The Cambodian Genocide and Imperial Culture

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The Cambodian Genocide and Imperial Culture
Ben Kiernan

Published in 90 Years of Denial, a special publication of Aztag Daily (Beirut) and the Armenian Weekly (Boston) in April 2005 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the 1915 genocide of Armenians (pp. 20-21)

As Cambodia approaches the thirtieth anniversary of its fall to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces on April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh and the United Nations are moving to establish a special court to try their crimes. A minority of UN-appointed judges will have a veto over its rulings. The USA does not support these prosecutions. Ending a decade of American measures to promote justice for genocide victims, the Bush Administration has reinstated policies that long opposed any tribunal and aided the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1993. Now a new book, Philip Short’s Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (New York, Henry Holt), condemns not just the Cambodian court but also Khmer Buddhism as a contributor to the disaster. The Cold War’s lengthening shadow has become a silhouette of US culture wars.

In 2003, five years after Pol Pot died in 1998, Cambodia and the UN agreed to hold a tribunal to judge the role of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders in the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians in 1975-79. The top two Khmer Rouge military and security officials have languished in a Phnom Penh prison since 1999, and other former leaders remain at large. Colin Powell’s State Department successfully urged Congress to appropriate $3m. for the new UN-supported Cambodian court, though some wanted to hold justice hostage. Kentucky’s Republican Senator Mitch McConnell insisted on “regime change” in Cambodia instead.

After the 2003 re-election of the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia’s opposition parties ratified its tribunal agreement with the UN. But last October, the US Congress diverted the $3m. it had previously appropriated for the Cambodia court, blocking any American funds from contributing to the UN’s budget for prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders.

The House of Representatives scotched support for the tribunal too. Last March, representatives of America’s biggest Khmer community, in Long Beach, Ca., Democrat Juanita Millender-McDonald and Republican Dana Rohrabacher, introduced House Concurrent Resolution 399 with another California Democrat, Tom Lantos. Their resolution urged President Bush “to provide encouragement and support for the ratification, establishment, and financing of a tribunal for the prosecution of surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.” Fifteen more Congressmen signed on from both parties. However, the chair of the House International Relations Committee, Republican Henry Hyde of Indiana, refused to send this Resolution to the House floor for a vote. In May, genocide survivor Chanrithy Him, author of When Broken Glass Floats: Growing up under the Khmer Rouge, wrote him urging support: “Mr. Hyde, it is time − that the remaining top Khmer Rouge leaders be brought to justice for committing crimes against humanity. Cambodia needs closure and so do survivors in the Khmer diaspora.” She received no reply from Congressman Hyde, who quietly killed the Resolution.

Current Bush Administration policy recalls the earlier era of U.S. support for the Khmer Rouge that began soon after their April 1975 victory. More troubled by the concurrent Vietnamese communist defeat of Saigon, Washington sacrificed Cambodia to a new coalition against Hanoi. Eight months into the Khmer Rouge genocide, President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger visited Indonesia’s then dictator, President Suharto. On December 6, 1975, Ford told Suharto that “we hope to expand” U.S. influence in Asia. Kissinger explained that “China does not have expansionist aims now,” but was opposed to the USSR and Vietnam. Sharing this view, the US accepted China’s support for the Khmer Rouge regime. A deal had been struck; Cambodia was the stakes. As Ford put it to Suharto: “The unification of Vietnam has come more quickly than we anticipated. There is, however, resistance in Cambodia to the influence of Hanoi. We are willing to move slowly in our relations with Cambodia, hoping perhaps to slow down the North Vietnamese influence although we find the Cambodian government very difficult.” Kissinger noted Beijing’s similar strategy towards the Pol Pot regime: “the Chinese want to use Cambodia to balance off Vietnam….We don’t like Cambodia, for the government in many ways is worse than Vietnam, but we would like it to be independent. We don’t discourage Thailand or China from drawing closer to Cambodia.” With this statement to the head of Southeast Asia’s largest state, Washington acknowledged the geopolitics that now authorized diplomatic approaches to succor the Khmer Rouge regime.

U.S. and Chinese support for Pol Pot continued long after Hanoi’s 1979 invasion ended the genocide and established the Cambodian regime that came to be led by Hun Sen. The former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recalled that in 1979, “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot... Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him but China could.” They both did. Washington “winked, semi-publicly,” Brzezinski said, at Chinese and Thai aid to the Khmer Rouge forces. “I do not understand why some people want to remove Pol Pot,” was how Deng Xiaoping put it in 1984; “he made some mistakes in the past but now he is leading the fight against the Vietnamese aggressors.” China gave his Khmer Rouge forces US$100 million each year during the 1980s. American military aid to guerrillas allied with the Khmer Rouge reached $17-32 million per annum.

Citing Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia (1979-89), Washington blocked development aid to Cambodia from the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF, and pressured UN agencies to supply the Khmer Rouge camps on the Thai border. In Rice, Rivalry and Politics, Linda Mason and Roger Brown revealed: “The U.S. Government, which funded the bulk of the relief operation on the border, insisted that the Khmer Rouge be fed… the US preferred that the Khmer Rouge operation benefit from the credibility of an internationally-known relief organization.” The World Food Program handed the Thai army over $12 million worth of food for the Khmer Rouge. “20-40,000 Pol Pot guerrillas benefited,” according to then US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke. Mason and Brown wrote: “The Khmer Rouge had a history of unimaginable brutality, and having regained their strength, they had begun fighting the Vietnamese.”

US economic rehabilitation of the defeated Khmer Rouge extended to a cover-up of their regime’s murder of about 500,000 Cambodians in 1977-78. A 1980 CIA report falsely claimed that the Pol Pot regime had stopped executing people in 1976. Former CIA deputy director Ray Cline made a secret visit to a Khmer Rouge camp in November 1980. The next year columnist Jack Anderson reported that “through China, the CIA is even supporting the jungle forces of the murderous Pol Pot,” which Newsweek reiterated in 1983. In 1989, Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk received intelligence reports of “US advisers in the Khmer Rouge camps in Thailand,... The CIA men are teaching the Khmer Rouge human rights!”

In the diplomatic arena, the USA led most of the Western world to support the exiled Khmer Rouge over the Vietnamese-sponsored government of Cambodia. The Carter and Reagan Administrations both voted for Pol Pot’s representative to occupy Cambodia’s disputed UN seat. In 1982 the Reagan Administration justified the Khmer Rouge flag flying over New York by reference to its “continuity” with the Pol Pot regime. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia’s UN mission for another decade. In April 1989, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, seeking to replace the Hun Sen government, proposed including the Khmer Rouge in a new regime. That August, the Bangkok Post reported, Washington “reiterated its support for a Khmer Rouge role in a transitional government.” A diplomat said the Khmer Rouge “got the US and Western countries to block a Vietnamese attempt to isolate and contain them.”

Inadequate domestic media coverage facilitated US policies that helped the Khmer Rouge. Despite its superlative reporting in many fields, the New York Times, for instance, covered little of this story. Now it has ignored the renewed US opposition to the genocide tribunal. No newspaper, to my knowledge, has yet reported Washington’s 2004 denial of its previously appropriated funds for the UN/Cambodian court. The New York Times refuses to correct its January 3, 2004, assertion that in tribunal negotiations with the UN, “The Cambodian side has been raising conditions and creating delays since 1996.” On the contrary, in 1997 Cambodia’s co-Prime Ministers both proposed a tribunal, appealing for aid from the UN, which pursued the proposal only from 1999.

Instead the New York Times praises a new book judging the Khmer Rouge “innocent” of genocide. Philip Short’s Pol Pot follows the small cohort of Cambodian communists from their student days in Phnom Penh and Paris to their final defeat in 1998-99, largely recounting Cambodia’s tragedy, as Short writes, “from the vantage point of those who created it.” Veteran Indochina reporter Nayan Chanda, reviewing the book for the Washington Post, termed it “an anatomy of the Khmer Rouge nightmare without the cries of its survivors.” By contrast a New York Times reviewer called it “superb, authoritative,” while a cover story in the New York Times Book Review claimed Short “argues persuasively” that Pol Pot “did not… commit genocide,” adding: “Short is no apologist for the Khmer Rouge, but an honest researcher.”

Short, who has opposed a tribunal for the Khmer Rouge, considers them guilty of crimes against humanity, but not genocide because they “did not set out to exterminate a ‘national, ethnic, racial or religious group’.” As his authority for this definition, the book’s UK edition cited “Article II of the UN Genocide Convention,” but Short truncated its definition of genocide: acts committed “with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Quoting selectively, he substituted “exterminate” for “in whole or in part.” In the US edition, Short has failed to correct his error, but has deleted his note citing the Convention, leaving his quotation unverifiable.

Short thus overlooks the case that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide against substantial “parts” of Cambodia’s majority Khmer Buddhist community and of ethnic minorities such as the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham Muslims. He declines to inform readers of the UN Group of Experts’ 1999 recommendation that Khmer Rouge leaders face trial for genocide, having “subjected the people of Cambodia to almost all of the acts enumerated in the Convention.” Rather, Short compares Pol Pot’s violent “dispersal” of every one of Cambodia’s 113 Muslim communities to “school bussing in the United States to achieve desegregation. That, too, involved the dispersal of pupils of one race among those of another.”

In Short’s view, Pol Pot combined communist ideology not with genocidal racism but with Cambodia’s “irrational…cultural heritage.” Blaming Theravada Buddhism and its “demolition of the individual,” Short writes: “In Khmer thought, the fundamental dichotomy is not between good and evil, as in Judaeo-Christian societies.” He takes exotic essentialism way too far, implicating broad social groups in secret Khmer Rouge decisions that victimized them, and he associates Khmer Rouge leaders’ actions with “parallel” crimes of other Cambodian regimes.

Cambodians may not recognize their country in this book. Short opens with a faulty guide to Khmer (Pauk is not pronounced “pock,” nor does Deuch rhyme with “book”). He confuses prahoc, Cambodia’s national fish-paste dish, with the Vietnamese condiment nuoc mam (“fish sauce”). And, while attributing much of Cambodia’s nightmare to its own culture, Short misreads the very Khmer term for customs or mores (charet), which he renders as charek (“stake, post”).

A French-based British writer, Short draws heavily on recent reminiscences by Francophone Khmer Rouge leaders. He considers “so many” ex-Khmer Rouge officials to be “educated, thoughtful people” even though they still consider Pol Pot “a great patriot.” Forty times Short uses the account of former Khmer Rouge minister Thiounn Mumm as a source, without mentioning the fate of peasant children in Mumm’s care in 1979. As a witness reported: “Six of the boys died: they were so hungry that they ate toxic tubers... And Thiounn Mumm said, in front of those boys who were already sick: ‘That is what happens to undisciplined children’.” Short often treats the recollections of other Khmer Rouge equally uncritically.

The book relies unwisely, too, on forced “confessions” written by prisoners of Pol Pot’s Security branch (Santebal), an operation that functioned to produce lies, then death. Having questioned one assertion “extracted under the threat of torture,” Short accepts others more consonant with a Khmer Rouge viewpoint, including the statement of a doomed man he quotes as having “complained” – about Vietnam. Another prisoner, Short writes, “put it somewhat differently” from Hanoi’s position, an inappropriate use of irony that conceals the fatal context. Short introduces other quotations as statements that their writers had somehow “noted” and “acknowledged,” again without revealing that these were “confessions” of tortured prisoners about to be murdered. He labels one an “internal Khmer Rouge report.” Short uses Cambodian documentation as selectively as he does the Genocide Convention.

More importantly, U.S. policy has come full circle. Cambodia has advanced in the schemes of imperial elites from Cold War pawn to icon of cultural inferiority. In the real killing fields, genocide perpetrators walk free, and Washington is again deaf to their victims.

Ben Kiernan, Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University (, is the author of How Pol Pot Came to Power, and The Pol Pot Regime (Yale University Press, 2004 and 2002), and co-editor of The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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