When the infamous Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok died last Friday of natural causes, the laws of nature succeeded in cheating justice. He had been in custody since March 1999; an enormous amount of detailed evidence had been accumulated for use by the prosecution in a UN-sponsored tribunal; and the Cambodian government of PM Hun Sen deliberately delayed the establishment of a UN-assisted tribunal on genocide.

This thwarting of justice not only inflicts anguish on survivors of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. It allows the extermination of more than 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 to be enveloped by history’s ambiguities. Notorious for his hand in the massacre of 30,000 people in a Cambodian district, Ta Mok went on waging power struggles in the jungle for two decades after Vietnamese invasion forces drove the Khmer Rouge out of power in 1979. In 1996, he finally supplanted the Khmer Rou-ge’s leader, Pol Pot. Hun Sen was never eager to have an independent tribunal. China was no less reluctant to remind the world of the horrors perpetrated by its Cambodian protégés. And, after 1979, Washington collaborated with Beijing in backing the out-of-power Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. The geopolitics of Cambodia’s genocide made strange bedfellows.