is. He is running the risk of being incarcerated at the time of the election and his political future is at stake.

The CPP has not shown any inclination in the past to back down from such confrontations. Speculating that it might reflect negatively on the CPP in the elections might prove erroneous; quite the opposite might happen: the population will recognize that there is only one source of power in this country.

Sam Rainsy is in hot waters again because he can't keep his mouth shut when he knows full well that some things need to be treated and words need to be weighed very carefully. He has shown this tendency to run off at the mouth without presenting any evidence in the past. It led to his exile. It might just happen again. Because of his confrontational attitude and unsubstantiated allegations he is treading on very thin ice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said, but I like to contribute that Sam Rainsy and members of his party does not show much knowledge in rule of law as they claimed to know. Expecting people to file a libel charge with the ECCC is totally incomprehensible.

Furthermore, Sam Rainsy doesn't show any knowledge of the appellate court either. There purpose is to only find any error made by the lower court and overturns its verdict as required, and the rule is you can't add any new evidence to the case in question.