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War and Human Rights in Cambodia


The human rights record of the Hun Sen regime in Cambodia has become an issue all the more urgent now in view of the current controversy over how to bring the civil war in Cambodia to an end. The Phnom Penh government is under attack both by the forces of the well-armed Khmer Rouge, still controlled by Pol Pot, and by two much smaller, non-Communist groups: the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, ostensibly led by former Prime Minister Son Sann but in fact deeply divided, and the militarily insignificant National Sihanoukist Army of Prince Sihanouk.

The US and China claim that the Cambodian government led by the thirty-nine-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen is not legitimate because it was installed by Vietnam in 1979 and was then backed by a large occupying force of Vietnamese troops. The US has also pointed out that the government has many former Khmer Rouge officers among its leaders. While formally expressing its opposition to the return of the Khmer Rouge, the US until recently maintained that Pol Pot’s followers would be less dangerous inside the government, where they would have a stake in its policies, than as an armed opposition to it. The US therefore supported what became known as the “quadripartite solution,” under which the Hun Sen government would be dismantled and four parties—the government, the two non-Communist factions, and the Khmer Rouge—would share power until free elections were held.

Under this plan the Khmer Rouge would have partial control over the key ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs. In supporting this solution the US seemed more determined to oppose Vietnam and to avoid offending China, the chief backer of the Khmer Rouge, than to keep the Khmer Rouge from controlling Cambodia.

Since late 1989, however, both China and the US, which has been under criticism for its policies toward the Khmer Rouge, have endorsed the different plan of the Australian government, according to which the UN rather than the four parties would take over the administration of Cambodia on an interim basis and would supervise elections.1 Hun Sen himself has cautiously accepted some of the provisions of the Australian plan, but it is apparent that other members of his government have not.

While negotiations over the Australian proposal are being held among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, China, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union), other negotiations that may affect the Cambodian war are going on between China and Vietnam, as well as between the Hun Sen government and Thailand, through which the Chinese have been shipping arms, food, and other supplies to the Khmer Rouge. Moreover, the pressure on the Cambodian government to reach a settlement is growing, since the Soviet Union and the Eastern European nations, which have been the main source of aid to both Vietnam and the Hun Sen government, have been cutting back on their support.

The question of the legitimacy of the Phnom Penh government remains central to the outcome; and this is where human rights comes in. The critics of the Hun Sen government, including some American officials and Cambodian refugees, have argued that its abuses of human rights are so grave that it does not offer a desirable alternative to a government including the Khmer Rouge.

During the years since the overthrow of Pol Pot in 1979, the situation in Cambodia has posed an ethical question for human rights organizations: How much leeway should they allow a government that has had to start from scratch? Can human rights investigators protest the detention of people without trial, for example, when the courts are just beginning to be reconstructed, and only seven lawyers survived the purges of the Khmer Rouge? How should they balance a government’s achievement of some reforms with their own obligations both to protest abuses and to avoid undermining the officials who are working for reform?

Those were the questions we tried to examine in Cambodia in May, when Asia Watch was invited by the Foreign Ministry to visit Phnom Penh.2 We were repeatedly told during our visit that we were the first human rights organization allowed into the country.3

It has now been eleven years since Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge forces to the Thai border. Helped by extensive Chinese aid and the complicity of many governments, including the US, the Khmer Rouge were able to partly restore their military strength, and today they are the strongest military opponents of the Phnom Penh government. The leaders of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the government set up by Vietnam in 1979,4 were drawn largely from two groups: former Khmer Rouge partisans, including Hun Sen himself, who had fled from the Eastern Zone on the Vietnam border to escape the purges ordered by Pol Pot, and Khmers who had been members of the Indochinese Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, and had fought on the side of Vietnam between 1946 and 1954. With the help of hundreds of Vietnamese administrators and technical experts who came to Cambodia, and with some 200,000 Vietnamese troops occupying the country, the leaders of the new government began the reconstruction of a country which had lost more than a million people, and whose cities, economy, social structure, food supply, land, and legal system were almost entirely destroyed.

Between 1979 and 1982, as millions of Cambodians moved back and forth across the country trying to find their families and return to their homes, Cambodia received substantial emergency relief aid channeled through United Nations agencies. Additional aid was given to those Cambodians who fled to the Thai border during the Vietnamese invasion, and were settled in refugee camps. Some 300,000 people who were denied the status of refugees by the Thai government came under the control of various Cambodian factions, including the Khmer Rouge. The distribution of large amounts of international humanitarian aid in the camps on the border encouraged the growth there of a sizable captive population, which the Thais saw as a useful human buffer against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge forces largely refused to accept international aid, however, since this would have given Western observers some access to their activities. Instead, China became the main source of the arms, medicine, food, and money that the Khmer Rouge needed to rebuild their strength, and they depended on the Thai army to deliver these supplies.

It may seem odd that one of the most murderous political movements in modern history has been revived without serious objection from the US or the other Western powers, or from Cambodia’s Asian neighbors, but the pressures of world power politics, and particularly the desire of the US to placate China and punish Vietnam, worked to the advantage of the Khmer Rouge. Jimmy Carter and his adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski were hoping to improve relations with China and so they tacitly supported Deng Xiaoping’s sponsorship of the Khmer Rouge. The Carter and Reagan administrations both perceived Vietnam as the Soviet Union’s agent in Southeast Asia, as did China, while Thailand feared the presence of Vietnamese troops on its border. The result was that in 1982 the US put pressure on Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann to enter a coalition government-in-exile with the Khmer Rouge, and this coalition rather than the Phnom Penh government was given Cambodia’s seat in the UN. Aid to Phnom Penh from the UN and many other sources was cut off. 5

Since 1982, therefore, the Hun Sen government has tried to carry out the reconstruction of the country with the help primarily of the Soviet Union and Vietnam, and contributions from India, Eastern Europe, and about four dozen nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from Europe, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere.

During this period human rights abuses clearly were taking place. In 1987, Amnesty International published a meticulously researched report entitled Kampuchea: Political Imprisonment and Torture. Based on extensive interviews with former political prisoners and government interrogators now in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, and on press reports, Amnesty documented many cases of arbitrary arrest and detention between 1979 and 1986. It also documented the use of torture by the Phnom Penh’s security forces, including severe beatings, the use of electric shocks, burning with hot irons, and near suffocation with plastic bags. Amnesty estimated that “several thousand” political prisoners had been held without charges in recent years, and it reported widespread use of shackles and the confinement of prisoners in dark cells. The report was denounced by some Western academics and relief workers, who thought it played directly into the hands of the government’s opponents. The government, they said, should have been given more credit in view of the enormous obstacles under which it had to work, and the report did not take into account the serious attempts the regime was making to revive the legal system.6

Since the Amnesty report was issued, the Phnom Penh government has formally outlawed torture, released hundreds of prisoners, and announced a number of legal reforms as well. The Asia Watch delegation wanted to see to what degree the human rights situation had significantly changed. We were also interested in the extent to which all parties to the Cambodian fighting respected the Geneva conventions regulating the protection of civilians and persons in custody during armed conflict.

In two reports on abuses by the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border, Asia Watch found that Pol Pot and the other principal leaders of the Khmer Rouge government were still in control of the Khmer Rouge forces; we heard convincing reports that they were directing military operations from a villa in Trat Province in southern Thailand. The Khmer Rouge, we learned, were forcing thousands of the men, women, and children living in the border camps to carry ammunition and other supplies into Cambodia across the heavily mined no man’s land, making them targets of military attack by Phnom Penh forces. If they refused to take part in such “portering,” they were denied food and medical care.7

A picture of a formidably well-organized and highly repressive movement emerged from Asia Watch’s investigation. Partly because Asia Watch issued these reports, we were hospitably received by officials in the Foreign Ministry, who had read the reports so thoroughly that they called several typographical errors to our attention. We hoped we could move beyond the subject of the Khmer Rouge’s practices to a frank discussion with government officials of the problems of protecting human rights inside Cambodia. As it turned out, we could not.


Before discussing how we tried and why we failed, I should make it clear that the diplomats, relief workers, and government officials we talked to presented us with very different perspectives on Cambodia. From one point of view, the Hun Sen government, in the words of a resident Western European diplomat, has achieved a “minor miracle” in restoring at least some degree of normalcy to the country. Hun Sen’s free-market reforms have brought the economy back to life. There are no longer any shortages of food or basic consumer goods. During late 1988 and early 1989, a popular land reform program turned over state-owned land to peasants, although the shortage of able-bodied men has led to the establishment of “solidarity groups” for mutual assistance in key agricultural tasks such as planting and harvesting. Private businesses are now allowed and seem to be flourishing. Farmers can keep most of their yields; storekeepers pay very low rents. Just months before we arrived, the first privately owned photocopying shops were opened on Phnom Penh’s main street.

  1. 1

    See Stephen J. Solarz, “Cambodia and the International Community,” Foreign Affairs (Spring 1990), p.99.

  2. 2

    The other participants besides myself in Asia Watch’s mission were Kenneth Roth, deputy director of Human Rights Watch; Jerome Cohen, a partner of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison; and Joan Lebold Cohen, a historian of Asian art.

  3. 3

    In fact, the Cambodian Documentation Commission, a private organization with a strong human rights concern, sent a delegation to Phnom Penh in August 1989, headed by Dith Pran and Haing Ngor, subject and star respectively of the movie The Killing Fields, to raise human rights issues with Hun Sen and other government officials.

  4. 4

    The country’s official name was changed to the State of Cambodia in 1989.

  5. 5

    See Eva Mysliwiec, Punishing the Poor: The International Isolation of Kampuchea (Oxford: Oxfam, 1988).

  6. 6

    Michael Vickery, “Cambodia Laying Some Groundwork” The Nation (Bangkok), February 5, 1989.

  7. 7

    Asia Watch, “Khmer Rouge Abuses Along the Thai-Cambodian Border” (March 1989), and “Violations of the Rules of War by the Khmer Rouge” (April 1990).

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