Wrestling with the Khmer Rouge Legacy
By Tom Fawthrop
History News Network
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal delivered its first verdict in
July against Kaing Guek Euv, alias "Duch," the director
of the notorious S-21 prison, a torture and
extermination center under the rule of Cambodian
dictator Pol Pot. After a 77-day trial, the five
judges--two international and three
Cambodian--unanimously convicted Duch of committing
crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to
thirty-five years in prison.
This landmark decision came only days after the U.S.
Embassy in Phnom Penh celebrated the sixtieth
anniversary of the restoration of U.S.-Cambodian
relations. U.S. officials made no mention of their
critical role in helping Pol Pot's forces come to
power. Nor did the trio of former U.S.
ambassadors--Charles Ray, Kent Wiedemann, and Joseph
Mussomeli--issue any apologies during the two-day
celebration for the Nixon administration's secret B-52
bombings that inflicted massive destruction on the
Cambodian countryside or for U.S. diplomatic support
for the Khmer Rouge from 1979 to 1990.
During his trial, Duch testified that the Khmer Rouge
would have likely died out if the United States had not
promoted a military coup d'etat in 1970 against the
non-aligned government led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
"I think the Khmer Rouge would already have been
demolished," he said of their status by 1970, "But Mr.
Kissinger [then U.S. secretary of state] and Richard
Nixon were quick [to back coup leader] Gen. Lon Nol,
and then the Khmer Rouge noted the golden opportunity."
Because of this alliance, the Khmer Rouge was able to
build up its power over the course of their 1970-75 war
against the Lon Nol regime, Duch told the tribunal.
At these two events--a condemnation and a
celebration--the media paid little attention to U.S.
complicity in the Cambodian tragedy. In fact, the
Khmer Rouge Tribunal was set up in just such a way as
to avoid asking any of the uncomfortable questions
about U.S. policy. The tribunal's mandate for
indictment only covers the period from April 17, 1975
to January 6, 1979, when the Khmer Rouge regime was
already in power.
Any investigation into the time period that covered
U.S. bombing before 1975, which directly caused the
deaths of 250,000 civilians, could open up former U.S.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to liability for war
After the fall of the Pol Pot regime in 1979, U.S.
foreign policy also played a major role in aggravating
the sufferings of the traumatized Cambodian people. As
a result of the decision to focus only on that time
period during the rule of Pol Pot and his regime, the
Tribunal conveniently concentrates all the guilt for
the atrocities in Cambodia on the Khmer Rouge and
little on their enablers. After 1979
The toppling of the barbarous Khmer Rouge regime, which
ended the Cambodian nightmare, should have been cause
for international celebration. But Washington and most
western governments showed no elation at all because
the "wrong country"--Vietnam--liberated the Cambodians.
Instead, western governments condemned Vietnam for an
Washington, meanwhile, joined China in keeping the
ousted Pol Pot regime alive by retaining its seat in
the UN General Assembly through its diplomatic
recognition as the legitimate representative of the
Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge then used its vote,
along with U.S. support, to prevent any UN agency from
providing development aid to a country trying to
rebuild itself from the abject ruins of Pol Pot's "Year
Zero." UNICEF, a lone exception, was the only UN
agency permitted to have an office in Phnom Penh. Why
Why has it taken thirty years to bring Khmer Rouge
leaders to trial? The Hun Sen government's protracted
negotiation with the UN legal affairs department is one
oft-cited reason. But, in fact, Cambodian Prime
Minister Hun Sen requested the UN to set up a tribunal
back in 1986. From 1986-1987, Australian Foreign
Minister Bill Hayden called for Pol Pot to be put on
trial. But the Reagan administration blocked his
initiative, claiming that any attempt to prosecute
Khmer Rouge leaders would "undermine" U.S.-Australian
relations and the united front, with the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations and China, against Vietnam.
Only after the Cold War ended and a Cambodian peace
deal was signed could Cambodians put a Khmer Rouge
tribunal back on the agenda. In 1997, in his human
rights report, UN Special Rapporteur for Cambodia
Thomas Hammarberg included a request from Cambodian
leaders for a UN-aided tribunal. The General Assembly
unanimously passed a resolution that noted for the
first time that crimes against humanity had occurred in
Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, and they needed to be
addressed. This delay in bringing the Khmer Rouge to
trial stretched for nearly twenty years because
Washington blocked all attempts at setting up a
Given this unhappy record of the United States and its
contribution to the Cambodian tragedy, the Cambodia
government had expected that their longstanding request
for the cancellation of a very old debt of $339 million
would receive a sympathetic hearing in Washington.
After all, this debt is based on original loans to the
military regime of General Lon Nol who came to power in
1970 with U.S. military support. Cambodia's government
says that in part, these loans were used to buy weapons
and support that war, which caused great suffering to
the Cambodian people. Much of the $339 million
represents interest accumulated over the last thirty
And yet, for all the recent improvement in
U.S.-Cambodia relations, Washington remains obdurate in
insisting that the current government in Phnom Penh
repay the debt.
To show some measure of respect for the Cambodian
people, the Obama administration should stop demanding
that Cambodians pay for the bombs used to kill so many
of their fellow citizens. Washington should reverse
current policy and cancel the debt. Moreover, as
compensation for people killed and infrastructure
destroyed during the war, the United States should
extend considerably more humanitarian aid to Cambodian
war victims than the few small grants so far provided
to U.S. charities. The United States can't undo all
the damage done by the secret bombing campaign and
support for the Khmer Rouge. But at this late date,
Washington can at least help Cambodia deal with the
legacy of the war and the destructive political force
that grew out of it.
Tom Fawthrop is the co-author with Helen Jarvis of
Getting Away with Genocide? Elusive Justice and the
Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Pluto books distributed in the
United States by University of Michigan Press). He has
reported on Cambodia since 1979 for The Guardian (UK),
BBC, and other media. He is a contributor to Foreign
Policy In Focus, from where it is reprinted with the
kind permission of that organization.
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