In an angry statement, Prime Minister Hun Sen denied Friday that he was opposed to a trial for two high-ranking Khmer Rouge defectors and said he supported an investigation into the mass killings in the 1970s when the group controlled Cambodia.
Responding to criticism for his statement this week that the defectors should be met with bouquets rather than handcuffs, Hun Sen said his first priority had been to secure peace and that the question of trials was the next order of business.
"My position is that the trial of the Khmer Rouge is a fait accompli and should proceed," Hun Sen said in a statement read by an announcer on national television. He was referring to a case that was opened 20 years ago after the Vietnamese army drove the Khmer Rouge from power. He noted that in a statement welcoming the defectors _ Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea _ he had said explicitly that he could make no guarantees of immunity.
In the statement made Friday, Hun Sen said he had been consistent for years in seeking to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians.
He accused foreign nations of "fake morality" for nurturing the Khmer Rouge in a decade-long civil war against him when it suited their purposes, then criticizing him when he lured them to defect with a promise of national reconciliation.
In a revealing comment about the apparent contradictions of his statements, Hun Sen, who plays chess, said, "The best chess player is the one who knows how to move a large number of pawns in support of each other from point to point to secure victory."
He also said he would have been a "cowardly commander" if he had negotiated the surrenders of Khmer Rouge leaders only to turn on them and arrest them the moment they were in his hands.
Though it does not appear that any arrest of a Khmer Rouge leader is imminent, the two recent defectors may have reason to rest somewhat less easily after Hun Sen's statement. He has many pawns on the board, he is reading the politics of the situation and his options are open.
Feeling the heat, the Khmer Rouge mounted a verbal counterattack Friday, with a spokesman also raising the muddy political and moral issues of the past.
Any trial of Khmer Rouge leaders for the deaths of more than a million people between 1975 and 1979 should also include an examination of "200 days and 200 nights" of American bombing of Cambodia during the Indochina war, said the spokesman, Long Norin.
"If they push for a tribunal, we will dig up the past and we will present our own case," he said. "Then we will go to The Hague together for trial." The World Court is based in The Hague, as is the international tribunal investigating war crimes in the Balkans.
Hun Sen stirred controversy four days ago by appearing to oppose a trial, saying, "If a wound does not hurt why should we poke it with a stick to make it bleed?"
His statement Friday suggested that he had been affronted by an outcry that branded him as soft on the Khmer Rouge. It has been a point of pride for him that he has consistently opposed the movement from which he defected in 1977 and that he has played a major role in its defeat.
He said his first priority had been to secure the surrender of Khmer Rouge leaders, bringing peace to his country for the first time in a generation. Next is the question of how to proceed with an accounting, he said, sounding very much as if he did intend to proceed with a trial.
"What type of court should be set up, national or international?" he said. "Where shall it be located, in Cambodia or abroad? Will they use Cambodian or foreign judges and prosecutors or a mixture of both? Will the trial be based on Cambodian or international laws?"
He said that he is not a jurist and that it is not up to him to decide either whether to go forward with a trial or how a trial should proceed. Nevertheless, Cambodia is far from being a nation of laws; the judiciary still answers to his diktat.
The statements by both Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge suggested that if a trial were to proceed it would involve not only one of history's great atrocities but might also open a re-examination of U.S. policies during the Vietnam War.
In an aggrieved tone, Hun Sen recounted his history of opposition to the Khmer Rouge and the parallel history of Western powers in keeping the movement alive specifically to oppose his Vietnamese-backed government during the 1980s.
During that time, although it remained no more than a jungle insurgency, the Khmer Rouge was allowed to keep its seat at the United Nations. Hun Sen's Cambodian government was treated as an international pariah, although it was the Khmer Rouge that had carried out crimes against humanity.
Then, Hun Sen noted, it was the United Nations that tried to draw the Khmer Rouge into Cambodian politics _ despite his protests _ as part of the 1991 Paris peace accord. Had the Khmer Rouge not decided to boycott the U.N.-sponsored election in 1992, he pointed out, the peace agreement would have welcomed them back into society without a trial _ just as he has done now.
The Khmer Rouge statement Friday took history back to the American bombing campaign in Cambodia, which killed many Cambodians and helped spread the war across the border from neighboring Vietnam. The bombing, which began in 1969, was intended to cut the supply lines of the North Vietnamese army.
The statement seemed to hold the hope that the United States and other countries, facing the skeletons of their own past, might have second thoughts and embrace the proposal made by Khieu Samphan on Tuesday that everybody simply "let bygones be bygones."