Following the recent Khmer Rouge tribunal verdict for Duch, the UN-backed court has still been unable to deal with the question of more indictments beyond five leaders currently in custody.
A former Khmer Rouge district chief who could face charges for her role in the regime says five defendants is enough already. But tribunal observers warn that truth and reconciliation will be diminished if the UN-backed court does not expand the number of suspects.
The tribunal is now focusing on its second case, to try for atrocity crimes Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirity, and possibly Kaing Kek Iev. But there are further indictments possible in the third and fourth cases.
“If they just arrest people continuously, there will be much impact, and the situation will change to turmoil and then to war,” said Im Chaem, now a deputy commune chief in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng. “If it just ends [with five jailed Khmer Rouge], there will be no war.”
Researchers say she could be named if the list of suspects for the tribunal is expanded. The names of those under investigation for possible indictment has not been made public.
Speaking from her home in Anlong Veng, Im Chaem did not give a detailed explanation how the country might be destabilized by further arrests, but her warnings were similar to those of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the tribunal's Cambodian prosecutor, Chea Leang.
All have said the more suspects could erode the peace that was brokered in the late 1990s, as soldiers and commanders of the Khmer Rouge integrated into the government.
Former Khmer Rouge leaders now hold key positions in government, from provincial governors to deputy governors, district chiefs, army division chiefs, and deputy regimental commanders, especially in the northwest.
Im Chaem, the former Khmer Rouge district chief of Proneth Preah in Banteay Meanchey province, said the trials of the five Khmer Rouge leaders now in custody would give her a “clear” feeling.
“Other people and myself are just following the speeches of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen, who says only five should be tried, and that others were not involved,” she said. “That is why there is nothing to think about and nothing to fear for my past involvement in the regime.”
“There was war everywhere,” she said of the turbulent past. “So if the leaders are brought to detention and convicted for some years in prison, then how should we feel, the low-level who worked according to orders from the top? They asked us to do something and we did it, and whether the work was deep or not deep, we didn't know.”
Some experts have expressed doubt that the tribunal will be able to bring the reconciliation it seeks, especially in its so-far limited scope. It took years to finish the first trial, of Kaing Kek Iev, or Duch, who was sentenced to a commuted 19 years in prison for atrocity crimes just last month.
“Anyone who was in Cambodia in the late 1990s knows that part of the reason the tribunal got cooperation from Cambodians was because they agreed to only focus on the very top,” said Peter Maguire, author of “Facing Death in Cambodia.”
“If this court can barely try Duch, they have no right to make noise about more trials,” he said.
Other observers say the tribunal should push ahead with as many trials as possible, to widen its impact.
“If the court is capable of completing effective prosecutions and fair trials of the four high level defendants charged in case 2 and the remaining defendants in cases 3 [and] 4, it will have provided an important measure of accountability and helped reveal the truth of Khmer Rouge crimes,” said James Goldston, executive director of the US-based Open Society Justice Initiative, which monitors the tribunal.
The question is whether the government can protect mid-level Khmer Rouge cadre while still focusing on a wider tier of senior leaders. If Duch was tried as a prison chief, can others of his level also be indicted?
If such a relatively low-level figure was tried, said one court observer who asked not to be named, then senior leaders can claim they were mid-level, and outside of the court's mandate to try the senior-most cadre.
Meanwhile, according to one lawyer who requested anonymity, those figures now in custody have invoked rights of silence and have not cooperated with the court, making it hard for judges to seek further testimony.
As for Im Chaem, she said she won't testify at the court.
“I don't know what work there is for me to go for, because I don't know anything,” she said, laughing. “Even if I'm called, I absolutely will not go, because I know nothing.”
Sok Pheap, a two-star general and deputy chief of the government's Border Committee, was a former commander of a Khmer Rouge division in the area of Malai. He told VOA Khmer in a phone interview that he had no knowledge of senior decisions because he was busy on the front lines.
“They ordered me to fight and fire and lay landmines, and I did, not thinking about politics,” he said. “I never even slept in the village. How can I know? I had always been in the jungle and never even knew a mattress or pillow until reintegration.”
Other former Khmer Rouge cadre contacted by VOA Khmer claimed the recent verdict in the Duch trial had not caused concern in former Khmer Rouge areas.
People in those areas “have confidence in the government that it will not mess up or disturb the feelings of those who were the commanders who were just victims of the [senior leaders] of the regime,” said Yim Phanna, a former Khmer Rouge commander based in Anglong Veng. He is the current chief of the district.