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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia's prime minister said Monday he wants a law to punish people who deny that atrocities occurred during the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, part of an apparent attempt to link his political opponents to the widely despised movement.
The appeal by Hun Sen to Parliament comes ahead of a July 28 election his Cambodian People's Party is expected to win by a landslide. Hun Sen has been campaigning aggressively and has suggested several times that an opposition victory would be akin to bringing back the Khmer Rouge, even though there is no connection between the two.
Hun Sen, an authoritarian elected leader, was once a Khmer Rouge cadre himself, and his political allies include people linked by scholars to Khmer Rouge atrocities. The Khmer Rouge are widely held responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people.
Pro-government media have publicized comments allegedly made by Kem Sokha, deputy president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, that exhibits at the famous Tuol Sleng genocide museum were faked, even though the camp's commander confessed that it was a Khmer Rouge torture center and he was found guilty by a U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal.
Kem Sokha's party says his words were taken out of context.
Last week, Hun Sen suggested that the opposition party shares the philosophy of the long defunct Khmer Rouge regime.
In a speech to villagers in southern Cambodia, he said the Cambodia National Rescue Party was promising voters it would cancel their banking debts if it won the election. He likened the idea to the communist Khmer Rouge's eradication of the banking system when they took over Cambodia in 1975.
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann denied the allegation, saying his party is seeking only to have onerous interest rates reduced.
Speaking Monday at the inauguration of a Buddhist pagoda, Hun Sen called for a law to be implemented to silence people who deny that genocide took place and to ensure that the Khmer Rouge movement cannot return. Top Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive are currently in U.N. custody being tried on charges of genocide and other crimes.
"Anyone who says there was no Khmer Rouge genocidal regime in Cambodia has to be punished," Hun Sen said, adding that similar laws have been implemented in Europe.
Several European countries have Holocaust denial laws which ban the dissemination of materials seeking to deny that Hitler carried out a mass extermination of Jews and others.
According to a recording and transcription said to be of Kem Sokha's remarks, he said the Tuol Sleng museum was created by the Vietnamese, who invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. He said it was not believable that the Khmer Rouge would have allowed evidence to survive if they had carried out atrocities, and that the exhibits in the museum were fabricated by the Vietnamese to discredit the Khmer Rouge and justify their invasion.
Vietnam established the Tuol Sleng museum after the Khmer Rouge hastily abandoned the site, fleeing just ahead of the Vietnamese army and leaving behind a mountain of documentation of their crimes.
Kem Sokha could not be reached for comment Monday but his party issued a statement calling Hun Sen's statement politically motivated and saying that Kem Sokha's words had been distorted.
"Kem Sokha has never denied that there was a Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. He has publicly and strongly condemned that regime because he personally was one of the victimized and he clearly knows about the torture and killing," the statement said. "But unfortunately, some politicians are taking the occasion of the words of Kem Sokha with the aim of manipulating and causing public confusion about him."
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party faces an uphill battle against Hun Sen's well-organized and financed political machine, and is handicapped by having its leader, Sam Rainsy, forced into exile to avoid jail on what are widely seen as politically motivated charges.
While the party is known for being the country's leading pro-democracy force, it has also stirred up ethnic prejudices in the past in a bid for political support, appealing to traditional Cambodian antagonism toward Vietnam, its larger neighbor. Hun Sen was installed as prime minister during Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s.