KING NORODOM SIHANOUK offended many people's sense of humanity and many Cambodians' thirst for justice or vengeance when he granted amnesty to Ieng Sary from his sentence of death handed out in absentia in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge regime disintegrated.
Ieng Sary was the No. 2 boss of that fanatical Communist movement that caused the death of 1 million to 2 million of its 7 million compatriots while in power from 1975 to 1979. He has remained second in command to the hated Pol Pot in camps on the Thai border, controlling illicit gem and other trades. Their continued insurgency threatens the Cambodian peace that was patched together with great care and compromise in 1993.
Yet all Ieng Sary had to say after his amnesty was, "I have no regrets because this was not my responsibility." His brother-in-law, Pol Pot, did it. No remorse. Just an accord that leaves him in command of his little army and piece of turf and whatever lucrative activities go on there, with the pretense of integrating them all into the Phnom Penh regime.
It must have been bitter wormwood for King Sihanouk to do this. But the rival co-prime ministers, his son Norodom Ranariddh and the one-time Khmer Rouge warrior Hun Sen, agreed. Probably most Cambodians do, and most attentive world powers. This is promised as the beginning of the end of the Khmer Rouge. Another and larger group is still insurgent, presumably still led in some fashion by Pol Pot, whose death was reported and denied. If so, the future killing that is spared and the chance the new regime has to create a nation once again would justify forgiveness.
There is a catch or two. One is that Ieng Sary dares not walk alone outside his little area, lest individuals whose loved ones were murdered take on justice as their own responsibility. The other is that research is going forward by Yale University scholars, underwritten by the U.S. government, to seek evidence in Khmer Rouge documents found in Phnom Penh. Another tribunal using this evidence may yet take place.
So it is too early to say whether Cambodia has adopted as a model the continuing trials of Nazi criminals that still go on in parts of the West, or South Africa's truth commission where truth rather than retribution is the prize. But for the moment, Ieng Sary is a free man, still in some authority. Whether such leniency is worth it will depend on what remains if the Khmer Rouge collapses as promised.
Pub Date: 9/19/96