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Tragedy in Cambodia

The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79

by Ben Kiernan
Yale University Press, 477 pp., $35.00

Gecko Tails

by Carol Livingston
Weidenfeld and Nicolson (distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square), 262 pp., $35.00

Propaganda, Politics and Violence in Cambodia: Democratic Transition Under United Nations Peace-keeping

edited by Steve Heder, edited by Judy Ledgerwood
M.E. Sharpe, 277 pp., $24.95 (paper)


As each year—and each day—passes Cambodia seems more perplexing. The King, Norodom Sihanouk, has twice been crowned but now has little power; still, he maintains the aura of kingship and most Cambodians would feel that something terrible had happened if he abdicated or died. The country has two prime ministers running what amount to competitive administrations within one government. But one of them, Hun Sen, is much more powerful than the other, Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose relations with his father are uneasy.

Now the two prime ministers have persuaded the rather reluctant King to give Ieng Sary, the former brother-in-law of Pol Pot, and a leader of the Khmer Rouge, perhaps the most murderous regime in modern history, a royal pardon. No questions asked.

Will Ieng Sary soon take some part in the double-headed government? That is what he is said to be discussing with both Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh while he remains in a secret hideout near the Thai border, still in control of several hundred soldiers, about 20 percent of the Khmer Rouge fighting force, who have come with him. It may be months before we know the outcome. What is clear is that the new government that emerged in 1993 from the UN’s most ambitious peacekeeping effort has become mired in corruption, violence, and deception.

We can learn much about how it became so from the career, and the death last May, of Thun Bun Ly, a Cambodian newspaper publisher and editor who had been critical of the Royal Cambodian Government. Around 10:30 on the morning of Saturday, May 18, Thun Bun Ly left his house in Phnom Penh, and hailed a motorbike taxi. As the bike drove down Street 95, another motorbike carrying two men, one in uniform, sped by, and one of them fired a pistol at Thun Bun Ly. He was hit by two bullets in the chest and a third in his left arm. He fell to the ground and his driver fled.

Thun Bun Ly died in the street. His body was then taken by neighbors to a temple. Later that day, according to reports received by Amnesty International, Phnom Penh policemen came to the temple and, using sticks, dug out the bullets from his body, thus removing the evidence.

Thun Bun Ly had known he was in danger. Several journalists critical of the government were killed in Phnom Penh in recent years and many more have been threatened. Before he left home that morning he told a friend he was worried that he had been followed after leaving the house of Sam Rainsy, the leading critic of the Royal Cambodian Government and the founder of the new Khmer Nation Party, the main opponent of the government apart from the remnants of the Khmer Rouge.

Of the government’s two prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh condemned the murder; Hun Sen, the former Communist who has for years been the dominant man in Cambodia, did not.

Sam Rainsy, who was opening new offices for his party in southern Cambodia at the time, called the murder “state terrorism” designed to stifle criticism of an increasingly corrupt and brutal regime. The US Embassy mildly deplored the killing, and other embassies said nothing at all. Suppression of human rights in Cambodia used to arouse the attention of foreign governments. Not now.

Thun Bun Ly’s life and death reflect the grim events in Cambodia during recent decades. He was born in 1957 and spent his childhood during the relative calm of the Sixties, when Norodom Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War through a policy of “neutrality”—which in fact placed it closer to North Vietnam than to the South.

After Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970, the country was dragged willy-nilly into the Vietnam War, and over the next five years it was largely destroyed. When the Khmer Rouge Communists—a minute force in 1970—took over the country in 1975, they expelled Thun Bun Ly, then a student in Phnom Penh, along with practically everyone else in the city. He spent the next three years working in the fields in the grotesque Stalinist-Maoist experiment that the Khmer Rouge called “Democratic Kampuchea,” which consumed the lives of a million people or more. At the end of 1978 Vietnam overthrew its former Khmer Rouge allies and installed a client government dominated by defectors from the Khmer Rouge. The most formidable among them was Hun Sen, a one-eyed former Khmer Rouge officer, who became first foreign minister and then prime minister. Thun Bun Ly returned to Phnom Penh and worked as an official of the forestry service.

After their invasion, the Vietnamese singled out just two Khmer Rouge leaders as those responsible for the massacre or genocide of the previous three years. They called the regime the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique” and in August 1979 staged a show trial, in absentia, of the “clique.”

The trial was a farce, as was evident from the opening statement by Pol Pot’s and Ieng Sary’s “defense counsel,” Mr. Hope Stevens, described as “Co-Chairperson of the National Conference of Black Lawyers of the United States and Canada.” He opened his statement by announcing, “I have not come from halfway around the world to give approval to monstrous crime nor to ask mercy for the criminals. No! A thousand times No!”

Stevens declared that Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were

criminally insane monsters carrying out a program the script of which had been written elsewhere for them. So that, if it were left to me and the other lawyers of the world who are present here, you would not have only Pol Pot and Ieng Sary standing judgment here; in fairness to them, we would have beside them, as fellow accused, the manipulators of world imperialism, the profiteers of neo-colonialism, the fascist philosophers, the hegemonists, who are supporting Zionism, racism, apartheid, and reactionary regimes in the world,—all these would be standing there with the false socialist leaders of fascist China, awaiting the verdict and sharing the sentence….

Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were quickly found guilty and were sentenced to death in absentia; it was this sentence that was partially annulled recently when Ieng Sary was pardoned. During the Eighties, David Hawk, a former head of American Amnesty, tirelessly gathered evidence to make a case for the regime being arraigned under the Genocide Convention. He was never able to find any state prepared to take up the case, as is required under the Convention. As a result, no legal proof of the guilt of either Pol Pot or Ieng Sary or any other Khmer Rouge leaders has ever been carefully established.

Like many Cambodians, Thun Bun Ly first welcomed liberation from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese, but he came to resent the continuing Vietnamese occupation, which was supported by the USSR, and the harsh regime imposed by the Cambodians Vietnam chose to run the country. Hun Sen’s government soon set up its own secret police; it was criticized by Western human rights groups for arresting dissidents, torturing them, and starving them to death. Thun Bun Ly joined an anti-Vietnamese group and then fled, along with hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians, to one of the refugee camps on the Thai border.

Meanwhile most of the world’s nations were determined that Cambodia be represented in the UN not by Vietnam’s client regime, but by an alliance of exiles led by Norodom Sihanouk, and including the Khmer Rouge. The exiled groups were all based along the Thai border. China and Thailand supplied the Khmer Rouge with arms and money while other Southeast Asian and Western countries built up both Prince Ranariddh’s royalist party, FUNCINPEC, and another, smaller, non-communist group, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF). Thun Bun Ly joined FUNCINPEC.

While the isolated country deteriorated, these three groups, each in its own way, opposed both the Vietnamese and the Hun Sen regime. The Khmer Rouge troops attacked Hun Sen’s army and the Vietnamese forces. The armed forces of FUNCINPEC and the KPNLF were much less effective, but FUNCINPEC set up an underground network throughout Cambodia that was able to circulate criticism of the regime, particularly about its corruption and its intimidation of critics.

After Gorbachev changed Soviet policy in the late 1980s, Hanoi abandoned its attempt to dominate Cambodia and in 1989 withdrew its forces. Peace talks soon began and lasted until October 1991, when nineteen nations and the four Cambodian factions signed the Paris Peace Agreement charging the UN with (1) setting up a transitional administration for the country, (2) disarming the four armies, and (3) preparing elections for a new government that would be internationally accepted. Thun Bun Ly was one of the many who returned to Phnom Penh under the UN repatriation program.

One purpose of the agreement was to remove an impediment to the emerging détente among the US, China, and the USSR. Another was to deal with the embarrassing situation in which members of the UN, including the US, continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge and its exiled leaders as part of the legitimate government of Cambodia. To include the Khmer Rouge in the agreement was widely seen as a compromise with an evil force, but Western leaders argued that it was a pragmatic compromise. There was no other way to persuade the Chinese both to stop supporting Pol Pot’s troops and to recognize the Vietnamese-backed regime, which they regarded as an enemy. The alternative was continuing war.


Ben Kiernan, an Australian academic now at Yale, attempts to explain the monstrous behavior of the Khmer Rouge in his book, The Pol Pot Regime. Unfortunately, in interpreting these awful events, he proves no more reliable now than he has been in the past. When the Khmer Rouge were in power, he was one of their more active apologists, attacking and impugning the motives of writers who charged them with mass killing. In 1978, after Vietnam denounced the Khmer Rouge, Kiernan admitted publicly that he had been wrong. But after the Eighties he supported the Vietnamese-controlled regime. It was obviously better than the Khmer Rouge, but it was cruel, repressive, increasingly unpopular, and no solution for Cambodia’s problems.

In his book he fails to take adequate account of the work of other scholars; indeed his footnotes are notable for their carping, petty criticisms of the work of others. Particularly egregious is his dismissal of, which amounts to an attack on, the life’s work of David Chandler, the dean of Cambodian studies, author of, inter alia, The Tragedy of Cambodian History and Brother Number One, the classic biography of Pol Pot, and Kiernan’s own teacher. Nor does he provide a persuasive historical or intellectual analysis that would help to explain Cambodia’s disasters. Instead, he puts forward the thesis that the central characteristic of the Khmer Rouge regime was racism—directed in particular against the Vietnamese, although also against the Cham people and other minority ethnic groups. Instead of illuminating recent Cambodian history, this argument confuses it. Ethnic and racist hatred of the Vietnamese, and fear of them, have long been widely felt in Cambodia and have been exploited by previous regimes. But the massacres and internal purges conducted by the Khmer Rouge, as the Cambodia scholar Steve Heder and others have shown, were of a different order entirely. Most of the Khmer Rouge’s victims were ethnic Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge leaders drew on Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, and Maoist ideologies in order to identify as “class enemies” the millions of Cambodians who were better educated or even slightly better off than others. The Khmer Rouge displayed a paranoid absolutism reminiscent of Stalin’s treatment of the kulaks and the Great Terror and Mao’s policies during the Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot was not, as Vietnamese propagandists and their friends like to describe him, an “Asian Hitler”—he was an Asian Stalin.

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