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Biographer calls Samphan ‘smokescreen’

Biographer calls Samphan ‘smokescreen’

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The Khieu Samphan defence took over questioning of journalist and biographer Philip Short in the afternoon session of the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, seeking – among other things – to downplay their client’s role in the notorious Democratic Kampuchea regime.

Quoting the prologue of Short’s book, Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare, Samphan defence lawyer Anta Guisse said, “Most observers in Cambodia and abroad were convinced that the movement was led by Khieu Samphan, a left-wing intellectual known for his integrity”.

“But this was only a smokescreen,” she read on. “Power was in the hands of other men, and everyone ignored their names.”

When asked for his thoughts on the passage, Short replied with a grin, “I couldn’t have put it better myself”.

Later, when questioned about the minutes of a meeting in which the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s standing committee discussed the outcome of a summit with Vietnam over the two countries’ sea border, Short again drew attention to the fact that Samphan had little to do with the party’s choices.

“I think it’s important . . . that Khieu Samphan didn’t speak in this meeting,” he said. “Everyone else spoke, but Khieu Samphan didn’t, and I think this was rather typical of standing committee meetings.”

“Khieu Samphan was not part of the decision-making core,” he continued.

Guisse, at times, also sought to draw out the expert witness’s views on Samphan’s economic plans, as expressed in his thesis submitted to the Sorbonne when he was a student in Paris. While the thesis was “not a blueprint,” Short said, the broader strokes were apparent in the system ultimately put in place by the Khmer Rouge.

“The thrust of that entire thesis is that Cambodia should develop autonomously, that it should not become a tributary of foreign states . . . and, as he repeatedly says: the nation is the key, the individual is not,” Short said.

The ideas, as Short later testified, “had much to commend them,” a point Guisse sought to reinforce by quoting another portion of Short’s book in which he described a 1970s-era plan for Thailand’s development, drawn up by social scientists, that suggested “the transition of excess urban populations to the countryside, the confiscation of unproductive wealth from the rich, and investment in agriculture”.

However, as Short reminded the court, despite the salience of his theoretical ideas and his relatively low profile in the regime, Samphan was still complicit in Democratic Kampuchea’s actions.

“If you’re asking if, as head of state, Khieu Samphan had any decision-making power, the answer surely is no,” Short said.

But though he wasn’t the key decision-maker, he added: “There are plenty of documents that show he was party to the decisions made.”