In the last issue academic Steve Heder began his series on the culture
of impunity in Cambodia by examining the roots of the phenomenon from the late colonial
period to the Lon Nol regime. He looked at the duplicity and double standards of
those who held power at the time. In the second part of the series, Heder turns his
attention to the Khmer Rouge's three-year, eight-month and twenty-day reign of terror.
Like their fellow Indochinese communists in Vietnam, the victorious Cambodian communists
practiced deception and eschewed judicial processes in neutralizing their enemies.
And like Sihanouk, they practiced summary executions of those that they demonized
even more than those who were designated enemies of the people in Vietnam.
What distinguished the Cambodian communist not only from Sihanouk, but also from
the Vietnamese, was their determination to achieve a Marxist version of modernity
in Cambodia through a 'socialist revolution' to be carried out literally at breakneck
speed, and the extent to which they were prepared continuously to use execution to
suppress all forms of opposition, expected and unexpected, that this revolution and
its failures generated.
As Pol Pot's forces advanced on Phnom Penh in early 1975, the Communist Party's chief
public spokesman Khieu Samphan signaled to those who had been fighting against them
that only the seven top leaders among them would be executed upon defeat.
On 24-25 February, Khieu Samphan chaired a 'congress' of the Communists and their
supporters in the 'liberated zone' which insisted that these seven 'super-traitors'
must die, but promised that other high-ranking Khmer Republic personalities could
still join the Sihanouk side.
On 1 April, a little more than two weeks before Phnom Penh was captured, Khieu Samphan
again condemned the seven traitors by name, but appealed to the officers and men
of the Khmer Republic armed forces to lay down their arms and join the Sihanouk side.
In the meantime, on 26 March Sihanouk had expanded the list of those liable to execution
to 21 names and indicated that others might also be included.
However, once his forces had won, Pol Pot went not for mass detention, but mass execution.
In a betrayal of Khieu Samphan's promises, the officers and men of the defeated army
and many of the Khmer Republic's civil servants were systematically exterminated.
As later described in the 'confessions' of Communist cadre who were to be executed
for 'treason' themselves, upon the 'liberation' of Phnom Penh, orders were given
to round up and kill military officers and civil servants.
Even as Phnom Penh was being evacuated, communist military units were "finding
the enemies in every spearhead."
These enemies were "successively captured, especially certain high-ranking officers,
from captain up, all of whom were ... exterminated."
Soon thereafter, the "Organization put forward a policy of successively exterminating
officers, starting from the generals and working down through to the lieutenants,
as well as government investigative agents, policemen, military police personnel
and reactionary civil servants".
Eventually, the death rolls were expanded to include enlisted men who had been 'activists'
against the revolution.
The procedure was that local communist authorities drew up list after list of those
to be killed, which were then submitted to the Party Committees of the six or seven
Zones into which the country was divided, which then sorted out who was to be killed.
These killings were only the beginning.
For almost four years following, the categories of victims were progressively widened.
As one participant in the killings said, after Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea (DK)
regime had been driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion force that captured Phnom
Penh on 7 January 1979, the logic of the system had been that in the end everybody
in Cambodia would be "beaten to death and disposed of [vay-chaol], except Pol
Although that point had not yet been reached, by 7 January 1979, Pol Pot had presided
over a genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other consistent and gross
violations that the chairman of a subcommission of the UN Human Rights Commission
assigned to look into the matter characterized as "the most serious" human
rights violations "that had occurred anywhere in the world since Nazism".
As Jamie Metzl has shown in his book Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in
Cambodia 1975-1980, this report reflected a turning point in perceptions of what
was happening in Cambodia.
Contrary to what many suggested at the time and since, he stresses that in 1975-77,
ideological bias and strategic interest were not the major reasons for the general
failure of the world to respond vigorously to events there.
Rather, the reason was a lack of validated data, particularly data collected and
assessed by qualified social scientists and human rights investigators.
Metzl shows how in the absence of such data, accounts by journalists and others of
killings in DK remained questionable, even if they reached generally accurate conclusions
about the human rights situation there.
He shows how mainstream and left-wing academics wrongly questioned these conclusions,
but rightly pointed to the factual errors that underpinned journalistic accounts.
In this period, faked photographs and phony quotes made the best copy, but undermined
the credibility of concern about the reality that academics, and fledgling human
rights organizations and Western governments had yet properly to investigate the
facts on the ground.
Then, in 1978, prompted by overwhelming press reports, these organizations and governments
put DK in the dock before the UN human rights machinery.
As the truth became better-documented - and as the ideological bias of the leftist
academics sympathetic to Vietnam catapulted them into the same camp as DK's anti-communist
accusers - western governments continued to push the case against DK. They did so
although their strategic interests aligned them with DK against Vietnam.
However, the Vietnamese overthrow of DK and occupation of Cambodia in January 1979
overwhelmed all other considerations. Metzl documents how raison d'état finally
transformed the way in which Western governments treated DK human rights violations.
In the face of ever-mounting evidence, they did not attempt to deny the reality.
Instead, they proclaimed that human rights were less important than the principle
of state sovereignty and then promoted exaggerated fears of a Vietnamese-imposed
famine in Cambodia.
The report produced under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Commission was quietly
Victors' Justice and Clemency in the People's Republic of Kampuchea
This failure of the international community to act was not unique to Cambodia. Indeed,
until the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was established
in 1994, no international court had been constituted to deal with any of the major
episodes of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes that occurred after World
In the period between 1965 and 1993, in addition to Cambodia, there were mass killings
that claimed 100,000 or more lives each in at least four countries: Indonesia, Burundi,
Uganda and Iraq.
Thus although there were specific geopolitical reasons for the lack of international
follow-through on Cambodia in 1979, this failure was part of a consistent and overall
failure of the international community to develop the positive aspects of the precedents
set at Nuremberg and Tokyo.
This international inaction left the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) proclaimed
in Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979 a completely free field to deal with the DK genocide
as it (and its Vietnamese backers) saw fit.
They decided that their political needs would be best served by a public trial of
those whom they would designate as responsible for the 1975-78 genocide.
They saw great political diplomatic utility in associating the DK genocide as much
as possible with fascism and as little as possible with Communism, and for this purpose
the revival of a version of Nuremberg and Tokyo seemed highly appropriate.
At the same time, the weakness of the PRK's domestic political base argued strongly
against any attempt at de-Nazification.
Indeed, for a time, senior elements in the PRK appeared to be anxious to co-opt as
many ex-DK cadre and combatants into the new power structure as possible.
Although paper policy with regard to ex-DK elements progressively hardened as the
PRK administration was consolidated behind a Vietnamese military shield, this paper
policy seems hardly to have been applied.
A 're-education' system based on the Vietnamese model was eventually supposed to
be combined with the possibility of trials of those most responsible for the DK genocide,
but while the 're-education' system functioned, the trial system was never put into
In the end, only one trial for those accused of responsibility for the genocide was
staged. By mid-1979, the legal groundwork had been laid to establish a 'Revolutionary
After some debate, it was decided to use it to try just two defendants, both in absentia:
Pol Pot, the Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and Prime Minister of
the Government of Democratic Kampuchea, and Ieng Sary, one of the five surviving
members of the nine-man Party's post-war Standing Committee and a Democratic Kampuchea
Deputy Prime Minister in Charge of Foreign Affairs.
Vietnam had disseminated the notion of a "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique" since
mid-1978, at a time when it believed other Standing Committee members might be sympathetic
to overthrowing Pol Pot and Ieng Sary.
Although one of them, Sao Phim, Secretary of the Party's East Zone, had committed
suicide in June after his Zone was subjected to a massive purge, the Vietnamese apparently
placed hopes on at least two others, Party Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea and Standing
Committee Candidate member Son Sen, who was concurrently Democratic Kam-puchea Deputy
Prime Minister in Charge of National Defense and had overseen matters of internal
Son Sen was about to be purged when the Vietnamese attacked, while Nuon Chea, according
to the available evidence, was not suspected by Pol Pot of dissidence.
In any case, the couplet "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique" remained the Vietnamese
term for Democratic Kampuchea right up to and through the regime's collapse.
The formulation begged the question of the degree of responsibility for DK crimes
that these two men might have shared with other senior surviving DK Communists.
These included not only Nuon Chea and Son Sen, but also Ta Mok, the Party's Second
Deputy Secretary and long-time head of its Southwest Zone; Keo Pauk, a Central Committee
member who headed the Party's Central Zone; and Khieu Samphan, a Central Committee
member who was DK's chief of state.
Also glossed over was the question of the culpability of senior DK figures who had
died in purges, including not only Sao Phim, but also Ruoh Nheum, a Standing Committee
member who had been Secretary of the Northwest Zone; and Von Vet, a Standing Committee
member who had been Deputy Minister for the Economy.
Left even more obscure was the culpability of lower-ranking cadre and individual
"combatants" in political, military and security structures throughout
the country, including in the East Zone.
This decision was evidently made only after some disagreement among leading PRK figures.
It reflected a compromise position that ensured that the trial would fail to clear
up the extent to which Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were in fact those most responsible
for the evils of DK, and to what extent others might have also been responsible.
Thus, the trial exposed many of the crimes committed in the name of DK, but created
more questions than it answered about culpability for them.
Like its Tokyo predecessor, it served the purposes of official history by demonizing
those whom it had been decided should take the blame for what had happened while
sanitizing or glossing over the record of those who were victors or the victors'
It was an attempt, first, to codify an official view of the history of DK's crimes
and opposition to the regime and, second, to solidify relations among the various
elements that comprised the new political order.
It aimed to cap a process whereby ex-DK cadre and combatants who had already become
a part of that order were exempted from scrutiny, regardless of what they had done
or not done.
It also capped the flip-side of this process, one in which those who had been tardy
in making the right political choice were progressively excluded from the new political
order and subjected to at least the threat of punishment for their past deeds.
'Justice' was used crudely and straightforwardly as a political tool to craft a history
acceptable to those in charge of overseeing its dissemination.
It was deployed as one of several weapons used to weaken the designated "enemies"
of those in power by offering "clemency" as an inducement for them to defect,
but threatening to bring them to justice if they did not.
However, although it may have achieved its short-term political purposes of canonizing
a version of history, demonizing two men and sanitizing certain others, in the long
run it left a bitter legacy of deep cynicism and suspicion.
A Three-Way Coalition
The trial was part of an attempt to construct a viable political regime based on
three readily categorizable groups of Cambodians.
First, there were Cambodian communists who had become involved in Vietnamese-led
revolutionary activities during the First Indochina War, but had then left Cambodia
to be "regrouped" in Vietnam after the Geneva Agreements.
Many of these ex-regroupees had returned to Cambodia in 1970, only to be subjected
to purge and, increasingly, execution by the Pol Pot-led Party between 1971 and 1976.
Second, were Cambodian communists who had served the DK regime in various capacities
while it was in power, but who had fled or resisted and then fled purges within the
Party in 1977 and 1978.
Almost all of these came from the East Zone, which bordered on Vietnam and where
the purges of 1978 had provoked a brief civil war followed by large-scale reprisal
killings of the population.
Third were members of the old society (ie, pre-revolution) elite, labeled as "petty
bourgeoisie" or "intellectuals" by the new regime.
They were survivors not only of Pol Pot's post-1975 policy of exterminating remnants
of the Khmer Republic regime.
They had also survived the DK regime's systematic discrimination against the so-called
"new people", that is urban dwellers and others who had been evacuated
from zones that had remained under Khmer Republic administration up through April
1975 into rural areas.
In the countryside, they were dispersed into agricultural production cooperatives
under Communist control and generally dominated by the "base people" veterans
of life under Communism.
Discrimination against them by Party cadre and ordinary "base people" meant
that they suffered disproportionately from the starvation and disease that spread
as the regime's economic and social policies drove down production and wrecked health
They also suffered enormously from executions that local Communist Party cadre carried
out in an effort to root out remnants of the "feudal" and "bourgeois"
classes that Pol Pot blamed for regime failures before he also turned on the Communist
Party structure itself.
All three groups were represented in the Kampuchean National United Solidarity Front
for National Salvation founded on 2 December 1978, before the Vietnamese invasion
that toppled DK was launched, and in the Revolutionary People's Council of Kampuchea
(RPCK), the proto-government that was created once Phnom Penh was "liberated".
However, the ex-East Zone DK cadre dominated the Front, while the ex-regroupees dominated
The ex-regroupees also dominated a reconstituted Cambodian Communist Party organization
that guided both the Front and the Government, and no members of the old society
elite were among the Party's original membership.
Culpability, History and Clemency
Right from the day the Front was proclaimed, it was clear there were contesting narratives
of DK history within it.
These contesting narratives were directly related to questions of culpability for
DK-era crimes and to whom credit was due for opposing them.
Different narratives gave different accounts of violent repression and opposition
to it during the 'five-year war' that had brought Communists to power on 17 April
1975 and the 'three years, eight months and 20 days' of communist rule that lasted
from that date until 7 January 1979.
For the time being, however, any direct discussion of culpability was studiously
Instead policies that glossed over questions of culpability were formulated with
a view to "winning over" cadre and combatants who as of 2 December 1978
remained in the ranks of 'the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique'.