Trials must follow Khmer refugee wave

About 30,000 new Cambodian refugees passed through the Thailand border starting Friday. This time the refugees include some of the last few hundred Khmer Rouge members who are losing the battle with the Cambodian government. The event implies the fading of a decades-old revolutionary movement in Cambodia. On April 16, when Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died, President Clinton said finding war criminals responsible for Cambodia’s killing fields was still an issue. “We must not permit the death of the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge leaders to deter us from the equally important task of bringing in these others to justice.” So far his words have been empty rhetoric. The United States must seize this most opportune time to find those responsible for Cambodia’s 1975 to 1979 genocide.
The United States can start with pressuring Khmer Rouge veterans living in this country. Thiounn Prasith, a 68-year-old who served as a Khmer Rouge envoy to the United Nations between 1979 and 1993, lives in Mount Vernon, N.Y., despite the expiration of his diplomatic status. In September 1995, after learning about his two-year overstay, the State Department said it would deport Prasith from the country. But so far nothing has been done to expel him. Prasith contends that he is just as much a victim as anyone because his family died during the Khmer Rouge regime. The Cambodian Genocide Program estimates that the Khmer Rouge is responsible for killing about 2 million of Cambodia’s 8 million people.
Cambodia’s leaders say Prasith once played a major role in the killing fields. In 1960, Pol Pot summoned Prasith for a secret meeting in Phnom Penh. Many scholars claim the meeting was central in forming the Khmer Rouge. Prasith later served as an advisor to Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s foreign minister. Other evidence implies that Prasith continued participating in Khmer Rouge activities while in the United States. In 1993, Khmer Rouge propaganda sent to sympathizers in Lowell, Mass., had a return address that matched that of Prasith’s at the time.
Although questions remain whether Prasith can be tried for war crimes, it is certain that he would be useful in giving information about Pol Pot’s regime. The United States should be more aggressive in summoning Prasith for information. He seems to want to remain in the country, which could be the strongest point in negotiations with U.S. leaders. Only with some negotiation will Prasith tell truths that implicate specific colleagues.
At a time when hundreds of Khmer Rouge members are joining the 64,000 Cambodian refugees already in Thailand, now is the time for Clinton to act on his words. Besides having a greater geographic sense of where Khmer Rouge leaders are, the United States also has access to a key witness. Such a testimonial source is even more reason for the United States to take the leadership role in trials against the Khmer Rouge. So far the United States has been timid in pursuing Cambodian war-criminals since Pol Pot’s death. If the United States doesn’t take advantage of its present circumstances, its promises will never materialize.