Hun Sen
Hun Sen; drawing by David Levine


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.

International aid workers told us how much more open and tolerant the government had become during the past year, although no elections have been allowed. The number of aid organizations working in Phnom Penh has doubled, and the aid workers are now allowed to live in ordinary houses in the city instead of being confined to a handful of hotels where government supervision is presumably easier. We heard much talk from Cambodians, including government officials, local residents, and expatriates, about an eventual multiparty system and the possibility that elections would be held in 1991, even if no international settlement is reached.

One foreign ministry official we met was clearly intrigued by a proposal he said Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska had made in April for Cambodia to adopt the “Nicaraguan model,” by which the government would unilaterally decide to hold elections and invite international observers. Other members of the government are discussing the possibility of elections to the National Assembly, but they have still not decided whether political parties should be allowed on the ballot, or only individual candidates. The officials we talked to in the Foreign Ministry, at least, did not fear that the Khmer Rouge would put up candidates—Who would vote for them? they asked—but that Prince Sihanouk would have to be allowed to campaign. Despite his international antics and his willingness to ally himself with the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk still has the support of many Cambodians, who see his regime, which came to an end more than two decades ago, as a golden age, the last period of peace Cambodia has known. (In fact, corruption was widespread under Sihanouk and there were occasional purges of the prince’s political opponents.)

The prime minister is undoubtedly Cambodia’s leading reformer. “Hun Sen had glasnost before Gorbachev,” an Asian diplomat in Phnom Penh told us. The liberalization of the regime, he said, had started in 1984. Freedom of movement is formally guaranteed; there is no attempt to stop people from going to the border. Freedom of expression is gradually increasing: the Kampuchean News Service has published reports on attempts at extortion by village militias, and a series of articles in the Kampuchea Weekly on how people were detained without trial for months at a time led to an official review of all such cases. (When we asked senior officials, however, what the Kampuchean Journalists’ Association did, they said it met every two weeks so that members can get instructions on the Party line.) Works of fiction, moreover, cannot be published, allegedly because of a shortage of paper and presses.

There are, we are told, a hundred independent producers of the videos that are shown in movie theaters throughout Cambodia. One director said that while videos having to do with sex or politics were banned, Cambodians liked romantic love stories better anyway. Moreover, he said, one could always get around the censors by inviting them out to lunch. After the years of savage repression of all religious practice by the Khmer Rouge, freedom of religion has been largely restored. Buddhism is again the state religion, and the first legal meeting in fifteen years of Cambodian Christians took place in April.

The legal system, as government officials freely admitted, remains “primitive.” As late as 1980, there were no laws or administrative regulations of any kind. The School for Administrative and Legal Cadre is now giving crash courses to teachers and civil servants so that legal assistance can be provided to those arrested. A new constitution adopted in 1989 outlaws torture and the death penalty. A new criminal procedure code has been adopted. Prison conditions have improved, even according to recently released prisoners who have arrived in Thailand.

From this perspective—one shared by many aid workers and visitors whose main contacts in Phnom Penh have been with Hun Sen, as well as by some of the more thoughtful, more open-minded men and women in the Foreign Ministry and the Cambodian press—the US-backed efforts to replace the current Phnom Penh government with a UN administration, or a coalition government, pending internationally supervised elections, seem misguided. Dozens of local and foreign observers we talked to, particularly aid workers, told us that the government was a liberalizing, well-intentioned, and widely popular one, which has managed to send out of the country both its former Vietnamese advisers and most of the Vietnamese occupying troops, and has established itself as a genuinely Cambodian administration.

The second perspective we encountered puts emphasis not on the reforms I have described but on the war now being fought and the security measures being enforced by the Hun Sen government. It looks at the government’s legitimacy not in contrast to the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 and 1979 but in contrast to the current claims of the groups challenging the regime, including, ironically, the Khmer Rouge, which appears to be making gains in the countryside by criticizing urban corruption and making the most of the wide-spread hostility to the Vietnamese.

The first perspective concentrates on how government ministries have improved social services and on recent guarantees of human rights. The second takes a critical view of many of the officials in the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, particularly such ideological hardliners as the Party’s general secretary, Heng Samrin, Chea Sim, the chairman of the National Assembly, and the interior minister, Sim Song, who are preoccupied with national security and the threat posed by “the enemy.” They rule, their critics say, over a corrupt socialist political system which uses its isolation and the continuing conflict to cover up its own incompetence and abuses. Many of the Eastern European diplomats we talked to, having recently rid themselves of such systems and being wary of all Party propaganda, tended to see Cambodia from this perspective.

The critics also emphasize that the war has spread throughout Cambodia. It is no longer mainly concentrated on the western border where resistance groups are massed in huge camps inside Thailand and in the “liberated zones” that the Khmer Rouge and the non-Communist forces have established inside Cambodia. During our visit, fierce fighting was going on between the Khmer Rouge, which is now estimated to have between 30,000 and 40,000 armed regular soldiers, and government forces in Kompong Speu, a half hour west of Phnom Penh. A relief worker there told us that one day in mid-May shells were falling at the rate of five or six a minute for two hours in the Kong Pisei district. In the Kompong Thom province in central Cambodia Khmer Rouge guerrillas overran the town of Staung in April and held it for two weeks. A series of dynamite explosions, harmless but frightening, rocked Phnom Penh, first on January 6 and again on May 9. It is true that the strength of the Khmer Rouge forces has sometimes been overrated. They have not been able to occupy and hold a province, and in some cases they have been said to fade away in the face of counterattacks. But no one can doubt that Cambodia is in the midst of civil war.

The reforms announced by the government sound less admirable when they are described by some of the more skeptical diplomats we talked to. Official corruption, we were told, was flagrant and widespread, allowing antigovernment forces to make much of the contrast between the lives of the well-to-do and the desperately poor. The average salary of a civil servant is four dollars a month but he pays no rent or taxes, and electricity and water are free, while the food he buys is highly subsidized. On the other hand, a government official who has a large house can rent it to a foreign aid organization for at least $1,000 a month, and he can keep every penny. There is no banking system, but those who can save buy gold. As in so many other countries, the closer you are to the ruling party, the richer you tend to be. (Many of the local Party officials who were in charge of distributing the land kept the best plots for themselves.) Perhaps this helps to explain why the Khmer Rouge selects the local party leaders for execution in some parts of the country.

If more people are talking about a multiparty system, the police are doing their best to stop new parties from being formed. A member of the National Assembly told us that three people had been arrested on May 21 for trying to organize a party. He said that the police had made a “mistake” and that he was sure the men would be released as soon as Hun Sen returned from Hanoi, where he had gone for an unofficial visit. Asia Watch later learned that not three but at least six—and perhaps many more—senior officials and army officers had been arrested for trying to found a social-democratic party.

Some of the Eastern European diplomats we talked to were convinced that all parties to the conflict had a deep and selfish interest in prolonging the war. With the exception of Hun Sen, whom even the government’s most vehement critics respect, the top government officials are regarded as so venal or unqualified, or both, that they would never survive a popular election or be judged competent to take part in a peacetime administration. According to this view, they need the war to stay in power; peace, whether it came about through military victory or through an international settlement, would mean the end of their jobs. Hun Sen has cautiously accepted that the United Nations could help in organizing a settlement; Heng Samrin, the hardliner, has categorically rejected any involvement of the UN in Cambodian affairs.8

If it is true that some of the Phnom Penh hardliners think they gain from prolonging the war, it is also true that the longer the war goes on, the stronger the accumulated resentment of the population grows, and whatever legitimacy the government has acquired weakens. Forced conscription, for example, while not in violation of any international law, has become more draconian and arbitrary. The government has had to turn increasingly to Cambodians for recruits after the Vietnamese troops withdrew last September, and there are periodic raids in Phnom Penh or in the small towns, where young men hanging out in video parlors suddenly find themselves on trucks bound for the front. Doctors in provincial hospitals told us that members of their staff were suddenly missing; they had been rounded up to work at the front for periods ranging from three weeks to three months. Particularly since so many men were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s (one Cambodian told us in some villages there are virtually no men left between the ages of twenty-five and forty), families are extremely reluctant to let their members be taken away to fight.

The government has reportedly used heavy artillery and multibarreled rocket launchers known locally as “Stalin’s organs” in battles for some of the contested border villages, causing many civilian deaths and destruction of homes and schools. The government recaptured Svay Chek and Thmar Puok from Son Sann’s forces in February and March, but the 130mm shells it used reportedly destroyed the villages and many of the residents have moved out. (If government shelling was unpopular, so was the brief occupation by Son Sann’s men, during which at least two women were raped and widespread looting took place.)

The government’s continuing dependence on the Vietnamese is also a major liability. Most people assume that virtually all Vietnamese troops withdrew from the country last September, but it is now clear that several thousand returned between November and January to support the government army when the resistance forces took the offensive. Most of the Cambodians we met spoke of January 7, 1979, when the Vietnamese drove out the Khmer Rouge, as a day of “liberation,” yet some say so with bitterness and irony. One Cambodian man we met started to say “invasion” and quickly corrected himself. “Liberation” is the main chronological reference point: events happened before or after the liberation of the country from “the Pol Potist clique,” and there are many signs throughout Phnom Penh and other towns hailing the tenth anniversary last year.

But the liberators became occupiers, and dislike of the Vietnamese among many of the Cambodians we met was palpable. They were described as predatory people who are out to pillage what they can or quickly make money through shady dealings. The money-changers on the ferries crossing the Mekong River are Vietnamese, and so are the pimps and prostitutes in Phnom Penh, at least according to Cambodians. Cambodians have recalled that in 1975, when they were forced to leave their houses for the countryside, the furnishings they left behind were virtually undisturbed for almost four years; with few exceptions, the Khmer Rouge had no interest in bourgeois goods. The invading Vietnamese carted off radios and refrigerators and slit open mattresses, looking for gold. The government’s continuing dependence on Vietnam is a major complaint of the resistance: Sihanouk gives speech after speech over the clandestine radio station, the Voice of the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea, ranting about the Vietnamese puppets in Phnom Penh and how Vietnam has stolen Cambodian territory.


The treatment of our own group supported both of the perspectives I have been describing. We made it clear in our first letter to Hun Sen that we were interested in the current human rights situation in Cambodia, both in the treatment of political prisoners and in the protection of civilians threatened by the war. We therefore requested meetings with the Ministry of Interior, which has authority over the prisons and police, with the Justice Ministry, in order to discuss some of the legal reforms and their implications, and with the Defense Ministry, to discuss the use of methods of warfare—by all parties to the conflict—that tend to cause civilian casualties.

Under the best of circumstances meetings are difficult to arrange in Phnom Penh. All foreign visitors are assigned a car, a driver, and a guide for a fee of $30 a day. The guide asks the visitors to make a list of the officials they wish to see. He fills out formal written request forms, delivers them personally to the government offices in question, waits for an answer, and then prepares an itinerary. Whether or not appointments come through depends in part on the interest and energy of the guide. In this case, it also depended on the subjects we wanted to discuss.

We were asked to submit questions in writing to the officials of the Interior Ministry. After two days, we were finally told by our guide from the North American Division of the Foreign Ministry, Ly Sorsane, that they had refused to see us. If we were interested in human rights, he said, we should be trying to bring Pol Pot to trial; Cambodian prisons were an internal affair and none of our business. When we finally saw the officials of the Justice Ministry, to which we also had to submit questions in writing, we were told that of the eleven questions they could answer only two, and that the rest, all of which concerned questions about criminal procedure, were under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry.

Our feeling that we were trespassing on dangerous ground was clearly shared by Mr. Ly. He was a senior guide assigned, he said, to high-level delegations. He had been a scholar of Khmer literature and a secondary school teacher, and during the period of Khmer Rouge rule had pretended to be a bicycle repairman. As we passed damaged Buddhist temples, he spoke of having to go out at night as a member of Khmer Rouge work teams, armed with hammers and flashlights, that system atically destroyed pagodas, cemeteries, and other places associated with religion. The Khmer Rouge sent him back to his home province of Kompong Thom, and then to the western province of Battambang, where he had been imprisoned and tortured for almost a year. He managed to escape but was shot as he did so. Whatever the position of his ministry, he said, he and other intellectuals didn’t like the idea of our coming to investigate human rights. All countries had prisons, nobody was being treated the way they were under Pol Pot, and the country was gradually getting back on its feet. If nobody wanted to see us, he implied, as day after day went by with “no program,” it was our own fault. We were the first human rights organization the government had allowed into the country: that in itself showed its openness. We shouldn’t be asking for more.

We heard different views from senior Foreign Ministry officials and advisers to Hun Sen, such as Khieu Kanharith, the urbane editor of Kampuchea Weekly, who was denied a visa to the United States in March. They said they understood that it was in Cambodia’s own interests to be as helpful as possible and that only full investigations by independent groups and not mere government denials could mitigate the conclusions of the Amnesty report by showing that genuine improvements had taken place. Kanharith said he was urging the government to invite other human rights groups including Amnesty International to visit Cambodia, and he still hoped to arrange for international humanitarian organizations to visit “prisoners of war.”9 But the Ministry of the Interior appears to be a world closed off not just to the outside world but to other ministries in the same government. Kanharith was sacked as editor on June 16 in an apparent purge of liberals.

The hostility of the Interior Ministry to inquiries about human rights calls into question the reforms by the Justice Ministry: What good does it do for the Justice Ministry to outlaw torture, guarantee access by family members to prisoners, and set time limits on detention, if enforcement of the laws depends on the Interior Ministry, which has no intention of letting anyone know who has been arrested or how prisoners are being treated? Two of the major prisons, T-3 in Phnom Penh and TK-1 in Battambang, were closed not only to us, but, we were told, to the Ministry of Justice as well. That fact alone would remove any justification for “excusing” Cambodia from the scrutiny of international human rights groups. It suggests there is something to hide, and that behind the closed walls abuses are continuing.10

To say those abuses are insignificant compared to those of the “Pol Potists” during the 1970s is not enough, and yet that was all some government officials were prepared to say. The first stop for us, as for all other visitors, was the Genocide Museum of Tuol Sleng, the high school building where 20,000 people were tortured and later executed under Pol Pot. The Vietnamese found fourteen bodies when they entered Phnom Penh in 1979; the corpses, already decomposing, were photographed, and black-and-white enlargements hang on the walls of the cells where they were found. Visitors are shown four cells before being taken into a series of rooms that have wall-to-wall photos of the people killed, thousands of them, with wide open eyes in gaunt, half-starved faces. The files were meticulously kept, with photographs of the victims taken before and after torture, and their confessions were carefully documented, each more self-accusing and less credible than the one before, as the torture became more painful.

The next stop, also obligatory, is the extermination camp at Choeung Ek, a field about fifteen kilometers outside Phnom Penh. This is where the Tuol Sleng victims were taken, bludgeoned to death (rather than waste precious bullets), and buried in mass graves. Last year, in time for the tenth anniversary of the “liberation from Pol Pot[‘s] genocidal yoke,” a glass-enclosed stupa was erected containing over eight thousand skulls exhumed from the graves. At Choeung Ek, as at Tuol Sleng, visitors are asked to write their impressions in a book before they leave.

One comes away fervently believing that anything is better than this, that every effort must be made to prevent the return of the Khmer Rouge in any form. But then there are discordant notes. As the US government among others never fails to remind us, the top officials of the current government were all military commanders or zone leaders of the Khmer Rouge in the Eastern Zone bordering on Vietnam. They include Hun Sen himself; Heng Samrin, Party leader and chairman of the Council of State; Chea Sim, United Front chairman and head of the National Assembly; and Ouk Bun Chhoeun, minister of justice. Hun Sen defected to Vietnam in 1977. The others stayed there until 1978 when the worst carnage of the entire Khmer Rouge period began, with mass purges of people said to be traitors and Vietnamese spies. Were the current government officials responsible for any atrocities? They might have been. Most experts on Cambodia believe that of all of the Khmer Rouge leaders, the least harsh and least willing to accept central directives were the Eastern Zone commanders. People under their control had more to eat and the people who were sent from the cities were better treated in the Eastern Zone than elsewhere.11 On the other hand, tens of thousands of members of a Muslim ethnic minority group, the Cham, were killed in the Eastern Zone before the defections took place.

Still, all those who defected to the Vietnamese side were relatively junior officers. One of the many inconsistencies of current US policy is that the members of the Phnom Penh government are branded as former members of the Khmer Rouge and therefore beyond the pale, while Khieu Samphan, a member of Pol Pot’s inner circle from the beginning and now said to represent the “moderate” side of the Khmer Rouge, is present at every international meeting on Cambodia, and the US is apparently willing to accept him as a legitimate member of the diplomatic community.

No one we met in the Phnom Penh government vilified the Khmer Rouge as opposed to its leaders. Perhaps officials are reluctant to do so because of the background of their own colleagues, the official hopes for national reconciliation, and perhaps also because of the support that the Khmer Rouge still has in many rural parts of the country. According to the signs at Choeung Ek, the “Pol Potist clique” was responsible for the killings there. But the use of that label over and over again in virtually every conversation with government officials somehow cheapens the horror to which Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek bear witness. One feels that one is being manipulated to hate the Pol Pot clique when no manipulation is necessary.

Iem Panakar, a filmmaker who is now the director of the Cinema Division of the Ministry of Culture, told us he hoped to make a film that would accurately describe what happened under Pol Pot—the grueling evacuation of Phnom Penh with people like himself walking thirty kilometers a day under the hot sun; the huge public works projects including dams and dikes where thousands worked, without the benefit of engineers, in imitation of the gargantuan irrigation projects of the builders of Angkor Wat; and the variations in brutality among different regions. But even if all the actors could be assembled and the logistical problems of such a film solved, Panakar said, there still would be the problem of explaining why people accepted Khmer Rouge control. In films about the Nazis, one sees concentration camps with many guards and high barbed wire fences. The Khmer Rouge didn’t need these instruments of control, he said. “And yet when Westerners ask me, Why didn’t you defend yourself? I can’t explain….”

The Khmer Rouge by all accounts is making headway in Cambodia, not so much militarily as politically. Notwithstanding our own findings that civilians are harshly treated in Khmer Rouge-controlled camps in Thailand, the Khmer Rouge are widely seen both inside Cambodia and along the border as being better disciplined and better behaved toward villagers than either the non-Communist forces or the Phnom Penh government. Again and again we were told that they do not rape women like Son Sann’s soldiers; they do not steal; they pay higher than market prices for rice; and by and large they don’t forcibly recruit young men and send them to the battlefield, as the government does. No one believes that the Khmer Rouge have fundamentally changed or that they would be benign rulers. Before 1975 the Khmer Rouge had a similar reputation for strict discipline and puritanical behavior. Moreover, the rural population, the “old people,” in some parts of Cambodia were not treated as badly as the displaced urban population, the “new people”; so that the return of the Khmer Rouge may not conjure up the same horror in some peasant villages as it does in Phnom Penh or in Battambang.

In view of the massacres carried out by the Khmer Rouge and the continuing role of Pol Pot and other top leaders in directing Khmer Rouge policy from Thailand, the goal of any human rights organization must be to prevent their return. But that goal is not advanced simply by a rhetorical denunciation of the atrocities of the “Pol Potist clique” any more than it is by reciting the virtues of Hun Sen.

Peace in Cambodia will depend to some extent on negotiations going beyond Cambodia’s borders. Only an international agreement can halt the flow of arms to all parties. As the Soviet Union disengages from Vietnam for domestic political and economic reasons, some Vietnamese leaders have begun looking toward China. The talks between Beijing and Hanoi that began in May may prove to have far more impact on the war in Cambodia than the Australian plan.

But the stronger the position of the Hun Sen government at home, the better its bargaining position will be internationally. Hun Sen has made important concessions during the past two years at the international conferences in Paris, Jakarta, and recently Tokyo. He has accepted UN verification of the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops as well as international monitoring of an eventual cease-fire and the principle of internationally supervised elections. Those concessions appear to have been based in part on the assumption that if internationally supervised elections were held today, the current government would win. But if much of what we heard in Phnom Penh is true, time is not on Hun Sen’s side. The hardliners appear to be in the ascendant, the Khmer Rouge have been making major gains, and the Phnom Penh government is being weakened, not strengthened, by its policies on human rights. The government will have a more plausible claim for domestic and international support when no more former prisoners reach the border with stories of being kept in dark cells and shackles in Phnom Penh prisons; when young men are not abducted and sent to fight; when villagers are given ample warning of government shelling and have time to take the necessary precautions; when the legal and judicial reforms sought by the justice ministry are carried out; and when international organizations have a chance to assess the extent of political imprisonment and the conditions under which prisoners are held.

June 21, 1990

This Issue

July 19, 1990