n 'open letter to compatriots' written by former Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan
and released to the press on Dec 30 has been ridiculed by scholars who have spent
many years researching the movement responsible for as many as and possibly more
than 1.7 million deaths during the KR's bloody reign of terror between 1975 and 1979.
Khieu Samphan, former president of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, now fearing a KR tribunal, puts a spin on history.
Samphan's letter, a three and a half page epistle written in elegant French, is his
second since 2001 and an attempt to exculpate himself from responsibility for crimes
committed during the KR era.
In it, at the very least, he admits that the revolution in which he played a major
role was a disaster for the country.
Samphan writes: "...our country must face a painful past of hatred and terror
inherited from a revolution which turned out so unexpectedly as the most radical
and the most violent of all the revolutions that have been known so far and that
has caused so many deaths and sufferings.
"What is my share of responsibility in all this? What have I done that could
have spared [lives], while so many others have perished?"
This statement, in and of itself, is a major breakthrough from those made previously
by Khmer Rouge leaders. In the early 1980s former KR Foreign Minister Ieng Sary was
infamously quoted as saying "some mistakes were made" in reference to the
disastrous KR years in power. An unrepentant Pol Pot, when interviewed in 1997, said
he had "no regrets". Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, now living comfortably
in Pailin, could barely muster a "sorry, I'm very sorry" when he faced
the press at the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel on December 29, 1998, as journalists strained
incredulously to hear him go on and say he was also sorry so many animals had died
during the DK regime.
Samphan's letter goes on to explain what responsibility he had (or did not have)
for the KR tragedy and how it should be viewed. In particular, he says he only learned
of the slaughter at S-21--commonly known as Tuol Sleng, the KR's detention and execution
center in Phnom Penh--from the recent film "S-21-the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine"
by Rithy Pann.
Samphan argues that he was "cloistered" during the KR years in power, that
he had little time to "tour the country" and says "It is easy for
me today to admit that I followed a wrong path--but picking up the right way at the
time was more difficult."
As for the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and other major cities in April 1975,
Samphan says: "My
critical attitude in front of the evacuation of Phnom Penh, for instance, was understood
as an obvious proof of the inability on the part of an intellectual to understand
the demands of the people's struggle. On that major occasion, I did not oppose the
fundamental ways in which power was exercised: I only expressed directly my fears
and comments directly in front of Pol Pot."
Overall, however, scholars contacted by email by the Post remain unconvinced.
American researcher Craig Etcheson, whose two publications Crimes of the Khmer Rouge
and Extraordinary Chambers are to be published in the near future, summed up his
response to the Samphan letter in one word: "pathetic".
But Etcheson felt obliged to elaborate. He wrote: "I would abstract Samphan's
rambling text as follows: 'I knew nothing. Everything was the maximum leader's fault.
And anyway, we did it all to save the country.' If this is the best he can do by
way of preparing his own defense, he is going to need a very good lawyer, indeed.
Identical arguments were deployed by numerous defendants at Nuremburg, and those
arguments didn't save any Nazi's, just as they won't save any Khmer Rouge. As they
say, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. An internationalized court will
not be impressed by such a rhetorical strategy."
French academic Henri Locard, who conducted exhaustive research detailing more than
150 KR detention centers and mass graves around the country, called Samphan's letter
Locard argues "Khieu Samphan was one of the mouthpieces of the regime as is
shown by his numerous speeches broadcast on DK radio. These speeches demonstrate
he must have been fully aware of the criminal policies of the regime, even if the
speeches he read had been--as it is claimed by surviving KR--written by Pol Pot himself.
Here is an extract from the speech delivered on the occasion of the second anniversary
of the 17th April 1975:
In the field of defending Democratic Kampuchea, protecting our Kampuchean Revolutionary
fruits, we are able to do so completely, exercising mastery and without complications
or worries as our union workers, coopperative peasants and various bases, allowed
no enemy to infiltrate our territority or our territorial waters or to sabotage our
Kampuchean Revolution whether from outside or from within.
[...] However, we must carry on the task of defending out Democratic Kampuchea...by
resolutely suppressing all categories of enemies...We must wipe out the enemy in
our capacity as masters of the situation...Everything must be done neatly and thoroughly."
Locard says that by the time this speech was given "...there were more than
one million dead, that is, one out of every eight Cambodians, whereas the country
was a web of prisons and centres of torture and executions...And now Khieu Samphan
claims he had no inkling such mass extermination was being carried out!"
David Chandler, author of Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot and
the more recent Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison,
described the letter as follows: "There's a lot of self-pity in this text and
a lot of evasiveness and slime as [well]. The letter is almost rescued from these
shortcomings by the elegance of his French, and by something very like sincerity
that shines through here and there, and was what many Khmer in the 1950s and 1960s
admired him for..."
On Samphan's alleged lack of knowledge of S-21, Chandler wrote: "Whether KS
knew of S-21 or not doesn't really matter very much. He certainly knew that people
were disappearing from the party, and even took over some of their positions. He
knew that Pol Pot et al were always talking about traitors. He had twenty-five years
after DK was driven from power to find out something about the regime if doing so
ever interested him."
So, with the wheels turning snail-like on the plan to establish a KR Tribunal, does
Khieu Samphan's letter have any larger significance?
"He raises more questions than he answers," writes Locard. "He is
prepared for more dialogue and hopefully more enlightenment and this is why the letter
matters. And I believe the man could become a good source to lift the veil from still
darker corners of the DK regime. The father clearly attempts at being more humane
and certainly less dogmatic than in his younger days."
"...this text is essentially a public relations gambit, attempting to garner
public sympathy," writes Etcheson, "and PR will be of precious little avail
if he should find himself facing a genocide tribunal.
"On the other hand, given the particulars of Samphan's case, he probably has
a better chance of prevailing in court than do any of the other prime suspects. But
even so, the evidence of his complicity in the crimes of the Khmer Rouge is so compelling
that he has little chance of prevailing unless he is able to retain the services
of a defense attorney who has experience in defending against charges and evidence
of this complexity."
Etcheson notes that Samphan may be lucky as attorneys with this kind of experience
exist and would be keen to take on his case.
"The only question is whether Samphan has the wit to seek out one of them,"
concludes Etcheson. "Perhaps no one has told him yet. But the Extraordinary
Chambers will pay for his attorney if he cannot afford to hire one himself."