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Asia Feature File

Keep or cremate Khmer Rouge victims?

KAMPONG CHNANG, Cambodia -- Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he will call a referendum to decide whether to conserve or cremate the skulls and bones of Khmer Rouge victims that are kept in piles as monuments throughout Cambodia.

Hun Sen has rejected requests to destroy them and says he supports maintaining the remains as monuments to the atrocities that occurred from 1975 to 1979.

Many Cambodians believe that souls of the tortured continue to linger because their remains have not received a proper cremation according to Buddhist rites.


The best known monuments include:

Choeung Ek: A stupa or towerlike Buddhist shrine of some 8,000 skulls erected in 1988 and encased in glass. It is at the Khmer Rouge's primary killing field for Phnom Penh
•  Tuol Sleong museum: Hundreds of skulls on public display at the former torture center of the Khmer Rouge. At least 14,000 people were incarcerated here.

Hun Sen says King Norodom Sihanouk regularly forwards letters to him from people requesting the destruction of the victim's bones, which take random shape and form depending on villagers who have discovered the remains.

"We will do a referendum after the tribunal to decide whether to maintain the remains as monuments or take them down to do cremations," says Hun Sen. "At this time, I cannot definitely agree" to the cremations.

In February, Cambodia's Constitutional Council rejected a draft bill to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Hun Sen said the tribunal draft law will be debated a second time by the Cabinet before June.

Cambodia's who's who

Following Cabinet approval, the National Assembly will have to consider changes made to the draft law. It will then need the approval of the Constitutional Council and the king.

A deal with the United Nations on convening the tribunal has yet to be reached.

Khmer Rouge killings
About two million people died during the reign of the Khmer Rouge  

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot who died almost three years ago, came to power in 1975 after winning a civil war. The regime emptied Cambodia's cities, forcing the entire population into Maoist-style farming collectives. Starvation, disease and systematic executions claimed the lives of about one Cambodian in five.

The Khmer Rouge were not entirely defeated after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, and fought a guerrilla war against successive governments until 1996, when the leadership began breaking up. The movement was finished by the end of 1998.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.