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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - When 110.7 people decline to answer, a question arises

When 110.7 people decline to answer, a question arises


Reviewed by Allen Myers Suzannah Linton's Reconciliation in Cambodia, being published

in August by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, is number 5 in DC-Cam's Documentation

Series. Sadly, it is the least successful, for several reasons.

National Reconciliation has been a political buzzword for over a decade. Photo ops aside, like the one above in Poipet in 1996, a new book on the subject, according to Allen Myers, misses the mark.

The author writes that the book was "inspired" by a survey conducted by

DC-Cam in 2002. But the survey, while of interest in a number of respects, was not

a sufficient source to provide a basis for the topic described in the book's title.

The survey covered only 712 respondents, who were not at all representative of the

Cambodian population, and many of the questions were on topics other than reconciliation.

So the other source of information about reconciliation in Cambodia becomes Linton's

reading of other writers on Cambodia and on reconciliation. As a newcomer to the

field of reconciliation studies, I found much of the review of experiences in Bosnia,

East Timor, South Africa and so on intriguing and thought-provoking.

However, regarding aspects of Cambodia where I have some previous information, I

found her presentation tendentious and often factually wrong. The reader unfamiliar

with Cambodia would be left, for example, with the impression that the government

had granted hundreds or even thousands of amnesties and pardons to Khmer Rouge offenders.

Moreover, the attempt to combine the survey and the review of reconciliation literature

remains forced, and it shows. To take just one example, the chapter analyzing the

DC-Cam survey includes a nine-page discussion of the extent to which testifying is

cathartic for victims of genocidal crimes who appear in trials or truth commissions.

I found it very interesting, but there was no logical reason for it to appear where

it does, tacked at the end of statistics about how many people in the DC-Cam survey

thought it was important to learn the truth about the Khmer Rouge regime.

Since I have said the book is tendentious, I should reveal what the tendency is.

Linton describes this on page 95, where she "sums up" a message repeated

many times throughout the book: the Cambodian government is uninterested in a trial

of the Khmer Rouge that produces justice, or in "social repair" or real

reconciliation or the rule of law.

Linton or anyone else is of course entitled to hold this view, but if she wants her

readers to share it, she ought to do them the courtesy of supplying evidence and

rational argument. On this, the book fails badly, relying mainly on unsupported,

or poorly supported, generalizations. Here is one example among many:

Linton writes that the Cambodian government's 1997 request to the UN for assistance

in trying KR leaders "is widely assessed as having been a strategic political

move by Hun Sen in response to other political pressures". The statement is

accompanied by two references. One is from David Chandler, who wrote that the request

was "probably ... tactical" and who did not attribute it to Hun Sen any

more than to Ranariddh. The other is a Bangkok Post article saying, "The actual

intentions of Ranariddh and Hun Sen ... are not clear." Two sources are not

"wide", especially when both of them disagree with the statement they are

supposed to support.

Even worse, Linton is rather cavalier about the use of quotation marks. For example:

"... the government has in effect been pursuing a policy akin to 'peace and

reconciliation at all costs, and carefully controlled and calibrated justice if we

absolutely cannot avoid it'."

The charitable reader who is also a native English speaker may eventually work out

that Linton didn't really mean to say that the words in single quotes were spoken

by a member of the government. But there will be many readers for whom English is

a second language, and they might miss the fact that direct quotes in this book are

enclosed in double quotation marks. Furthermore, there is no good grammatical reason

for putting quotes around the phrase, and using the pronoun "we" within

it can only mislead.

Where it is a matter of real remarks from members of the government, Linton has two

methods. If she thinks the remark can be forcibly interpreted to fit her thesis,

she attempts to do so. If the remark is too contradictory of her thesis for such

treatment, she dismisses it as "rhetoric" - or even, in some cases, as


Conversely, anything critical of the government is guaranteed a warm welcome. For

example, Linton tells us that Stephen Heder - whose well-known antipathy for the

government and the trial arrangements is never mentioned - believes that "the

prevailing fear that Cambodians speak about is actually 'much more of current powerholders

than a psychological legacy of the [Khmer Rouge] period'."

The footnote tells us that this observation was made in "personal correspondence

with the author". How's that for academic rigor! A sweeping polemical generalization

is supported by nothing more than an observation in a private letter: readers are

given nothing that allows them to judge whether Heder had any objective basis for

his remark.

Unfortunately, this sort of sloppiness, which seems mainly designed to sharpen Linton's

political axe, spills over into the rest of the book, including her handling of the

DC-Cam survey. She acknowledges that, because of its size and other limitations,

the survey cannot be taken as representative of the whole Cambodian population. But

having stated the caveat, she ignores it throughout, repeatedly claiming that the

survey results demonstrate what Cambodians generally think regarding some issue.

Here, she is not above forcing interpretations on the results. For example, we are

repeatedly told that the survey showed "tremendous" support for "rule

of law". However, at the bottom of page 24 appears the admission that respondents

"did not use the specific term 'rule of law'"! Oh well, she seems to say,

I know what they really meant.

The presentation of the statistics from the survey also suffers. Figures are all

in percentages carried to two decimal places, creating a mere illusion of precision

when there were only 712 respondents. And some of the percentages are clearly wrong:

they imply, for example, that 550.5 respondents answered "yes" to question

3, while 110.7 respondents declined to answer question 2.

Strangely, the book begins with an "executive summary" - as though it were

a report to the head of an NGO or corporation, rather than a book for the reading

public. However, an executive summary is supposed to be brief, so that busy executives

can make a quick choice, but this one is 37 pages long and full of detail and repetition.

Its main function appears to be to allow Linton to bash the reader one more time

with her political preconceptions.

This is indeed overkill, because the main text is itself exceedingly repetitive,

in both argument and detail. One quotation from Stephen Heder appears four times,

including once in the executive summary.

Last and least, Linton concludes with 15 pages of finger-wagging instructions to

the government and a smaller list for NGOs, consisting mostly of jargon (eg "creative

and culturally-sensitive mechanisms for accountability").

The author calls the book a "multi-disciplinary" study. Reading it, I kept

wondering what those disciplines were. Clearly, self-discipline is not one of them.



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