The hunt for the "butcher of Cambodia", Pol Pot, seems to have ended with his alleged capture by a Khmer Rouge faction on June 20. But even if the notorious Khmer Rouge leader is produced alive before an international court, he may walk free as Cambodians and the international community are unable to reach an agreement on what kind of trial it should be, and whether there ought to be any trial at all. They are pursuing their own political agendas, and some fear that if Pol Pot talks, he is certain to implicate top Cambodia government leaders in the genocide.
The sudden emergence of Pol Pot rattled foreign countries which supplied arms and money to the Khmer Rouge. Observers say these countries, chiefly China (but there could be several from the West too), want a trial in-camera, inside Cambodia, far from the media glare.
The story goes that Pol Pot was on the run following a recent split in his party. An attempt to escape was foiled by his captors, former loyal subordinates, who want to join the national mainstream and give up guerrilla life for good. Pol Pot, whose brutal regime killed about 2 million Cambodians in a genocide during his 1975-79 rule, is believed to be detained at remote Anlong Veng in Cambodia's northern Preah Vihear province, bordering Thailand.
Ly Thuch, cabinet director of first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, told Outlook in a telephone interview from Phnom Penh of Pol Pot's capture, and that another Khmer Rouge leader, Khieu Samphan, was keeping him under arrest. "It's good for the country. The capture of Pol Pot signals the end of the civil war. There will be no more divisions. It will be one land, one kingdom," Thuch said.
Even if the 69-year-old Pol Pot is jailed, or killed, it would not end the rabid divisions that are tearing the Cambodian coalition government apart. The two main parties, the royalist Funcinpec party of Prince Ranariddh, and the former communist Cambodian People's Party of second prime minister Hun Sen, are preparing for a general election next year, and are wooing factions of the Khmer Rouge to join them. Thuch adds defensively: "We are talking about the Khmer Rouge joining the national community, not joining any particular party".
With Pol Pot's arrest still uncertain, it is too early to pronounce the end of the Cambodian conflict. "We hope to get a photograph of Pol Pot soon," Thuch says. "It's not easy to get it from Anlong Veng. It's not as easy as spending an evening at a dancing restaurant," he added, referring to Phnom Penh's dancehalls where princes and paupers waltz to bizarre tunes.
A former aide to King Norodom Sihanouk, Sina Than, who is now a high-ranking official in the Cambodian national assembly, was less certain about Pol Pot's whereabouts. "No clear picture, yet," Than said. Leng Sochea, deputy director-general, ministry of information, added: "We're not sure if Pol Pot has been arrested. Maybe it's a Khmer Rouge trick, because the faction that claims it has arrested him wants to escape public prosecution".
A veteran publisher in Bangkok, who has followed every move of Pol Pot since the 1960s, feels that he will never be brought before a Nuremberg-type war crimes tribunal. "Pol Pot is sick and is probably dying. He has drips sticking into him and is bedridden. His lawyers will plead that he's just too ill to face a trial," the publisher said. Other observers feel that even if Pol Pot appears before a court, certain Cambodian leaders may not want him to talk. For instance, Pol Pot's testimony could implicate top leaders Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin, former Khmer Rouge cadres who defected to Vietnam towards the end of Pol Pot's tenure.
Hun Sen has said that he fully supports a US State Department-funded project being conducted by Yale University academics to investigate Khmer Rouge crimes, and prepare prima facie cases against the guilty. The project headed by Yale professor Benedict Kiernan has compiled enough evidence to send Pol Pot and his cohorts to jail, but now, the political will needed to prosecute the guilty seems to have vanished.
Last week, the two Cambodian PMs lobbied the UN to set up an international court to try the guilty. But Prince Ranariddh rejected the US efforts. The prince, a son of King Sihanouk, told the US and China not to get involved in what was essentially a Cambodia affair. So, Asia's Hitler may escape a war crimes tribunal and may find himself answering polite questions posed by a Truth Commission that is being planned as an alternative.