DOCUMENTS unearthed in Phnom Penh this week by historian Steve Heder have provided
new insights into the workings of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and could prove damning
for some of the leaders if they are ever brought to trial.
Heder, a lecturer at London's School of Oriental and Asian Studies, has been researching
the documents at the Documentation Center of Cambodia on behalf of the American University
Law School in Washington.
One of his key findings has been evidence to directly link Nuon Chea to murder and
Chea, Pol Pot's number two and briefly prime minister, has always been a shadowy
He might have hoped his defection to the government late last month would have closed
the door on his past, however the documents are providing hard evidence on what till
now was largely supposition.
Heder said there were two types of documents that show the direct links between the
crimes and Chea.
"There are documents coming up from the zones to the center addressed to Pol
Pot or Son Sen which were copied to Nuon Chea, and Ieng Sary in a few cases, and
which talked about executions and torture in the countryside," he said.
"Secondly the Tuol Sleng confessions, some of which were copied by Son Sen to
other people including Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok and occasionally Ieng Sary.
"Some of these documents, most notably those copied to Nuon Chea, have notes
from interrogators saying these confessions were obtained under torture. And in the
documents particularly copied to Nuon Chea they spoke of food shortages, executions
Heder also said that the blame for the shift in party policy in the latter half of
1976 to one which saw dissention, imagined or real, dealt with by killings and torture,
fell squarely to Chea.
"People at the top including Nuon Chea, Pol Pot and Son Sen made a decision
with profound implications. Contradictions inside the party were antagonistic problems
to be dealt with by absolute methods," he said.
"That meant more killings in the countryside and blood purges in the party itself."
Chea is not the only person to be mentioned in the documents. Also linked to the
crimes and who are still alive are Ta Mok and Keo Pauk. Heder said the documents
show they were not only aware of what was going on - "guilty knowledge"
- but they also had direct responsibility for crimes.
"You combine the evidence of guilty knowledge with other evidence that shows
or strongly suggests that the zone secretaries - Ta Mok and Keo Pauk - had responsibility
for arrest and execution generally speaking."
But for those that are condemned by Heder's discovery, others have so far fared a
bit better - namely Khieu Samphan, but particularly Ieng Sary.
"The documents show there is a distinction between Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary,"
he said. "Whether they had command responsibility over arrest and execution
is more ambiguous.
"The extent that their positions translated into real power which would allow
them to oppose [the crimes] is much less clear."
Some evidence exists to suggest Samphan was in a position to order arrests and executions
but Heder said nothing had come to light to say definitively that he did so.
Meanwhile Heder said that for Ieng Sary, who has already admitted some knowledge
of the atrocities and was a member of the standing committee, there have been some
positives in the research. "There is documentary evidence and testimony that
suggests Ieng Sary helped some people avoid execution," he said.
Heder said that all the department heads in Sary's Foreign Ministry were at one time
denounced as traitors in Tuol Sleng confessions but most survived. "There are
no other cases where that's happened, and some of those former department heads believe
they were protected."
However, against this, Heder said, was the way the Foreign Ministry was often used
as a holding pen for people recalled from overseas or other departments till they
were sent to S-21.
For others lower in the hierarchy Heder said that there was evidence against some,
but none against others. To prosecute those identified would give a "skewed
result". He added that if they were ever put before a court there would be issues
such as them having acted in fear for their lives.
He said many among the rank-and-file did not know what they were getting into. "Much
of the KR was recruited under a false flag. They didn't join up to commit crimes
Whether Heder's research will ever see the light of day in a court room is a moot
"The problem was, and still is to an extent, that the documentary evidence and
testimony necessary to bring a legal case is increasingly available but there is
still a considerable way to go and that will not be done until there is a movement
towards a venue and funding," Heder said. "Real justice ain't cheap and
it ain't quick either.
"What I have been doing is shoestring stuff compared to what should happen if
we were to have a properly funded prosecutorial team following up every lead."
Heder would like to see some more commitment from the international community to
a trial, particularly in light of the Cambodian government's position.
"We have already seen that the Royal Cambodian government and both the Prime
Minister [Hun Sen] and the acting Head of State [Chea Sim] don't hold strong convictions
based on principal on this issue. They are susceptible to pleas, pressures and inducements.
"For this reason it is important for the international community to make their
views known and the same for the Cambodian people."
But in addition to political will there are other practical considerations to be
taken into account.
"The documentary evidence is useful, even essential, for any indictment or trial.
"However, one does not decide just on documents, but on witnesses also,"
"The documents don't answer all the questions but we shouldn't be worried if
we don't find a smoking gun. Gaps [in the evidence] are par for the course.
"Money for a trial would bring a more professional legal effort and those gaps
can be closed."
Heder believes his views will coincide with those of the UN legal experts currently
looking at trial options. He hoped if they did concur it would provide the impetus
to keep the trial idea alive, to be picked up by the international community.
"The UN wheels will continue to turn and it is important that the international
community can provide more money and make sure the wheels are financially well oiled,"
One of the key aspects of a trial would be the clarification of what actually happened
during the Khmer Rouge regime. "A trial will kick in the funding and with more
resources more truth will emerge. In the absence of that we will all be left guessing
how, why, and who was responsible."
Heder said he believed that knowledge may be more important than vengeance. "It
is not absolutely clear that international standards require punishment," he
said. "If there were good moral, political or legal reasons to amnesty some
or most of those found guilty then that maybe the right thing to do."
"And that is where anything from the Second World War to France's colonization
- historical mitigating circumstances - might come into play."
But all that is presupposing a trial.
Heder believed there was the grassroots will among Cambodians to pursue the KR leaders.
"People have a very static notion of what is possible in Cambodia. Traditions
are invented and have to be started at some point in history.
"It is clear there is some basis among Cambodians to start that tradition -
be it young keen Cambodian human rights lawyers, human rights investigators in the
UN center, or researchers in the Documentation Center of Cambodia, or people in the
"There is enough support out there to invent this tradition," Heder said.