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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A non-standard view of the 'coup'

A non-standard view of the 'coup'

Michael Vickery, associate professor of history at Universiti Sains Malaysia,

condemns journalists' coverage of the recent fighting in Phnom Penh, and the Pol

Pot trial.

BACK in 1993 it was said that journalists swarmed into town hoping to see blood,

and left disappointed. Now they have seen some blood, and they certainly know what

to do with it - grease their own personal Vietnam syndromes by kicking a Cambodian

leadership which, like Vietnam, has refused to kowtow.

'Strong Man' Hun Sen, they say, moved to wipe out his opposition because he feared

the results of next year's election. UNTAC's $2 billion was wasted, because it didn't

buy compliance with what the West wanted in Cambodia. Those FUNCINPEC figures who

chose Hun Sen over Ranariddh are 'quislings', although when they returned to Cambodia

after 1991 they were hailed as the best elements of FUNCINPEC, as they no doubt are.

Totally ignored is the build-up to the events of July 5-6. Although journalists cannot

always be historians and sociologists, they must pay some attention or their simple-minded

recording of the 'facts' of the moment (always partial because choices must be made,

and therefore inevitably partisan) leads them into gross misinterpretations, not

to say disinformation.

No doubt for journalists the 1980s are such ancient history that they cannot be accused

of bias for forgetting them. All Cambodian political figures, however, know, and

do not forget, that the entire so-called peace process evolution was intended to

get rid of the CPP, even at the risk of giving the Khmer Rouge a place in the government.

The Paris Agreement and the 1993 election only came about because the People's Republic

of Kampuchea/State of Cambodia (PRK/SOC) managed to defeat cruder schemes. And in

spite of $2 billion and a whole gaggle of experts, the conduct of balloting and counting

was sloppy enough to give the CPP reason to claim fraud.

It is, however, disinformation just to say that Ranariddh won but Hun Sen refused

to move out. Representation was proportional and the coalition was mandated by Paris

and UNTAC rules concerning the new Constitution. The modalities of forming the coalition,

of course, were not parliamentary, but the position retained by the CPP was in accord

with its votes, 38% against 45%. This is the minimum background

It was disinformation not to at least acknowledge in passing that weeks ago Ranariddh

boasted that he would use new KR allies to further his own policies, especially and

most dangerously, against Vietnam. It was disinformation not to note that ever since

1993 the royalists had been plotting to undermine Hun Sen as much as he, no doubt,

had been plotting to stay ahead of them. The post-election secession was under Ranariddh's

brother Chakrapong, just dumped by the CPP, and directly instigated by an important

non-CPP higher-level personality. Hun Sen outplayed them and got credit for putting

down the secession. All through 1994 various royalist schemes were hatched to undermine

the CPP by bringing the KR into the government via a back door; and in July of that

year a royalist coup was barely nipped in the bud.

The royalists, moreover, seem to have got what they asked for. As said in the CPP

White Paper edited by a US legal expert, and as supported in Mike Fowler's presentation

of the case (PPP 12-24 July 1997), the royalists had been trying to provoke such

an incident, apparently overconfident of success, and Hun Sen had a good legal case

against them, if only he had resorted to the courts rather than to violence. I wonder

what courts he could have used. The Phnom Penh foreign community and the international

press have already condemned the Cambodian courts as nothing but rubber stamps for

the government, and they would have denounced any verdict in Hun Sen's favor as dishonest;

and probably no international court would have taken the case.

Incidentally, the White Paper remarks were already widely held among serious diplomats

during my last visit to Phnom Penh in December 1996.

Of course, we should all rejoice in the overthrow of Pol Pot by Nate Thayer and the

emergence of the Khmer Rouge as born again liberal democrats. Nate, a volunteer PR

man for the Khmer Rouge since, at least, his "Cambodia: Misperceptions and Peace"

(Washington Quarterly, Spring 1991) has outdone himself with "Cambodia's Peace

was Just a Day Away" in the Washington Post on August 17 [a version of which

was published as "Secret talks lead to final purge" in the last PP Post].

Going beyond the usual PR, it is the most devious and dishonest piece of pseudo-journalism

I have seen in a long time.

In order to present the scene as "a watershed moment" which would have

meant peace for "this country's tortured history" (a cliché usual

among hacks apologizing for the torturers) Nate talks about the KR abandoning "their

war against Cambodia's government" and agreeing "to a formal 'surrender'

ceremony in which their forces would join the Cambodian army".

That is straight Nate PR hype. In the finer print further on the KR themselves, at

least, appear more honest.

In his Far Eastern Economic Review special (7 Aug) Nate was less devious with, "the

Khmer Rouge finalized their alliance with Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC party on July 4",

after negotiations between Ta Mok and FUNCINPEC general Nhek Bun Chhay in which the

KR "agreed in principle to join in alliance [with FUNCINPEC]".

In the Washington Post, Nate put a different spin on the story, "the guerrillas

finally had agreed to integrate their troops into the army [sic] and recognize the

government". Nate deviously substituted 'the government' for 'FUNCINPEC' and

its armed faction for 'the army'.

However, further on, Nate says that the KR were adamantly opposed to working with

Hun Sen, whom they kept calling a puppet, and what they agreed to was not integrating

forces and joining the government, but only that "the military units changed

into government uniforms and pledged allegiance to the king, the government and the

constitution, but were not forced to disperse from their territory". They would

keep their own strategic base in Anlong Veng. Similarly it was agreed, not that the

KR would join with the government, but "could join the National United Front

coalition of anti-Hun Sen political opposition parties".

It was precisely what Hun Sen claimed, a FUNCINPEC-KR alliance against him, along

with delivery of weapons and ammunition by FUNCINPEC to the KR.

It is thus egregious to say that only now, after Hun Sen's coup, "the forces

loyal to Ranariddh have begun to form a military coalition with former Khmer Rouge

fighters". That was what they had agreed to on July 4.

Not only would the Ranariddh-KR coalition not have brought peace to Cambodia, it

could have embroiled Vietnam as well, for reports of KR radio broadcasts indicate

that nothing of their traditional policy has changed. Hatred of Vietnam as the main

enemy continues; and several weeks ago Ranariddh boasted of using defecting KR in

his own anti-Vietnamese plans.

The Pol Pot trial scam shows again that the KR, as I wrote in 1991 (Indochina Issues)

are adroit at winning the hearts and minds of the western press corps. As Thayer

wrote, Tep Kunnal, a new KR front man, "is knowledgeable about US politics".

The scam has some chance of success because for various reasons all opponents of

Democratic Kampuchea have personalized its record with the name Pol Pot, ignoring

that what happened in 1975-79 could not have been the work of one man, but was influenced

by Cambodia's history and the structure of its society.

For Vietnam and the new PRK state in 1979, it was simply the easiest way to quickly

assure the demonization of their enemies; for other Cambodians it was a way to avoid

examination and self-criticism of their own society; for concerned western regimes

it was a way to escape from their own responsibility in the destruction of Cambodia;

and for academic specialists, at least in English-speaking milieus, concentration

on personalities rather than social and economic structures was an ingrained habit

in their work. Thus both among the Cambodian population and western observers 'Pol

Potism' as an aberration of one evil man, or at most a small coterie, replaced 'Democratic

Kampuchea', which should have been viewed as an unfortunate episode in Cambodia's

integration into the modern world requiring close study and explanation in its totality.

Contrary to Thayer's hype, a number of persons who viewed the film, including both

Cambodians and foreigners, and one leading Cambodia scholar, did not think Pol Pot

appeared tearful or contrite, and at the end he was shown considerable deference

by his 'accusers'. The audience was mostly women and children chanting slogans; key

leaders - Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan, and Nuon Chea - were not present; Thayer could not

(whether for linguistic or political reasons is not clear) ask Pol Pot any questions,

and he simply reproduced what he was told by the directors and producers of the show

concerning the alleged splits in the KR. Even then it is clear that not much is new.

Peasantism and nationalism are still the KR themes, as they always were, and now

they claim to be for liberal democracy and the free market.

So, one might ask, and this is indeed what they want us to ask, what is wrong with

a KR-royalist alliance based on peasant welfare, nationalism and the free market?

For one thing, we have seen much of it before. Their policies were always in principle

pro-peasant, yet they severely damaged peasant livelihood. Now, with a small population

dependent on them, and vast wealth from timber sales over the years, it is easy to

subsidize their way into popularity among those peasants. This gives no clue to what

they would do in agriculture if they again controlled the country, or whether they

have learned the requisite lessons from their previous experience. So far, their

free market activity has meant stealing the national forests and selling them across

the border, and if this is what Cambodia has to hope from them, the country might

just as well stick with its current rulers. As for their commitment to liberal democracy,

I think we may fairly disbelieve.

Moreover, in a poor country with an overwhelming majority of poor peasants in its

population, a free market and liberal democracy work counter to peasant welfare,

as may be seen from several examples in the real world.

As for nationalism, that means aggravated hatred of Vietnam, which was probably the

single most destructive element of DK policies, and the motive for most of the officially

sanctioned executions.

Those Phnom Penh diplomats who last December indicated that their worry for next

year was an unholy alliance of Ranariddh, Rainsy and the Khmer Rouge which might

do well in the election on a platform of anti-Vietnamese chauvinism were correct,

and if Hun Sen has averted that we should all be pleased.

Nate Thayer, however, has put his finger on certain matters which deserve attention.

Unlike those journalists who just want to see blood in Phnom Penh, and who time and

again reserve their worst invective, not for the real KR, but for Hun Sen because

once upon a time, before 1977, he was in the Khmer Rouge army, and unlike the western

statesmen who throughout the 1980s publicly excoriated the KR while facilitating

backhanders to them across the Thai border, Thayer believes in what he promotes.

He sees that most of Cambodia's population, who are poor peasants, live in misery,

ignored by most of their political and economic rulers. And Thayer thinks that what

he sees as the new reformed KR may have some of the right answers.

At least, the Phnom Penh government and the interested foreign organizations should

be giving serious attention to the social problems of large impoverished groups in

the Cambodian population, including peasants, the urban mass, and the soldiers. In

the events of July 5-6 there were disturbing reminders of April 1975. As reported

by Robin McDowell of AP on 7 July, "Doctors at one hospital said patients were

being discharged early to go home to protect their belongings. At another, struck

by shelling over the weekend, doctors had abandoned their patients. By today, all

the hospital's mattresses, furniture and equipment had been looted". Let us

not forget that one of the reasons for the dispersal of hospitals by the victorious

KR was because over half of Cambodia's doctors had fled the country before 17 April.

The looting which accompanied the coup was not in order to reward the troops. Quite

obviously it could not be controlled, and civilians were involved as enthusiastically

as soldiers. It showed a violent hatred by the poor, both soldiers and civilians,

against the small privileged sector which has become indecently and pretentiously

rich since 1991.

The Khmer Rouge won in 1975 because they had the support of those poor sectors of

Cambodia, and Phnom Penh as a city, abstracting from the fate of particular individuals,

deserved what happened in April 1975. The events of July 5-6, indicate that it might

all happen again, whether or not Pol Pot has been put away, and whether or not the

Khmer Rouge have reformed. Indeed, if a KR-royalist alliance should win an election,

and put into effect the liberal democracy and free market they now praise, they might

in the end find themselves victims of popular rage from out of the depths. After

the anti-Vietnamese chauvinism which seems to be growing, what most worries me is

that all factions, the KR, the royalists, the CPP, and the prominent dissident Pen

Sovann, have been touting the same economic doctrines, which in the former Soviet

Union have led, since 1991, to the realization of the old Cold War cliché

about regimes making war on their own people.

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