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by Lachlan CarmichaelMon Nov 1, 8:39 am ET
PHNOM PENH (AFP) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday hailed the work of a Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal as "painful but necessary", despite Cambodian opposition to pursuing more regime leaders.
Clinton praised the nation for confronting its dark past after an emotional visit to Phnom Penh's genocide museum, where she saw photos of gaunt-faced prisoners, dozens of skulls of victims and paintings of people being tortured.
The court "is bringing some of the people who caused so much suffering to justice... The work of the tribunal is painful but it is necessary to ensure a lasting peace," Clinton told young Cambodians at a town hall-style meeting.
In a landmark verdict in July, former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was sentenced to 30 years in jail for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 men, women and children in the late 1970s.
Last month the court indicted four top regime leaders for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in connection with the deaths of up to two million people from starvation, overwork and execution between 1975 and 1979.
But Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told visiting United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon last week that a third case was "not allowed" because it could plunge the country back into civil war.
Hun Sen was himself once a mid-level Khmer Rouge member before turning against the movement.
The tribunal is currently investigating whether to open further cases against lower level cadres.
Clinton, on a two-week tour of Asia, stopped short of expressing support for new trials, saying there was a need for the international community to "consult closely" with the Cambodian government about its concerns.
She said her "highest priority" was to ensure the cash-strapped court had enough funds to proceed with the second trial, due to begin in early 2011.
After a tour of the genocide museum, the main Khmer Rouge torture centre run by Duch in the late 1970s, Clinton appeared to suggest a harder line towards future prosecutions.
"In memory of the tragic suffering of the people of Cambodia and in hope that there will be a future of peace, prosperity and greater awareness of all that needs to be done to move the country forward, including trials, accountability and reconciliation," she wrote in the museum guest book.
She later described the tour of the prison as a "very disturbing experience".
"Countries that are held prisoner to their past never break those chains and build the kind of future your children deserve," she told the town hall-style meeting.
"I was very proud to see firsthand the willingness of your country to face that past bravely and honestly."
Thousands of inmates were taken from the jail for execution in a nearby orchard that served as a "killing field".
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, wiping out nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population.
Clinton, on the first visit to Cambodia by a US secretary of state since 2003, also used her trip to urge Cambodians not to rely too heavily on China.
"You look for balance. You don't want to get too dependent on any one country," Clinton told young Cambodians when asked about China's growing influence in the impoverished southeast Asian nation.
China -- a former patron of the Khmer Rouge regime -- is the country's top donor, with billions of dollars of investment.
Clinton also met with Hun Sen and some of his political opponents, with the notable exception of fugitive opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who faces 12 years in prison if he returns to Cambodia after being convicted in absentia of uprooting border markings and publishing a false border map.