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Saturday, March 6, 1999 Published at 18:00 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Analysis: Bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice

Most Khmer Rouge foot soldiers have defected to the Cambodian army

By BBC News Online's Joe Havely

With the capture of the last Khmer Rouge leader, it finally seems that one of the world's most brutal regimes has reached the end of the road.

[ image:  ]
Ta Mok, whose actions earned him the nickname The Butcher, has joined other former senior Khmer Rouge leaders, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, under the control of the Cambodian Government.

Now attention is shifting to the growing international debate over whether and how those responsible for the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge should be brought to justice.

Unlike its attitude to Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea - who defected to the government last December and were given de facto immunity from prosecution - the Cambodian Government appears more determined to make an example of Ta Mok.

International pressure

[ image:  ]
This could be as a result of pressure from several Western countries, including the United States and Britain, which have said that all the Khmer Rouge leaders should be put on trial for genocide.

The desire to see the perpetrators of Cambodia's notorious Killing Fields face justice for their crimes is understandable, not least among the many Cambodians who were victims of the Khmer Rouge's bloody period of rule in the late-1970s.

At the time of the defection of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the Cambodian Government was criticised both at home and abroad for the almost heroic reception it gave the men.

[ image:  ]
But Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said that putting the two men on trial would destroy the country's fragile fabric, and that revenge and retribution would return Cambodia to the dark ages.

Certainly, any trial of Khmer Rouge leaders would be likely to unearth some uncomfortable truths that would spread far beyond Cambodia's borders.

Many members of the Cambodian Government, even Hun Sen himself, were at one time or another involved with the Khmer Rouge.

Pandora's box

Those who have investigated the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime say that many hundreds of people are guilty of involvement, and a trial would open a Pandora's box of accusations and recriminations.

[ image: Pol Pot escaped justice and died in April 1998]
Pol Pot escaped justice and died in April 1998
China, the United States and several South East Asian countries were among those who backed the Khmer Rouge after an invading Vietnamese army, supported by the Soviet Union, drove them from power.

Backed by Beijing and Washington, Thailand funnelled weapons and supplies to the Khmer Rouge through its eastern border with Cambodia. Pol Pot and his senior colleagues crossed the border frequently and Thai businessmen helped the guerrillas dispose of their illegal logs and gems.

It was no accident that, for many years after it was evicted from Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge's major stronghold centred on the area around the border with Thailand.

Cold War confrontation

At the height of Cold War superpower confrontation, the Khmer Rouge was seen as a key player in controlling the spread of Soviet influence in South East Asia, no matter how distastefully it went about it.

[ image: The Khmer Rouge were supplied as pawns in cold war strategy]
The Khmer Rouge were supplied as pawns in cold war strategy
Now in a multipolar world, with Western governments at least mouthing commitments to concepts of "ethical foreign policy", such support might prove less defensible.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has dropped broad hints about Bangkok's role in sheltering Khmer Rouge leaders, but the Thai Prime Minister, Chuan Leekpai, has accused Cambodia of trying to pass the buck.

Thailand - and probably others too - would like to see any tribunal deal only with the years that the Khmer Rouge was actually in power.

But in revisiting such a complex and bloody period of Indochina's recent history, a neat distinction may not be readily achieved.

For those countries unwilling to be seen as having blood on their hands, it could be that Khieu Samphan's plea shortly after his defection, to "let bygones be bygones", might yet become the favoured option.

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