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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khieu Samphan's 'Mr Nice Guy' tales hard to swallow

Khieu Samphan's 'Mr Nice Guy' tales hard to swallow

Khieu Samphan's 'Mr Nice Guy' tales hard to swallow


L'histoire récente du Cambodge et mes prises de position

Khieu Samphan ... "his regrets and desperation, even if genuine, have taken 27 years and the threat of a tribunal to reach the surface."

In a pre-emptive preface to this truncated, fluent and self-important memoir, the

radical lawyer Jacques Verges claims that Khieu Samphan never belonged to the "directorate"

of the Khmer Rouge, that he was merely a "fellow traveler" (compagnon de

route) and that in view of "his functions at the summit of the State"-

a position seldom attained by fellow travelers - he cannot be "objectively"

guilty of crimes committed by anyone else.

The memoir demonstrates pretty conclusively without intending to do so that the first

two statements are false. The third assertion awaits the judgement of the tribunal.

Samphan opens his book in the late 1950s, when he edited a left-wing newspaper in

Phnom Penh. In those days, he was understandably fearful of US global power. He was

also angered by social injustice and corruption. Some of his editorials offended

Prince Sihanouk. In 1959 Samphan was beaten, stripped and photographed in the street

by the Prince's secret police. He doesn't mention this humiliation in his memoir.

He described it at the time as "obviously fascist, with imperialist overtones".

In 1962, Samphan and several other left-wing figures were hand-picked by Sihanouk

as candidates for the one-party National Assembly, along with a slate of more conservative

candidates beholden to the Prince. Samphan served briefly as a junior minister. He

was re-elected in 1966 with an increased majority, having endeared himself to his

rural constituents south of Phnom Penh. In those days, Samphan was honest, assiduous

and a good listener, qualities that set him apart from most Cambodian politicians

then and since, and earned him an enviable reputation among students and the rural


In April l967, in one of Sihanouk's periodic lunges against the left, Samphan and

a fellow deputy, Hou Youn, were threatened with arrest. Aided by members of the Communist

Party of Kampuchea (CPK), which Samphan claims he knew nothing about, the two men

were hustled into the backwoods of Kampong Speu, under the benevolent protection

of Ta Mok. Their supporters in Phnom Penh were convinced they had been killed. When

another Assemblyman, Hu Nim, fled Phnom Penh in 1968, the exiles became known as

the "three ghosts". Samphan fails to say why the CPK thought the "ghosts"

were worth protecting. It should be clear to his readers, however, that his exile

was part of a process that was to continue for over thirty years, whereby he was

used by his superiors in the Khmer Rouge, long after Hou Youn and Hu Nim had both

been purged, for purposes he never questioned, seems largely to have enjoyed, and

has only recently begun unconvincingly to regret.

Chapter 4, "What I Saw, Heard and Felt in the Countryside" (pp 37-43) describes

the months when he and Hou Youn were cooped up in an isolated village, not knowing

what would happen to them next. The two of them, he writes, spent "hours on

end stretched out on the floor, staring at the ceiling". These pages ring true,

as does Samphan's affection for the impoverished people who took care of them. He

calls the months "sad and revivifying" - sad because he was separated from

his family and the National Assembly and "revivifying" because he felt

that the "eminently national force" of the CPK might assume "a role

resembling that of the French Communist Party in the resistance to the German occupation".

Unless Samphan is looking ahead in this passage to the l980s, the people he accuses

of "occupying" Cambodia in 1967-75 were not an invading army. Instead,

they made up the anti-Communist government that had taken power in Phnom Penh with

Sihanouk's blessing in 1967, against whom the CPK took up armed resistance, probably

with Vietnamese approval, in early 1968. Some of these "right wing" men

and women opposed Sihanouk's extravagances.

Most of them believed then, as Samphan did later, that in order to survive as an

independent state Cambodia needed to decouple itself as best it could from the Vietnamese

revolution. Given the realities of the Cold War, this was an impossible dream, and

in 1970, when Sihanouk fell from power, North Vietnam, Lon Nol, Sihanouk, the Khmer

Rouge and the United States dropped Cambodia into the maelstrom of the Second Indo-China

War, a fate that Sihanouk had fought strenuously to avoid.

Soon afterwards, the leaders of the CPK , concealing the party's existence from non-members,

asked Khieu Samphan to assume the "leadership" inside Cambodia of the government

in exile formed to resist the newly installed government in Phnom Penh. The other

"ghosts" were also given "cabinet" positions. Real power rested

with the still hidden leaders of the CPK. The Party's move led many Cambodians, and

some foreign observers, to believe that Sihanouk in exile in Beijing was allied with

honest, unambitious intellectuals rather than with a Marxist-Leninist party closely

allied with Vietnam and dedicated to seizing power in Cambodia for itself.

Throughout his memoir, Khieu Samphan paints the CPK as a consistently nationalist,

anti-Vietnamese force. He plays down the alliance between the party and North Vietnam

that began in the 1950s and lasted at least until 1973. For several years, the task

of fighting the Vietnamese and their allies to protect Khmer sovereignty fell to

Lon Nol's hapless army - an irony that goes unmentioned in this book.

When he describes the CPK's victory in 1975, Samphan writes that he knew nothing

of the decision to evacuate Cambodia's cities until the evacuation had taken place.

This is unlikely, given his proximity to the CPK leaders at the time, but he now

says that the news made him "heavy hearted. Powerless, I could only distil my

regrets and desperation in silence." His regrets and desperation, even if genuine,

have taken 27 years and the threat of a tribunal to reach the surface.

From 1971 onwards, Samphan was a member of the CPK's central committee. He denies

that the committee ever played any decisive role in governing the country. Its meetings,

he tells us, were cozy and fraternal, with "nothing resembling fear" affecting

their proceedings. In a footnote, he writes that only "recently" (!) he

learned that many Party members had feared for their lives throughout the Pol Pot


In April 1976, Khieu Samphan was named by his CPK minders to replace Prince Sihanouk

as Cambodia's ceremonial chief of state. Contemporary documents confirm that this

move was meant to sidetrack the Prince and his wife and to conceal the CPK from view.

Twenty-eight years later, perhaps angling for a Royal pardon, Samphan claims that

he always wanted Sihanouk to stay on as head of state, adding that the Prince and

his wife always "inspired [his] respect". Documents from 1976 suggest otherwise

and provide no evidence for what Samphan now says was "the embarrassment in

my soul and in my conscience" that he suffered at the time.

In a chapter entitled "Reflection on the Causes of Confrontation between DK

and Vietnam" Samphan claims that it was only in 1998 (19 years after the collapse

of DK) that he learned from "books written by foreign authors" that DK

forces had committed atrocities inside Vietnam in 1977. In all those years, it seems,

he never read any books, asked any questions or overheard any bad news. Instead,

bad news about DK always came to him from outsiders and always came as a surprise.

He claims to have learned about the existence of S-21, for example, only in 2003,

after seeing the searing documentary about the prison directed by Rithy Panh. For

page after disingenuous page, Khieu Samphan would have us believe (and approve of

the fact) that as a quintessential intellectual, he lacked three desirable qualities,

namely, courage, curiosity and a capacity for dissidence. These shortcomings, however,

served him admirably as cat's paw for the CPK leaders, and, to be fair, enabled him

to survive.

Chapter Nine is a pedestrian discussion of Asian geopolitics in the DK era. Samphan

claims that his analysis - which contains few insights and no new information - "might

constitute a source rich in constructive lessons on many aspects of international

relations". Well, perhaps it might, but for me at least it doesn't. These are

not, however, wasted pages, for in them Samphan takes the view that may attract support

for him in Cambodia these days, namely that DK' s main function was to serve as a

bulwark against Vietnam.

The next chapter deals with the 1980s. Samphan applauds the liberalization that occurred

in the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese forced its leaders into exile. He points

to his "modest" role in this liberalization and to the attractions of forming

a united front with the non-Communist Khmer resistance - the life and death enemies

of the (dissolved) CPK - that had sprung up along the Thai-Cambodian border. Some

readers might recall that this period was the one when Samphan claimed that the Vietnamese

had exterminated millions of Khmer while only 20,000 at most had died unjustly under

DK. In these pages, characteristically aware of the realities of power in present-day

Cambodia, Samphan says nothing critical about the PRK regime or its successors.

In his last substantive chapter, "Reflection on the Khmer Rouge Movement"

Samphan admits, in a rush, that the forced collectivization of Cambodia after 1975

"bled the country white", that power was held by too few people at the

top, that many CPK cadre lacked experience and that Pol Pot's determination to confront

Vietnam accelerated the Party's excesses and its fall from power. .

On page 128, he poses a hypothetical question: "Based on the facts that have

recently come to light (my italics) how can the increasingly brutal and repressive

character of the [DK} regime be understood?"

The phrase "recently come to light" is my translation of "viennent

d'être rapportés". It's unclear what "facts" are meant

and who (besides Khieu Samphan) has been kept in the dark. Perhaps he is referring

to S-21 and his own recently acquired awareness. His answer, in any case, is that

Pol Pot saw violence as visited on Cambodia from abroad, and that the horrors of

the regime, such as they were, stemmed from Pol Pot's insistence on presiding over

a revolution that kept Vietnam at bay and was totally different from the revolution

taking place next door.

For many years, Samphan made no effort to find out about the excesses of DK because

he was convinced of the patriotism of its leaders and the regime's capacity to set

in motion programs that might maintain Cambodia's independence. He admits taking

pleasure in observing the massive mobilization of peasant manpower under DK that,

on a previous page, he admits had bled the country white. His love of the peasantry,

he adds, and his own petit-bourgeois roots, led him to be humble in the face of the

empowerment of the poor.

In a closing chapter entitled "By Way of a Conclusion" Samphan claims that

throughout his life he never sought promotion and always followed his conscience.

Given the trajectory of his career, his conscience seems always to have been synchronized

with Party discipline, and until very recently it has served him relatively well.

He now admits that "most of the militants" of his generation were "fundamentally

mistaken" (about what?), but quickly adds that he has no intention of explaining

his errors to his children.

The last paragraph of the memoir finds him reaching for my book, Brother Number One,

to explain his own behavior. The passage he cites argues that most Cambodians (like

most people everywhere) prefer anti-heroic behavior, and this preference in turn

can lead them to accept an unjust, hierarchical system such as the one imposed on

the Cambodian people by the CPK. "In other words," Samphan writes, "this

attitude can often lead to servility, the abandonment of professional pride, to more

generally, of all ambition". This oblique suggestion that he was a victim of

DK, as well as a survivor, is as close to an admission of guilt as Khieu Samphan

will probably ever come. Everything unsavory that happened under DK was someone else's

fault. What happened to Khieu Samphan, in terms of disempowerment, happened to all

survivors. In his case, he would have us believe, it couldn't have happened to a

nicer, less ambitious, or more clueless person.

* David Chandler is an Emeritus Professor of History at Monash University in Melbourne,

Australia. His most recent book is Voices from S-21: Terror and History Pol Pot's

Secret Prison (l999).


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