By Samir Pheng
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent demand that the government pass a law against the denial of Khmer Rouge crimes, piqued my interest here in France.
The law came after acting Cambodia National Rescue Party president Khem Sokha allegedly asserted that Tuol Sleng prison was in fact a Vietnamese invention.
However good our Prime Minister’s intentions, the consequences of such a law should be carefully considered.
Now, let it be clear as the son of a Khmer Rouge survivor, I can only express my deepest sympathy and compassion to everyone who endured atrocities and this article is by no means a defense of Mr. Sokha’s words.
As a French student on the other hand, I cannot help but draw a comparison with France’s abundant laws since 2000 prohibiting the denial of such things as slavery, the Armenian genocide, or the negative role of colonization etc.
In 2005, this stirred an important intellectual movement against the official writing of history. Historian Pierre Nora denounced the Armenian genocide-denial law as an attempt to attract Armenian voters living in France. No, French history does not belong to the French and we might learn something from that experience.
I am dubious about this law because it could prove detrimental to the already fragile state of free speech in Cambodia. The main problem with the law is the restriction or rather the penalization it implies.
While Khmer Rouge history is still open for debate—the ECCC is still judging the culprits and different groups trying to repress history even as the young generation starts to wonder about the past—it is crucial for historians to be able to determine the facts.
To each his own duty: the historian’s goal is to determine history according to his own analysis of the facts. History is in a state of constant debate, a relentless search for truth. What I am trying to say is that politics should not sully this already difficult task.
Politics are, by vulgar definition, about conflict of interests, and by intruding into the field of history, it undermines its legitimacy. History is important to Cambodia especially as we are still in the process of redefining our national identity after the communist era.
As I wrote before, I don’t question Mr. Hun Sen’s good intentions but it is one thing to condemn morally, quite another to punish legally. With the elections coming soon, the focus should be on more serious issues such as unemployment, poverty or forced evictions to name a few. To use Khmer Rouge history as a political maneuver not only hides the real issues, but is also discourteous to the victims. This usage of history sadly reminds us of a part of history we would rather forget.
Samir Pheng is a graduate student at Sciences Po Bordeaux in France.
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