THE STUMBLING BLOCK
The late Son Sen and Im Sopheap, members of the Khmer Rouge negotating team, at 1991 peace talks in Pattaya.
BY THE mid-1980s it was becoming increasingly obvious that there could be no military
victory for either side in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge insurgents and their "Democratic Kampuchea" partners (the
CDGK, a coalition of KR, KPNLF and royalist "resistance") never captured
a single town of any size during the course of the war against Phnom Penh from 1979
till the Paris Peace Agreement signed in 1991.
It was a low-intensity war fought largely in remote jungle areas. Phnom Penh was
But after seven years of Vietnamese offensives, the crack divisions of the best army
in Asia were unable to achieve anything more than a containment of Pol Pot's guerrillas.
With a growing realization of the battlefield stalemate and a changing international
climate that favored a settlement of the Cambodian conflict, the long road to peace
began sometime around 1987.
In this collection of his weekly chronicles for the Bangkok Post, Belgian journalist
Jacques Bekaert has provided a stimulating and informative coverage of the peace
Bekaert is no armchair analyst. His datelines are constantly changing: Paris, Phnom
Penh, Hanoi, Bangkok, in Aranyaprathet covering the war on the Thai-Cambodian border,
in Kampot being driven around town with People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) Prime
Minister Hun Sen at the wheel, in Jakarta at the preliminary peace talks, in Kampong
Speu inspecting a tank division.
Hun Sen's first meeting with Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Paris December 3, 1987, is
characterized by the author as a historic encounter that set the peace process rolling.
However, the later Indonesia-sponsored "cocktail diplomacy" of the four
warring factions usually ended in deadlock. Their lack of agreement is evenly judged
by Bekaert to be a failure of all parties to make concessions for the sake of peace.
But this conventional Western view - that of impatience with the Khmer factions who
can't get their act together - misses the main point.
Time and again peace talks broke down because Phnom Penh called for clear guarantees
that Vietnamese withdrawal must be linked to the non-return of the Khmer Rouge. Furthermore,
a peace agreement should have excluded the most notorious leaders of the genocidal
regime. The Khmer Rouge delegates predictably blocked the discussion and constantly
vetoed all use of the "G" word - genocide.
While on the one hand the author acknowledges "the Khmer Rouge remain the main
obsession, the great fear of the [the State of Cambodia] regime and the majority
of the people in Cambodia", he fails to draw the obvious conclusion.
The peace talks were floundering because the Khmer Rouge had not changed their spots.
They showed not a flicker of remorse for the genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians and
would only sign a peace agreement on the condition that the international community
engaged in an act of collective amnesia about the killing fields. On this issue they
were backed by China, and most Western governments (already implicated in the post-1979
aid and assistance to the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border) went along with Beijing
with few qualms about legitimizing the faction.
At the first round of the Paris Peace Talks in July 1989, Washington lined up with
China and ASEAN to support a Cambodia solution based on a quadripartite coalition.
These powers pressured Hun Sen to dissolve the State of Cambodia government in favor
of a coalition that would hand over 25% of the power to the Khmer Rouge.
The author rightly questions the viability of such a coalition with four co-ministers
of defense. But who questioned Washington's lack of concern about genocide and human
rights? Ironically, given Washington's belated interest in bringing Pol Pot to justice,
it was Hun Sen.
The 1991 Paris Peace Agreement with its extraordinary euphemism for genocide - "no
return to the unacceptable practices of the recent past" - did exactly that,
imposing a collective amnesia on the workings of UNTAC that ensured that the Khmer
Rouge would be accorded the same rights as all other factions, and a de facto immunity
from prosecution for crimes against humanity.
Why does the author maintain such a weak line on the Khmer Rouge genocide? He agrees
that "it would be very good for ASEAN and the international community to get
rid of the Khmer Rouge" but he argues "the Khmer Rouge are a convenience.
Immoral? Who ever said international politics are a moral competition?"
But being on the ugly side of morality contributed nothing to the avowed objectives
of ASEAN/US policy to pressure Vietnam to engage in a speedy withdrawal from Cambodia,
and provide for free elections and self-determination. Their inflexible and rigid
support of the Pol Pot gang provided Vietnam with the best-possible alibi for staying
Even after ten years of occupation, a great many Khmer people were deeply worried
when the Vietnamese army completed its withdrawal in Autumn 1989. Some of the Cambodians
who are anti-Vietnamese today were probably among those people who in 1989 expressed
their fears to Bekaert and hundreds of foreign media about the Vietnamese army leaving
"Who will prevent the return of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge?" many Phnom
Penh residents queried.
The new factors that helped to break the diplomatic impasse and contribute to a new
climate were Hanoi's dramatic change of policies in 1986; Michael Gorbachev's arrival
as the new leader in the Kremlin at the same time pushing for a peace settlement;
and the appointment of Hun Sen who embarked on peace diplomacy with Sihanouk in Paris.
If ASEAN and the West had given more weight to humanitarian issues instead of their
Cold War mania, a ceasefire and peace talks could have started much sooner.
Bekaert's book also contains some interesting admissions of Vietnam's failures and
A Vietnamese official in Ho Chi Minh City told Bekaert that "we should have
got out of Cambodia a long time ago. Cambodia has been a painful lesson." After
liberating Phnom Penh from Pol Pot "we should have left Cambodia to the UN".
Indeed if only they had done so, Vietnam, instead of being vilified, could have withdrawn
with honor after three months and received the grateful thanks of the Cambodian nation.
Bekaert reports a conversation with a young Khmer in August 1992 at Phnom Penh's
Central Market: "We should get rid of all the yuon, we should make Cambodia
pure again." Similar statements roll off the lips of some 'Democracy Square'
activists today, especially those who desecrated the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship
Two Vietnamese families had just been massacred in Kampot at the time Bekaert talked
to the young man. After that tragedy only one Cambodian personality, King Sihanouk,
expressed his grief and condolences.
While Bekaert accepts the Cambodian complaint that Vietnamese appeared to enter the
country as they pleased, he reminds the Khmer s that "killing men, women and
children is not the answer. Cambodians should not blame everything on the Vietnamese."