Legislators from the ruling Cambodian People's Party have passed a controversial law criminalizing the denial of Khmer Rouge-era atrocities just weeks before the July 28 general election.
The Khmer Rouge were guilty of some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. During their 1975-79 rule, they enslaved the population and forced them to work in rural gulags. Around 2 million people died from execution, disease, overwork and starvation before Vietnam invaded in late 1978 and overthrew Pol Pot's government.
The new law, which will punish people who downplay or deny the crimes of that time, levies a fine and a prison term of up to two years. "Legal entities" such as political parties can also be ruled in breach should their members be found guilty of the offences.
The law was drafted in a matter of days by Cambodian People's Party (CPP) legislators at the insistence of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen in response to apparent comments by the deputy leader of the opposition, Kem Sokha.
In a short audio recording circulated by the government last month, Kem Sokha can be heard suggesting that a notorious Khmer Rouge-era prison, known as S-21 and which is now a genocide museum, might have been a piece of propaganda that Vietnam used to justify its 1978 invasion.
For his part, Kem Sokha says the ruling party has tampered with a recording of a much longer speech and misrepresented his words to tarnish him ahead of the election. The government says it did no such thing, but has refused to release the full recording.
Away from that argument, observers have criticized the "Law on the Denial of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea" as unnecessary, and predict it will be used as a political stick with which to beat the opposition ahead of the July ballot.
Yet the ruling party remains in defiant mode. On Friday, CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun described the law as "good for Cambodia." In recent days other government spokespeople have defended it on the grounds by suggesting that failing to punish those who deny Khmer Rouge-era crimes could unleash chaos.
Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), says the law is a blatant piece of trickery ahead of the election. Proof of that is contained in numerous public utterances by Hun Sen "that he wants this law to basically target one person - and that is Kem Sokha."
"It's very, very political," Ou Virak says of the law. "It has nothing to do with denial of atrocities and the crimes that took place under the Khmer Rouge. It has everything to do with politics before the election."
He also questions why the government will not release the full recording of Kem Sokha's speech.
"I think we have to give the benefit of the doubt to Kem Sokha because we know the government has the clip [and] the government is making the accusation," he says of the dispute over what Kem Sokha did or did not say. "Therefore it is the obligation of the government to come up with the whole piece, not a small section of it."
Education not legislation
Aside from the obvious political element, what is also puzzling is that denial of atrocities, while common in some countries, does not seem to be so common in Cambodia.
In two decades of research, Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the premier organization researching Khmer Rouge-era crimes, has yet to encounter such statements.
"I have never met a person or a survivor that denied that the Khmer Rouge committed horrible crimes," he said. "Everybody believes this - including the Khmer Rouge themselves."
Youk Chhang reckons Kem Sokha's comments - genuine or not - show simply the need for better education about that period, not for additional legislation. Tackling ignorance or denial with laws is a mistake, he says, because "the law does not heal … it prosecutes and compensates."
He worries too that criminalizing free speech will hurt education efforts among the youth, who "should have the freedom to search, to understand, to debate and to find out what's going on," and will have a chilling effect on nascent reconciliation efforts.
"We have worked so hard in the last 34 years to reconcile this broken society," says Youk Chhang. "Different opinions actually provide a distinction between fact and opinion, and even educate the survivors even more - because they were there, they were witnesses, they were victims. So when someone denies or says something differently, they know which one is the truth and which one is not the truth."
Youk Chhang takes issue too with the government's insistence that Cambodia is doing no more than some European nations such as Germany and Austria, which outlawed Holocaust-denial. Those countries, he points out, have a serious problem to tackle in the form of fascism and violence. Cambodia does not.
He also points out a salutary lesson from Rwanda's experience. Its genocide denial law, under whose provisions journalists, academics and politicians have been jailed, has highlighted the potential for abuse and has seen international criticism leveled over the Kigali government's misapplication of the law.
"Truth does not need the law for protection," Youk Chhang says, "and we should not abridge the right of free speech or denigrate the spirit of truth, memory and reconciliation for the sake of the trivial few who may still wander in darkness."