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An Exchange on Cambodia

In response to:

The Burial of Cambodia from the May 10, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

We are all indebted to William Shawcross for his exposé of the hypocrisy and cynicism around the hapless people of Cambodia in “The Burial of Cambodia” [NYR, May 10]. While the West is cynically supporting the criminal Khmer Rouge—all the while pretending not to—in the name of Cambodian self-determination, the Vietnamese are trying to maintain a client regime under the pretext of saving Cambodian independence.

During a trip to Vietnam’s Mekong delta in the spring of 1978 along with other foreign journalists I learned that, in order to maintain cordial relations with the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese government had forced back hundreds of Khmer refugees to Cambodia—to certain death. Hanoi started denouncing the Cambodian massacres only after the Pol Pot regime broke diplomatic relations with Vietnam, charging it with aggression. A matching cynicism is to be found in some of the western governments. In 1980 a senior American diplomat chided me for writing a “terrible” article on Cambodia that could only provide ammunition to Australian politicians calling for derecognition of the Pol Pot regime. In that article I described the scenes of massacres that I had seen in Cambodia.

Nayan Chanda

Bethesda, Maryland

To the Editors:

William Shawcross’s article “The Burial of Cambodia” contains a number of errors of fact, some of which concern me directly, and I would appreciate the opportunity to correct them.

The main thrust of his argument appears to be that both Western writers and the current Kampuchean government have “buried” that country’s recent history.

My first point concerns the description in the West of Pol Pot’s former interrogation center in Phnom Penh, known as Tuol Sleng. Mr Shawcross says: “Tuol Sleng resembled much more a Stalinist prison than a Nazi concentration camp…. Yet I recall no one describing Tuol Sleng as an ‘Asian Lubyanka’.” That may be, but over four years ago, in an article which Mr. Shawcross does not acknowledge although he quotes from it extensively (even to demonstrate the first part of his point), Chanthou Boua and I compared Tuol Sleng to “the archives of Stalinism.” We wrote that journalist Anthony Barnett’s successful request for the “confession” of Tuol Sleng victim Hu Nim was similar to asking “for the dossier of a Tukhachevsky or a Bukharin.”1

The other errors relate to Mr. Shawcross’s allegations that the Heng Samrin government has perpetrated a cover-up of the extensive documentation left behind by Pol Pot’s regime in 1979, because of its own alleged role in that regime’s genocide.

Mr. Shawcross says: “No documents from the Central Committee or from the Party leadership [of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge] were released by Hanoi.” Either Mr. Shawcross is greatly mistaken, or his description of the Heng Samrin govenment (“Vietnamese rule”) is incorrect.

In 1980 and 1981 I obtained copies of six documents from the “Party Centre” of the Pol Pot regime (totalling about 300 pages), thanks to officials of the Heng Samrin government. One of these documents was analysed in detail, and David P. Chandler presented a paper on its contents, at a Conference Mr. Shawcross attended, at Princeton University in 1982. The paper is soon to be published in a book, by the Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations. Dr. Chandler has already published an article, in Pacific Affairs last year,2 discussing this and another such document, also provided to him by me. I referred to (and quoted) one of these, plus a third such document, the Pol Pot regime’s four-year economic plan, in another book published last year, which includes a contribution by Mr. Shawcross.3

As for other confidential documents from the Pol Pot era, such as Party magazines, I also obtained sixteen of these (approximately 1,000 pages) in 1980. Still more materials were made available in Phnom Penh to other scholars, including Americans Gareth Porter and Stephen Heder.

Moreover, as early as August 1979, during what Mr. Shawcross calls the “show trial” of Pol Pot and leng Sary in Phnom Penh, approximately twenty-five extracts from their Party records were widely distributed to the foreign press. I obtained copies in Paris soon afterwards.

As for the written “confessions” extracted from Pol Pot’s prisoners at Tuol Sleng, it is misleading to say that foreign researchers have been allowed merely “to examine the files.” I was in fact allowed to copy five thousand pages of them in 1980. Mr. Heder, who has spent most of the past four years researching under contract to the US State Department, told me he was also able to copy “about 5,000 pages” in 1981. In both of our cases, extensive fees for doing so were waived by the Heng Samrin government.

Further, in December 1982, Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post was able to copy 130 pages of “confessions” by Heng Samrin’s own brother, and others by his brother-in-law have been released as well. (Both were tortured to death in Pol Pot’s prison.)

It is quite misleading to pass over this mass of material made available for study in the West, as “almost the only Khmer Rouge documents to which the Vietnamese have allowed foreigners access.”

Mr. Shawcross’s allegations are based on evidence that is both skimpy and inaccurate. He claims that many former killers have now been “promoted into positions of new authority.” He immediately goes on, as if to demonstrate this: “I met an old woman who described with great passion how the Khmer Rouge murderer of her son was living, unpunished, in the neighboring village.” Well, I participated in that interview, and tape-recorded it. The woman actually said that the killer had “run away” to a neighboring district. This rather suggests that he at least feared punishment, and there was certainly no suggestion that he had been “promoted” to “new authority.” Here is an interesting example of a writer’s memory drifting with his views.

For several weeks in October 1980, Mr. Shawcross and I travelled the Kampuchean countryside, constantly discussing this question. Mr. Shawcross’s single piece of evidence, inaccurately reported, is testimony to what we were able to find.

Those who have been promoted are people like Heng Samrin himself. Mr. Shawcross says they had previously worked for the Khmer Rouge “with varying degrees of diligence.” Evidence may eventually surface that prior to his defection Heng Samrin’s record was a brutal one, but after five years this has yet to be demonstrated (beyond the fact that he was a Khmer Rouge brigade commander until 1977). And in the meantime no attention at all seems to have been paid to what we do know about his pre-1979 activities. Mr. Shawcross might have added, for instance, that Heng Samrin and his colleagues led the biggest uprising against Pol Pot, beginning in May 1978. Their resistance probably saved, at the least, tens of thousands of Khmers from Pol Pot death squads.4

It is false, incidentally, to state that Norodom Sihanouk “had excoriated” the Khmer Rouge even before he arrived at the UN to speak on their behalf in early 1979. On the way there, in Bejing on January 7, 1979, Sihanouk actually claimed that under Pol Pot, “the people were happy, so my conscience is in tranquillity.”

So far as I know the Vietnamese never said anything approaching this, yet Mr. Shawcross has elsewhere criticized them for having “consistently lied” about the Khmer Rouge regime until 1977,5 and he now says they gave it unspecified “support” until 1978.6 Should not the same criteria be applied to Sihanouk, who is an ally of Pol Pot even today?

I should add that although I accompanied Mr. Shawcross on his visit to Tuol Sleng on October 3, 1980, I do not recall the guide saying that “Vietnamese experts” had ordered a cover-up of Sihanouk’s past contribution, nor did Mr. Shawcross mention this to me afterwards or in the ensuing weeks. Nor did he include this information in his extensive reporting of his trip, published in March 1981,7 or in his later published discussion of the Tuol Sleng museum.8 If the statement was made at all, perhaps it was during Mr. Shawcross’s second trip to Kampuchea in 1983, but his article misleadingly indicates that it was in 1980.

I agree with Mr. Shawcross that it is a pity that Western researchers have not been allowed to microfiche all the approximately 100,000 pages of Tuol Sleng documents. But the West does not own the copyright on Kampuchean history. Extensive access to recent archives is very rare anywhere, let alone permission to copy them in their entirely. And historians have hardly begun to analyze the 10–15,000 pages that we have been allowed to copy (with, I might add, little if any restriction on selection).

And journalists, after all, have written sensational stories on the basis of very much less material than that.

Ben Kiernan

Monash University

Clayton Victoria Australia

William Shawcross replies:

Mr. Kiernan seems upset that he was not mentioned in “The Burial of Cambodia.” Had the piece had source notes he would have been; he is mentioned in my new book, The Quality of Mercy. What he does not seem to have understood is that the piece, which was put together from different parts of the book, was principally about the attitudes of governments—both Western governments and the Vietnamese and their regime in Phnom Penh. It was not about the state of Western academic research into the Khmer Rouge.

Among the points I was trying to make is that the Vietnamese government has been cynical, at the least, in regard to the Khmer Rouge. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge began as soon as they won victory in April 1975; refugees in Thailand attested to them. Many more refugees fled to Vietnam but until 1978 Vietnam kept them silent. Through 1975, 1976, and much of 1977, Vietnam publicly praised the Khmer Rouge—its ally—and gave no support to the refugee stories from Thailand. And this despite the fact that there were constant Khmer Rouge attacks into Vietnam itself from 1975 onward. Only in 1978, when open war-fare began between the two states, did the Vietnamese change their propaganda and embark upon the long campaign to equate Pol Pot with Hitler.

Mr. Kiernan writes as if he believes that my trips with him in the Cambodian countryside in 1980 were the major if not exclusive source of my research. They were fine trips, both of them—one lasted five days, the other six—neither separately nor together amounting to “several weeks,” as he writes. I enjoyed both a lot, but they were only a small part of my travels and research for my book. I also returned to Cambodia in 1981 and in 1983.

Mr. Kiernan corrects me for quoting “neighboring village” rather than “neighboring district.” I apologize. But Mr. Kiernan himself seems to have forgotten, rather more seriously I think, that we met together in the countryside quite a few former Khmer Rouge officials who were now serving the Vietnamese-controlled regime. Some may indeed have been blameless. Some seemed rather unpleasant. Mr. Kiernan strongly suggests that because he did not hear my guide from the Foreign Ministry tell me about the Vietnamese experts’ role in setting up the museum at Tuol Sleng, I must have made it up. This seems to me a slight case of folie de grandeur. The conversation took place on my first visit to the prison-museum; Mr. Kiernan was not there. I am sorry he is chagrined that I did not tell him about it.

As for Sihanouk’s words in Peking, he said, inter alia, that the Khmer Rouge had denied Cambodians “the basic rights of humanity: the right to be loved, to choose your wife freely, and to be with your wife and children all the time; to have classical justice with lawyers; to be judged publicly.” Mr. Kiernan says he thinks the Vietnamese have never praised the Khmer Rouge as Sihanouk has. I refer him to the message sent by the Vietnamese leadership to the Khmer Rouge on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1977: “…the heroic people of Kampuchea over the past two years have upheld the spirit of self reliance and have overcome many difficulties in their resolve to heal the wounds of war, restore their economy and stabilize their living conditions…. The Vietnamese people warmly hail these fine achievements of the fraternal people of Kampuchea.”

Today Hanoi says in effect that the Khmer Rouge imposed “the most evil regime since Hitler’s.” I agree that they were dreadful and my point is that woefully few documents on them have been released by the Vietnamese. I am grateful to Mr. Kiernan for correcting me; I should have said that very few documents from the Khmer Rouge party leadership have been released. But what possible reason can there be for this selective and partial release of material? Why protect or conceal any of the Khmer Rouge records? Why not allow academics like Mr. Kiernan or such an excellent investigator as David Hawk full access? Surely that would be the appropriate response to the crimes alleged. As I mentioned in the article, Cambodian officials complained to me that they wanted Mr. Hawk to have fuller access to documents—but their Vietnamese “experts” refused. Why and with what right?

Mr. Kiernan criticizes Sihanouk for his present alliance with the Khmer Rouge. It is sad, indeed. But he might have noted that after January 1979 and before he reluctantly made this alliance, Sihanouk tried several times to make direct contact with the Vietnamese leadership; he was rebuffed. Perhaps one should ask why people like Sihanouk, his former Prime Minister Son Sann and many Cambodians of lesser rank are prepared to join even the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese. Maybe one answer was given by a high-level official who defected in April from the Vietnamese-run administration in Phnom Penh, Sek Yen, deputy director of the Department of Education and Political Theory in the Propaganda and Education Commission of the Communist party’s central committee. According to the Bangkok Post (April 14, 1984) he said he defected to Thailand because of the “intolerable colonialism” being practiced by the Vietnamese in Cambodia.

Mr. Kiernan accuses me of having wavering views. Is that because I am critical of the Vietnamese? My views on the brutal nature of Khmer Rouge rule have never wavered. My first piece for The New York Review attacking them appeared in March 1976. At that time Mr. Kiernan was one of those academics casting doubt on the refugee stories on which such articles were based. Journalists who accepted the refugee accounts were accused of being dupes of the CIA. Since then Mr. Kiernan, unlike many former defenders of the Khmer Rouge, has publicly acknowledged his mistake. But his present response to the criticism of the Vietnamese in The New York Review‘s extract from my book reminds me of the way that some people on the left responded to journalists’ criticism of the Khmer Rouge after April 1975. What a pity.

  1. 1

    New Statesman, May 2, 1980, p. 670.

  2. 2

    Summer 1983, esp. pp. 296–299.

  3. 3

    David P. Chandler and Ben Kiernan, eds., Revlution and Its Aftermath in Kampuchea: Eight Essays, Yale University Southeast Asia Research Monograph No. 25, New Haven 1983, pp. 137–138, 202.

  4. 4

    Chandler and Kiernan, 1983, op. cit., pp. 192–198

  5. 5

    Chandler and Kiernan, 1983, op. cit., p. 255.

  6. 6

    For a discussion of this period, see Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua, Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942–81 (M.E. Sharpe, 1982), pp. 286–304.

  7. 7

    William Shawcross, “Kampuchea Revives on Food, Aid and Capitalism,” Bulletin, Sydney, March 24, 1981, pp. 80–84. This followed another article by the same author entitled “The End of Cambodia,” The New York Review, January 24, 1980, and preceded “The Burial of Cambodia.”

  8. 8

    Chandler and Kiernan, op. cit., pp. 230, 232, 249–250.

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