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The Khmer Rouge on Trial: Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry Responds

Heng Sinith/AP Photo
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong in Phnom Penh, August 6, 2010

Mr. Editor-in-Chief:

I wish to respond to an article written by Stéphanie Giry, published on your blog under the title: “Necessary Scapegoats? The Making of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,” as follows:

First, by saying that “He [Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong] was the Ambassador to Cuba for the regime of General Lon Nol,” the writer is really insane and ignorant. The reality is that His Excellency Hor Nam Hong has never worked for the Lon Nol’s regime. On the contrary, he was the Ambassador to Cuba for the GRUNC (Gouvernement Royal d’Union National du Cambodge) led by His Majesty the King Father Norodom Sihanouk during the war against the Lon Nol’s regime.

Secondly, His Excellency Hor Nam Hong has never been a schoolmate with Ieng Sary for a simple reason that they are from different generations.

Third, regarding a 2002 US Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks last summer, His Excellency Hor Nam Hong has already sent a letter of protest to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 18 July, 2011. In her response letter dated 10 August 2011, the US Secretary of State “condemn[ed] is the WikiLeak’s disclosure of classified information [as] an irresponsible and illegal attempt to wreak havoc and destabilize global security.” The cable was, in fact, a story told by an opposition leader to the US Embassy that reported to the State Department.

I wish to request you to kindly publish my letter in full as soon as possible on your blog for your readers’ correct information.

Yours sincerely,
Koy Kuong
Spokesperson
Kingdom of Cambodia
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation


Stéphanie Giry replies:

The Foreign Ministry of Cambodia takes issue with three points in my article, “Necessary Scapegoats: The Making of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,” which argues that the ECCC, the special court established to try the Khmer Rouge, is as much a creature of politics, both Cambodian and international, as of justice. But the ministry provides clarifying information on only one of these points.

It remarks that I misstated Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong’s political affiliation while he was ambassador to Cuba in the early 1970s. I regret the error, and the article has been corrected. The letter’s other two points are inconclusive.

Ieng Sary—the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, who is now on trial before the ECCC—and Hor Nam Hong are indeed “from different generations”: Ieng Sary was born in 1924; Hor Nam Hong in 1935. Nonetheless, they may have overlapped as students at Lycée Sisowath in Phnom Penh, as reported in the 2002 US Embassy cable disclosed by WikiLeaks that I cite in my article. (The cable says, “An undated, unattributed report on file at the embassy claims that: Hor Nam Hong came back to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge took over, but was not killed because he was a schoolmate of Ieng Sary.”)

Ieng Sary attended Lycée Sisowath between 1943 and 1949, after falsifying his birth certificate and pretending to be considerably younger than he was, precisely in order to be admitted to the school. If Hor Nam Hong followed a standard trajectory, he would have entered Lycée Sisowath in 1947 or 1948 and been there during the last years that Ieng Sary was.

I have been unable, however, to find a definitive answer to this question. The school’s records have been destroyed, several foreign embassies in Phnom Penh say they do not have the information, and the Foreign Ministry has not answered my repeated requests that it provide the dates of Hor Nam Hong’s attendance at Lycée Sisowath. The original text of the article has been amended to emphasize this uncertainty.

On the far more important matter of Hor Nam Hong’s role at Boeung Trabek—a Khmer Rouge detention camp for diplomats in Phnom Penh where he was both a prisoner and the president of the prisoners’ committee—the ministry’s letter is even less clarifying. Referring to the same US Embassy cable mentioned above, I wrote in my article:

A 2002 US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks last summer says that Hor Nam Hong and his wife may have “collaborated in the killing of many prisoners.” Last year in France he lost a final appeal in a defamation suit he had brought regarding such crimes.

In response, the Foreign Ministry quotes a letter from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she laments the disclosure of classified information. This is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether the US government ever cast doubt on the veracity of the account relayed in the cable, and the ministry provides no indication that it did. Nor does the ministry offer any information of its own to contradict the account. The fact that it was a Cambodian opposition leader who told the embassy “a story” about Hor Nam Hong’s role at the camp does not in itself make the accusation incorrect.

Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong has been quick to sue for defamation anyone alleging misdeeds on his part, with ambiguous results. In 1989 he sued Prince Norodom Sihanouk in France for implicating him in the deaths of one of the king’s cousins and the cousin’s wife, also the queen’s sister, at Boeung Trabek. The suit was filed while the comprehensive peace talks designed to steer Cambodia toward self-determination after a decade-long occupation by Vietnam were underway. Hor Nam Hong won the case by default when the king failed to appear at the hearings, but in 1991, as peace negotiations were gaining momentum, he reportedly apologized to Sihanouk in order to facilitate the political process.

In 2001, Hor Nam Hong sued the Cambodian reporter Kay Kimsong at The Cambodia Daily for relaying allegations that Keo Bunthouk, a senator and former prisoner at Boeung Trabek, had made on the floor of the Cambodian Senate: she claimed that Hor Nam Hong had sent some of her fellow inmates to the S-21 torture center and that they were never seen again. (A foreign reporter and a foreign editor at the paper were also sued, but they left the country before the trial, for unrelated reasons.)

Even though her statements had also been widely reported in other media, Keo Bunthouk testified during the trial that she never said what the Cambodia Daily article claimed; Kay Kimsong argued that the article was accurate and that in any event he could not be sued for libel for statements made in parliament. He lost. He also lost an appeal in 2005, after a judge had a private meeting with Keo Bunthouk at which, the judge says, Keo Bunthouk again denied making the accusations the reporter claimed.

In 2008, Hor Nam Hong filed suit for defamation in Paris against the Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy. (This is the suit mentioned in my article.) Hor Nam Hong challenged a sentence from Sam Rainsy’s book Des racines dans la pierre (Rooted in Stone) that described “the foreign minister” as “a collaborator of the Khmer Rouge regime suspected of having caused the death of numerous people, including members of the royal family.”

On April 27, 2011, France’s highest court, the Cour de cassation in Paris, found that this sentence was not defamatory. It cited witness statements from former Boeung Trabek detainees. Accounts by some of these witnesses—including written testimony from Keo Bunthouk—alleged that when Hor Nam Hong criticized a detainee at the camp, that person would soon disappear; others seemed to support Hor Nam Hong’s claim that he had no independent authority over what took place at the camp and that he had agreed to become president of the prisoners’ committee in order to avoid being killed himself. The court nonetheless ruled that the “incriminating section” of Sam Rainsy’s book—“which pertains to a general topic about the recent history of Cambodia and the conduct of an important figure during the tragic events that occurred there between 1975 and 1979”—“did not go beyond what freedom of expression allows when it comes to critiquing the conduct of a politician.”

It seems unlikely that further information about Hor Nam Hong will come to light, even in the ongoing trial against Ieng Sary and his fellow Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan before the special tribunal in Phnom Penh. As I mentioned in my article, Hor Nam Hong was among several top officials of the current Cambodian government who, despite being formally summoned, refused to talk to the ECCC’s co-investigating judges during the investigation for this case.

Witness testimony about Boeung Trabek, which at one point fell under the authority of Ieng Sary, has been inconclusive so far. Appearing before the court in early August, a former detainee named Ong Thong Hoeung stood by the account of Hor Nam Hong’s role at the camp that he gave in his 2003 book, J’ai cru aux Khmers rouges (I Believed in the Khmer Rouge). In it, he wrote that while at the time he did not think Hor Nam Hong was a Khmer Rouge cadre, he thought Hor Nam Hong acted like a “faithful servant of Angkar.” (“Angkar,” meaning the “organization,” refers to the Khmer Rouge leadership.)

In late July another witness, a former official in Ieng Sary’s foreign ministry called Rochoem Ton, had told the court, in answer to questions from lawyers for the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologue Nuon Chea, that Hor Nam Hong had been “in charge of” Boeung Trabek. Hor Nam Hong promptly issued a statement chastising the defense lawyers for “stirring up controversy around public figures like myself.” Within days, Rochoem Ton told local reporters that he disavowed what he had said in court. (He has not, however, formally retracted his testimony.)

On August 13, the Nuon Chea defense team filed a motion asking the ECCC’s trial chamber to publicly rebuke Hor Nam Hong for interfering with the administration of justice. The application is pending.


Following this exchange, the NYRblog received a statement from Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong.

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