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A Short exegesis on genocide


Born in Bristol, England, in 1945, journalist and biographer Philip Short studied

science and literature at Cambridge University before beginning a 30-year career

strewn with frontlines, bylines and deadlines.

Philip Short says the enormities of the Khmer Rouge do not meet a rigorous definition of genocide, and the real purpose of the coming trials is not to achieve justice.

A roving BBC foreign correspondent between 1967 and 1997, Short was stationed in

Africa and Moscow before opening the first BBC bureau in Beijing. He covered the

1972 genocide in Burundi when the Tutsi regime of Michel Micombero slaughtered 150,000

Hutu, and cites his coverage of the death of Mao Tsetung as one of his proudest professional


Short has held postings in Paris, Tokyo and Washington and wrote biographies of Malawi

dictator Hastings Banda (Banda, 1974) and Mao (Mao: A life, 1999).

He spent four intermittent years in Cambodia speaking with Khmer Rouge leaders and

rank-and file cadre before publishing Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare in 2004.

"To write a good story, you must be concise and encapsulate the essence of the

situation, but more than that, you must know what moves you," Short was once

quoted as saying.

He talked to Charles McDermid on January 22 about elastic words, academic lebensraum

and the "angelic smile" of Pol Pot.

What was Pol Pot like in person?

I met him in 1977 in Beijing. It was a tiny press corps at the time, and there were

very few Westerners. I was able to follow him around and watch at close quarters.

What struck me, and it's been borne out by some of the memoirs and Khmers who met

him, is that Pol Pot was immensely charming. He had an angelic smile. That's why

on the cover of the book we had him looking charming. You warm to the smiling face

and then it just faintly suggests the terrible things he did. This interested me.

Do you believe that people today have a complete understanding of who, and what,

Pol Pot was?

I don't think people in the West have any clear idea of what Pol Pot was, why he

came to power or what he tried to do. It's far easier to depict him as a monster.

Full stop. End of story. In Cambodia, most Cambodians have not really thought much

about what Pol Pot was. There needs to be some sort of discussion process. There

has to be more discussion and openness. The sad truth is that isn't going to happen.

The trial isn't going to make that happen and those in power don't want it to happen.

Why has this "discussion process" been avoided?

I think it's more natural than you may think. People don't necessarily want to scratch

into old wounds, they'd rather let them heal - even if the healing covers over a

lot of pain and contradictions and suffering. I think it is natural: Look at America

and slavery and segregation. It's something people would rather not think about it.

It's the same in all countries.

Will the coming Khmer Rouge trials provide this discussion process?

I don't think the trial will scratch any wounds. It's heavily symbolic and won't

have much to do with justice. Will the trial really take place in the way it is supposed

to? Or will restrictions be placed, for instance, on the rights of the defense?

Then who is this trial for?

Hun Sen. He is the one who has allowed it to go forward. It will produce verdicts

which delineate the KR leadership as having been a small group and nothing to do

with the present regime. To the extent that the powers that be can distance themselves

from what will be condemned as a self-contained criminal group - the cleaner they


Did Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge commit genocide?

No, not if words have any meaning. I think it's dangerous to make words elastic;

to stretch their meaning to cover whatever you want them to cover. Genocide has a

concrete meaning: it means an attempt by one group to exterminate another group because

of who they are, not what they are. The Nazis exterminated Jews because they were

Jews, not because they were bankers. That didn't happen in Cambodia. Pol Pot didn't

cause the deaths of a million Cambodians because they were Cambodians. So crimes

against humanity yes, but genocide no.

Then "genocide," in your opinion, is one of these "elastic words?"

It's the peculiar characteristic of spin doctors, totalitarian regimes and propagandists

of every sort to deform the meaning of words to buttress a political case. Who first

used the term genocide on Pol Pot? The Vietnamese, for eminently political reasons.

This was swallowed by Western scholars and part of the international legal fraternity.

It doesn't help the cause of truth.

Should they be charged with genocide?

If they're charged with genocide, I would argue there is an extremely strong case

for acquittal. Pol Pot, for all his abominations, did not set out deliberately to

exterminate the Cambodian people, and to pretend otherwise is to fall into the same

trap that made the [1979 People's Revolutionary Tribunal] such a farce. Cambodia

deserves better. Unless the tribunal establishes clearly what the Khmer Rouge leaders

did and what they did not do, the closure that so many Cambodians hope for will remain

a mirage.

What other problems do you see with the ECCC?

Another problem is who should be charged. Not to charge Ieng Sary would deprive the

tribunal of all credibility. But is it credible to try a handful of top leaders who

created a regime in which murder and starvation were the norm, but not try the district

chiefs and their men who actually carried out the murders? What is being proposed

for the ECCC is like a version of Nuremberg in which the Nazi leaders are tried,

but the concentration camp commandants, the SS guards, and all the rest are allowed

to walk free. To me, that is a bastard compromise, and the UN should never have agreed

to it....I have reservations about the process that is getting under way. I hope

very much I am wrong.

What do you think of Serge Thion's description of genocide as a "political


I am not saying that genocide is by definition a political commodity, but the term

applies in two cases. First, "genocide studies" have been a career for

numerous academics. There's nothing wrong with that: genocide studies, like any academic

discipline, have value. The problem is that most academics, like most of the rest

of us, constantly wish to expand their territory. Not many have the courage to go

against the tide and say: No, what happened in Cambodia was not genocide; it was

terrible, but it was not genocide. Instead, the common reaction - it is certainly

that of most of the academics who hold forth about the Khmer Rouge - is to try to

expand the field as much as possible. It's like Parkinson's law: the definition of

genocide expands to take up the academic space available.

Second, the term "genocide" was first applied to the actions of the Khmer

Rouge regime by their Vietnamese opponents. That fact alone - that the term first

surfaced as part of a polemic - should have given academics pause. It didn't mean

it was wrong: maybe the Vietnamese were justified in calling it genocide. But at

least Western scholars should have examined the question critically, to try to see

whether the use of the term was correct or whether "genocide" was being

used simply as a political epithet.

The reverse happened. The term was adopted in the West without critical appreciation,

to the point nowadays it is difficult to find an article about Pol Pot in which the

term "genocidal" is not automatically prefixed to his name. It's no longer

enough to say the Khmer Rouge leaders were an abomination; that they were responsible

for the deaths of a greater proportion of their own people than any other regime

in history; that they created the first slave-state of modern times. None of that

suffices. Unless you call the Khmer Rouge genocidal, you are accused of whitewashing


How will history remember Pol Pot?

It's too early to say, but I think history will have to conclude that he was both

evil, tragic and an incompetent failure. In everything he tried to do, he achieved

the opposite and caused enormous suffering in the process.



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