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Pol Pot biographer talks tribunal

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Historian and Pol Pot biographer Philip Short sat down with a Post reporter to discus the fate of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

Historian Philip Short, a former journalist with the BBC, spent five years researching and writing the definitive biography Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. He was scheduled to testify as an expert witness at the Khmer Rouge tribunal this week but was prevented from doing so by co-accused Ieng Sary’s hospitalisation and an unexpected strike by the court’s interpreters. Short sat down with the Post’s Justine Drennan to discuss the past, present and future of the beleaguered institution.  

Where were you when the interpreters announced their strike?

I was sitting in the witness room waiting to appear.

Did you hear the announcement?

No, no, somebody came to say, in more or less these words, it’s a double whammy. Ieng Sary’s health came first - that was very early - but then, with very crestfallen faces, they told me second thing was the interpreters are on strike. And once that happened, there was not much anyone could do.

Do you think you’ll actually be able to give testimony in the future?

I think they will find a way. I hope Ieng Sary is well enough to attend. I’m not saying it’s essential that I testify, but I did meet over quite a prolonged period Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan 10 years ago, 12 years ago. We discussed many of the issues which are directly or indirectly what the trial is about. I think it’s probably useful to be able to testify about what was said at the time that no trial was in the wings, you know, before they were arrested.

What have been your thoughts this week?

I think the health issue is going to be more and more of a problem as the defendants get older. And the difficulty with the health issue is that since you have the three defendants being tried together, if one of them is ill, nothing can be said. If Ieng Sary of them is ill, I can’t give evidence for the other two. And if Nuon Chea is ill, I can’t give evidence for Sary and Samphan. I think that’s something that they’re going to have to sort out. Because otherwise it risks being a permanent blockage. They’re at an age where one of them is likely to be ill at any time.

The other problem, the interpreters—well, this Cambodian government wishes us to believe it can’t find the money to pay their salaries. Pretty pathetic. I mean, we know that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen has never wanted this trial, but he could find a more intelligent way of obstructing it.

Hun Sen, as everyone knows, was a Khmer Rouge deputy regimental commander. [Senate President] Chea Sim was a district chief, and as such was in charge of a district prison, which was one of the district annexes that led up to S-21. Keat Chhon, the finance minister, was Pol Pot’s secretary at one point—one of many people who played that role. He was a minister in the Khmer Rouge government. One can go on. The government which names the judges which are the majority, three out of five in this court, is a government whose key members were formed during the Khmer Rouge period.

Now, that in itself is a big question. If at Nuremberg there had been judges whom had been appointed by a government with a strong Nazi connotation, it wouldn’t have been quite the same Nuremberg at all. I’m not stretching the analogy, because obviously it’s different, but that is one factor.

In Rwanda, where the hatreds were deeper and much older than in the Khmer Rouge because they were ethnic hatreds, they basically had a process of reconciliation. It worked. There was a form of trial through village communities, but everybody--not just a few symbolic figures--everybody was made to undergo this process, and the result was you don’t have what you have in Cambodia where you have Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Nuon Chea at court, and everybody else, all the people who carried out the killings are living next to the families of those they killed in the villages.

Imagine after the Hitler period in Germany, if they had just had Nuremberg, and every SS camp guard had been allowed to walk free. It wouldn’t really have done very much in terms of turning the page and really changing things.

Has your thinking about the court changed since the tribunal began?  

In the Phnom Penh Post, 13 years ago now, in early 2000, I wrote an article called ‘Devil’s Advocate’, right at the beginning of my research. I still basically hold to that. It was arguing that a trial was not the best way of dealing with this problem. I still think that’s true. And nothing which has happened in court has changed that at all. I think it is not the best way. And the fact that we’re having a trial is a result of a number of factors which have to do with international politics which have to do with the Cambodian government’s attitude toward the pressures that came from various international players. It’s not the best solution.

The Cambodian government did not want a trial, and their arms were twisted so they concluded, “Yes, it’s better to have it. Keep the Americans quiet, keep some of the other aid donors quiet.” So they’ve gone ahead with it. They’ve never been enthusiastic. If you see the thing moving forward, there are great claws sticking into the ground breaking it, trying to close it down.

Yes, it’s annoying to come 5000 miles, get over jet-lag for three days, then not give evidence for three days and then go back 5000 miles. But that’s a very minor consideration. I’m much more concerned not about me giving evidence but about the problem of principle.

There is the whole issue of impunity in Cambodia. If the justice system is not capable of delivering justice to its own people, it lacks credibility in delivering justice in a case such as this.

Is it conceivable that the Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan or Nuon Chea could be acquitted? No. Well, a trial where it is not conceivable that the defendants could be acquitted raises serious questions of jurisprudence.

I do think that this court has been given an extraordinarily difficult task, because of these difficulties I’ve been speaking of. I think to produce a verdict which is seen to be just and well-argued is going to be very difficult. To show that the rights of the defendants were really seriously upheld, that the court was not politically manipulated—it’s not going to be easy to show. Maybe it will serve in Cambodia, but as a model of international justice, it’s going to be quite difficult.

Various parties at the tribunal, including Nuon Chea’s defence team, have brought up your work during hearings.

I didn’t even know that, but I think it’s interesting. I tried in the book not so much to judge, though the judgment comes out of the facts, but to explain how the Khmer Rouge had gone about things. And where they had gone wrong. Where they had gone wrong not being a judgment on my part but something which is actually self-evident from the results. And these things are never quite as black and white as they’re made out to be. And I think that’s something which is worth bringing out, and it’s probably one of the things which, when Nuon Chea advocates referred to my book, they had in mind. I mean, in a nutshell, it wasn’t so much the ideas that they had which were bad. It was the way they carried them out that was appalling, that was abominable. But that was not their starting point. They mostly were not bad. The way they acted and the results are a totally different issue and resulted in an abomination and the enslavement of a whole people.

You know, there was a French-run prison in Algeria during the Algerian war that was almost identical to S-21. Several thousands died in those prisons. No one was ever prosecuted. That was from Catholic, Western-European France in the early 1960s. Certainly, it’s a double standard. With crimes against humanity supposedly have no statute of limitations. Well, that was 1960 in France. The Khmer Rouge was 15, 18 years later in Cambodia. It grates.

Duch did some abominable things. But to pretend that there is some unique evil is wrong. It happened elsewhere. That doesn’t absolve what these people did. And perhaps that’s the difference between history and courts. Courts concentrate on a particular issue. History tries to see patterns in human behaviour.

I’m there to testify. I’m not there to hammer Ieng Sary or anyone else. I’m not there to play for the prosecution or the defence. I have not stake. I will say what I think and what I believe. I don’t hold any personal animosity to any of these three defendants. I can pass judgments about the way they carried out their politics.

What are your thoughts on witnesses who you interviewed and who then said different things when they testified at the tribunal?

I’ve seen one example already where a witness had, I think honestly, either forgotten the incident in question or really did not want to talk about it in court. But I taped it, I transcribed it at the time, I have everything verbatim of what was said. So I think it’s a little hard to pretend it was not said.

Memory can be very tricky. That’s the big problem with oral history. Unless there are documents that date things, contemporary documents, people conflate different events, different time periods. If you think what you did 8 years ago, and put it in some kind of chronological order, I’m sure you’d get things the order wrong, and the places wrong, you’d think you did certain thing in certain places, and in fact you did them somewhere else.

It’s one of the problems with this kind of a case—especially when the defendants are so old, and it all happened a long time ago. You know, most of the other international tribunals have happened much sooner after the events.

This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

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