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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Why did they kill? Genocide definition debate continues

Why did they kill? Genocide definition debate continues

I would like to thank Bora Touch for his response to the question I raised in my

previous letter to the Post (October 7): "Was it a genocide?" In contrast to the

affirmative answer that I provided, Bora Touch makes several counter-arguments

to assert that the events that occurred during Democratic Kampuchea should not

be considered genocide.

Before replying, I want to emphasize that the

most important thing to keep in mind - and on this I'm sure Bora Touch and I

agree - is that Cambodians lived through a period of extreme brutality,

suffering, and terror and that the Khmer Rouge committed horrific crimes for

which they should be held accountable. This devastating reality should not be

overshadowed by definitional debates.

Nevertheless, assessing whether or

not these crimes were genocide is important, both on a symbolic level (to

acknowledge the extremity of Democratic Kampuchea) and a legal level (to

determine the charges that should be brought against former Khmer Rouge


Bora Touch claims that I am "wrong in law and in fact" to

assert that a genocide took place in Cambodia, arguing that there "is no

evidence that the Khmer Rouge leadership had an intent to destroy any group

based on their race, ethnicity or religion."

His assertion is inaccurate.

In the upcoming tribunal, a court of law will pass judgment on whether or not

genocide was perpetrated in Democratic Kampuchea (according to the strict

definition of genocide set out in the 1948 UN Genocide Convention). The evidence

presented will include primary documentation, interviews, surveys, and

statistical data.

Among the latter type of evidence will be demographic

findings that ethnic Chams and ethnic Vietnamese perished in much greater

numbers than other Cambodians.

The most comprehensive study of Chams to

date, Ysa Osman's Oukoubah (DC-Cam, 2002) found that as many as 400,000 to

500,000 of Cambodia's 700,000 ethnic Chams perished during DK, a figure that

constitutes a 57-to-71 percent mortality rate, two to three times higher than

that of the Cambodian population as a whole. A demographic analysis by Ben

Kiernan (The Pol Pot Regime) suggests an even higher mortality rate for ethnic

Vietnamese: almost all of the 20,000 or so ethnic Vietnamese who remained after

the 1975 expulsions perished.

Such statistical studies alone, of course,

do not provide proof of genocide (though they are certainly evidence of it).

They must be paired with other supporting evidence, such as witness testimony.

Based on my interviews with Cambodian villagers in Kampong Siem district,

Kampong Cham, I am confident that testimony of a coordinated plan to eradicate

ethnic Chams and Vietnamese will not be difficult to find. Over and over again,

I was told how all of the ethnic Cham and Vietnamese families in given villages

were annihilated. One former Khmer Rouge cadre told me that such killings took

place after the subdistrict office received a letter specifying that ethnic

Chams and Vietnamese, among other "enemy groups," should be "swept


This official's memory suggests that there may still exist at

least some primary documentation directly implicating high-ranking members of

the Khmer Rouge in the genocide of ethnic Chams and Vietnamese. Until the

enormous amount of archival material held by the Documentation Center of

Cambodia has been catalogued and analyzed, however, we won't know if an

unequivocal "smoking gun" exists. Still, documentation that already has been

examined provides at least indirect evidence that ethnic Chams had been targeted

as counter-revolutionaries (and clearly were the victims of ethnocide) and that

Vietnamese (even those having "Khmer bodies but Vietnamese minds") were regarded

as enemies of the state.

Having said this, I want to emphasize that,

while highly desirable, primary documentation directly implicating high-ranking

former Khmer Rouge officials is not the only type of evidence that is needed to

determine that genocide took place in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Contrary

to Bora Touch's argument, which ignores eyewitness testimony, demographic

information, forensic studies, mapping projects, and so forth, there is

substantial evidence of genocide, particularly for the mass murder of ethnic

Chams and Muslims (the case for Buddhist monks is harder to make and awaits

further investigation and analysis).

Bora Touch also claims that I am

"incorrect to claim that (1) killing of political and economic groups is also

genocide in the 'broad sense' of the convention, and (2) that most scholars of

genocide agree [on this]." He inaccurately describes my argument. I stated that

the Cambodian case qualifies as genocide "in the broader sense used by most

scholars of genocide" (Phnom Penh Post, October 7). In other words, I never

referred to the "'broad sense' of the convention."

When the genocide

convention was originally formulated, a Soviet-bloc faction led a movement to

exclude political and economic groups, arguing that these group identities were

"more mutable."

The person who coined the term "genocide," Rapheal

Lemkin, included such groups in his original definition ("political and other

groups" were also included in a preliminary 1946 draft resolution), but they

were ultimately excised from the final text of the 1948 UN Genocide


Most genocide scholars recognize that the language of the

convention is overly restrictive; many use a broader definition in their own

research, one that encompasses political and economic groups as Lemkin

originally intended.

For such scholars, myself included, there is little

doubt that the Cambodian case qualifies as a genocide, since there is

substantial documentary, statistical, survey, forensic, and testimonial evidence

that such groups were targeted for destruction by the Khmer Rouge.


Touch missed this point. Still, I appreciate his willingness to participate in

this complex debate, one that will take on even greater significance when the

tribunal begins and the evidence for and against a genocide conviction is

presented in a court of law.

Alex Hinton - Rutgers University,

Newark, New Jersey



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