The leader of Cambodia’s opposition party plans to sue the country’s prime minister in the International Criminal Court over a failed plan to militarize the country’s border after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
“I will not file a complaint to get money for myself,” Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday. “I will file the complaint to seek justice for the entire population of Cambodia.”
Known as K5, the plan has been described as an attempt to build a kind of “Berlin Wall” on the Thai border in an effort to prevent the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge and other guerillas from reestablishing their bases and infiltrating Cambodia after their defeat by the Vietnamese in 1979.
While K5 was never completed, it’s estimated that up to a million Cambodian workers were pressed into duty as slave laborers to clear the land for the proposed fortifications.
Thousands of Cambodians and ethnic Chinese died from disease or were killed or disabled by land mines as they labored on the ill-conceived project, which was bedeviled by corruption and mismanagement.
Sam Rainsy wrote on his Facebook on Feb. 7, that hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were forcibly sent to help build the "strategic" K5 Wall along the border with Thailand.
Many never returned, and only their ashes were returned to their families, he wrote in the post, adding that he is in the process of collecting more evidence and witness testimonies.
After his investigation is complete, he then plans to file a case with the ICC.
The ICC has convicted only 39 individuals since it was established in 1998, and Sam Rainsy’s case appears to be a long shot. But the attempt reflects the rising tensions between Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Sam Rainsy and the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
‘Sam Rainsy has been cornered’
Hun Sen’s own previous involvement with the Khmer Rouge is clouded in secrecy, and his relationship with Vietnam has become a potent political issue as the opposition has attempted to paint him as Hanoi’s stooge.
Sam Rainsy has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest for a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008, and he has been convicted in several court cases brought by members of the CPP.
In October, Hun Sen ordered police, immigration, and aviation authorities to "use all ways and means" to prevent the opposition leader from returning to the country, as Sam Rainsy has pledged to do before the country’s elections.
In January, Hun Sen filed a defamation suit against Sam Rainsy for remarks made during a Jan. 14 speech in Paris in which the opposition leader accused the Cambodian strongman of giving a $1 million bribe to rising opposition social media star Thy Sovantha to persuade her to switch loyalties to the ruling party.
Despite the legal battles, Sam Rainsy told RFA he still holds out hope for a reconciliation.
“We need to remind ourselves that our country has lost some land to foreigners,” he said. “We have been taken advantage of, looked down on, and exploited by foreigners. We must not fight or kill each other.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan threw cold water on the reconciliation notion.
“Sam Rainsy has been cornered," he told RFA. "His political life is numbered now.”
To build K5, the Vietnamese military command in Cambodia began hacking a path through the jungle along the border with the intent to mine and fortify the border in 1984.
At the time, Hun Sen was a rising figure in the Vietnamese-installed government that ruled the country. In early 1985 he was elevated to the post of prime minister.
The late Sin Sen, who was deputy Interior Minister for the People’s Republic of Kampuchea—as the country was known at the time—has said that Hun Sen ran the operation.
“K5 was led by Hun Sen. He was assigned the responsibility by Vietnam,” Sin Sen said according to the 2015 report “30 Years of Hun Sen” written by the New York-based investigative nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch.
Reported by Vuthy Tha for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.