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Genocide & the Khmer Rouge

In response to:

Putting Saddam Hussein on Trial from the September 23, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

Contrary to Aryeh Neier’s [NYR, September 23, 1993] belief that “it was never clear in Cambodia that the intent of Pol Pot and his associates was to wipe out a particular racial, religion, or ethnic group,” an unambiguous aim was indeed the liquidation of all ethnic Vietnamese in the country, who were first “invited” on the radio to leave, then exterminated systematically by the Khmer Rouge regime. Even this year, the Khmer Rouge has murdered residents of several ethnic Vietnamese villages, making clear on the radio of its continuing genocidal intent, and some 26,000 Vietnamese who returned when the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979 have fled the country for their safety. For those who have yet to visit Tuol Sleng, Pol Pot’s Auschwitz, the Cambodian Documentation Commission of David Hawk and associates has been assembling evidence over the last decade on the vast scale of genocide that ensued when the Khmer Rouge sought to turn back the Cambodian clock to the Year Zero.

Michael Haas
Professor
Cambodia Studies Committee
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Honolulu, Hawaii

Aryeh Neier replies:

My passing reference to Cambodia in an article about Iraq was intended to make the point that the Genocide Convention imposes a difficult standard. The Convention states that it applies only to killings committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical or racial group, as such” (emphasis added). The first difficulty is ethnic intent. The Khmer Rouge were (and are) certainly xenophobic and killed large numbers of Chinese and Thais as well as Vietnamese. But they also killed disproportionate numbers in several other categories, among them Cambodians associated with the Vietnamese Communists, members of the intelligentsia, and Buddhist monks. The scale of their carnage and the diversity of their victims seem to me to complicate the task of ascribing to them the intent required by the Genocide Convention.

So far as the Vietnamese are concerned, an even larger difficulty is posed by the provision of the Convention establishing that the purpose must be destruction of the group. Though the number of Vietnamese killed was large, their survival as an ethnic group was never threatened. A more credible argument could be made, I believe, that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide against the Cham Muslims, a Cambodian minority. Their survival was genuinely threatened.

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