Journalist and author Philip Short took the stand at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, expounding at length on the hierarchy and history of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, while peppering his expert testimony with insights as to where co-accused Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan fit in the Khmer Rouge experiment.
Seemingly reinforcing what Samphan’s defence has long espoused, the Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare author repeatedly asserted his view – in sometimes less-than-flattering terms – that the former head of state was bereft of any real power, and was little more than Pol Pot’s “amanuensis”, a term used in antiquity to describe a trusted slave with secretarial duties.
“Khieu Samphan was very disciplined, did exactly what he was told and followed the rules,” Short testified. “And I think that was a fairly accurate characterisation – that throughout the Khmer Rouge period and the evacuation and everything else, he basically did what he was told.”
“Pol Pot would have liked to see him as a successor, but that didn’t happen for all kinds of reasons, perhaps in part because he was a better follower than he was a leader,” he added.
However, Short noted, Samphan was a member of the regime’s highest political body, the standing committee, and would have certainly had knowledge even of the Khmer Rouge’s more extreme policies.
As for Nuon Chea, Short testified, he and Pol Pot occupied the uppermost rung of the decision-making, above even the standing committee.
“Increasingly as things went on, decisions were made by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea – not even the full standing committee,” he said. “S-21 was not under the standing committee, and certainly not under the central committee; it was under the security committee composed of Pol Pot, Son Sen and Nuon Chea.”
According to Short, who also wrote a biography of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, those decisions worried even the regime’s staunchest allies, the Chinese Communist Party.
“I think Lenin would have said it was an infantile form of communism. It was very extreme,” he said. “In China, they stopped [killing] and instituted thought reform. Mao said, ‘Heads are not like chives; they don’t grow back again if you cut them off.’ Well, in Cambodia, they cut them off.”
Short later added that the regime’s “hubris” after the liberation of Phnom Penh prevented it from heeding Chinese revolutionaries’ urgings of restraint.
“Zhou Enlai was worried about what was going to happen in Cambodia, and warned Khieu Samphan to avoid imitating the Great Leap Forward . . . and argued in favour of moderation – unsuccessfully, of course,” he said. “Mao was impressed by what the Khmer Rouge had done, but he too was worried.”