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Comment: Britain blameless in Cambodia saga

Comment: Britain blameless in Cambodia saga

An article published in a British newspaper contends that Britain and other Western

countries will be embarrassed by revelations of their military support for the Khmer

Rouge during the 1980s. But Britain's ambassador to Thailand at that time, Derek

Tonkin, says the West has nothing to fear.

Iwas intrigued to read the NGO

Forum item "Butcher of Cambodia set to expose Thatcher's role" which appeared

in the London "Observer" of 9 January 2000.

Any "revelations" by Ta Mok at his trial that the British Government provided

military support, even indirectly, to the Khmer Rouge would not be based on fact.

As British Ambassador in Bangkok from early 1986 to late 1989, I am better informed

than most about what actually happened.

A first and obvious point is that there was no conceivable British national interest

in providing military training or support, directly or indirectly, to the Khmer Rouge,

or in doing anything which might have assisted their ambitions and objectives.

The West, and indeed most of the countries of the United Nations, agreed in 1979

in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that they had little choice

but to continue to recognize the usurped regime as the legitimate government. The

Vietnamese invasion was at the same time a liberation, and many have commented that,

if only they had handed over the country to international control by the end of 1979,

they would have been applauded as liberators. The Vietnamese agenda was however rather

more than liberation, and the situation in Cambodia was declared to be "irreversible".

At the time I was ambassador to Vietnam, and I argued from Hanoi that it would be

better to leave the UN seat vacant until a UN-supervised act of self-determination

had been accomplished. The general feeling in the UN however was that the infringement

of Cambodian sovereignty by the Vietnamese invasion, which was followed 12 months

later by the infringement of Afghanistan's sovereignty by the Soviet invasion, was

something which the international community could not tolerate and that the continuing

acceptance of Khmer Rouge credentials in the United Nations was the only viable policy

at that time, however distasteful.

There was also considerable anxiety in Thailand about expansionist Vietnamese ambitions

against the background of triumphalist declarations issuing from Hanoi after the

fall of Saigon in 1975 about the victorious march of socialism throughout S.E. Asia.

Indeed it was not long before advance Vietnamese patrols were to be stationed inside

Thai territory to provide early warning of KR infiltration into Cambodia. Sound military

tactics, but very unnerving to the Thais, who found it difficult if not impossible

to remove these Vietnamese positions, concealed as they were in jungle thickets more

easily accessible from the Cambodian border escarpment than from the Thai border

patrol road, which was often at least 10 kilometers inside Thai territory.

This unhappy situation lasted for well over three years. As revelations about the

Killing Fields emerged, the countries of the UN became increasingly embarrassed about

their acceptance of Khmer Rouge credentials. It should however be recognized that

Britain was the first to withdraw diplomatic recognition of the KR regime in December

1979, an act which the Vietnamese government has commended. Britain was also the

first country to raise the issue of Khmer Rouge human rights abuses at the UN Human

Rights Committee in Geneva in 1978, well before the Vietnamese invasion (and when

we did not receive as much international support as we might have expected).

"Realpolitik" concerns about the breach of sovereignty by Vietnam, which

were paramount in 1979 and 1980, soon came up against deeper concerns aroused by

the revelations of the breach of humanity by the Khmer Rouge. Pressure was accordingly

applied - not least by China and ASEAN - on the Cambodian resistance to come up with

another solution, since a number of countries in the UN, including Britain, made

it privately clear that they could not possibly continue to accept the Khmer Rouge

in the Cambodian seat.

With great reluctance, the then Prince Sihanouk agreed to the formation of the Cambodian

Government of Democratic Kampuchea ("CGDK"), which survived for almost

10 years and occupied the Cambodian seat at the UN until 1989 with the overwhelming

support of the countries of the UN. As Prince Sihanouk explained in his book "Prisonniers

des Khmers Rouges".

I think that all of us recognized that the coalition which was cobbled together was

dominated by the Khmer Rouge, but countries took some comfort that it had no effective

mandate within Cambodia as an administration and so, faute de mieux, the UN was prepared

to live with this highly unsatisfactory situation because the alternative, of accepting

the Vietnamese sponsored administration in Cambodia, was still seen to be even less


It was largely a choice between two unpalatable alternatives, and the UN generally

accepted the CGDK. The third alternative, the "empty seat" on the Hungarian

model post 1956, has in recent years not been favored, since it is generally felt

that it is better to have someone occupy a seat, in order to encourage debate, rather

than to leave it unoccupied.

I still believe however that it would have been the far preferable alternative, since

acceptance of the CGDK in the UN was perceived by the world at large as moral and

political support for the Khmer Rouge as the dominant partner in the coalition. Indeed,

after the formation of the Supreme National Council which brought together all four

Cambodian factions following the UN and ASEAN sponsored peace settlement, the Cambodian

seat remained vacant during the 1990 Session of the General Assembly while the council

sought to designate its representatives.

While in the corridors of the UN the name of the game was well understood between

1982 and 1989, the peoples of the world generally were puzzled, and some were understandably

upset, that a Khmer Rouge dominated coalition - however fractious and disorganized

- should be favored against the PRK ("People's Republic of Kampuchea")

government in Phnom Penh which was establishing itself as an effective administration

and which had the broad support of the international NGO community.

It would be naive to pretend that acceptance of KR credentials and later of CGDK

credentials by the United Nations did not give a measure of political support and

comfort to the KR. It undoubtedly did, but criticism of this policy should be tempered

by the recognition that this acceptance was widely seen at the time by the international

community as the lesser of two evils.

I recall a brainstorming session which I held with representatives of some 55 NGOs

in Bangkok in 1988, at which I endeavored to explain the international politics behind

the Cambodian situation, which led the substantial majority of countries in the UN

to continue to support the CGDK. Intellectually, my arguments were strong, but morally

they were less easy to justify.

The dilemma was however highlighted: which is, or should be the more important consideration

in international law and practice - breach of sovereignty or breach of human rights?

In August 1988 Mrs Thatcher, who was then British Prime Minister, visited Thailand

and spent a day at the Site B Sihanoukist border camp, where she was welcomed by

Prince Sihanouk personally.

Mrs Thatcher, for whom the Cambodian problem had not previously been a major domestic

priority, realized at once that if there was to be a solution, then it would need

to be brokered by the international community at large, and gave instructions that

the matter should be pursued vigorously at the UN, through the Five Permanent Members

of the Security Council. Among the Five, Britain had a unique position. China and

the Soviet Union supported opposing factions in Cambodia. France was the former colonial

power in Indochina.

The United States had been heavily involved in Cambodia up to the fall of Phnom Penh

in April 1975. Only Britain had historically a truly independent position. The contribution

of Mrs Thatcher to the resolution of the Cambodian problem is not widely known.

But she was undoubtedly a catalyst to UN action at the highest level.

I would add in passing that Mrs Thatcher was not accompanied on her visit to Thailand

by Sir Geoffrey Howe, the then Foreign Secretary, and when news of her UN initiative

broke in the Foreign Office, there were quizzical comments about what kind of "settee

diplomacy" I might have been playing with Mrs Thatcher at the British Residence

in Bangkok. Foreign Office concerns at the time were centered on the relationship

with China in the negotiations over the future of Hong Kong, and they did not want

an Ambassador in Bangkok to upset the Chinese by asking them through the UN to tighten

the squeeze on the Khmer Rouge, supported by China not so much out of common ideology,

but for reasons of sheer realpolitik as a means of putting pressure on Vietnam. I

have no doubt that the perception in the Foreign Office was that the more important

British interest was the relationship with China.

On the military front, the relations between the two non-communist resistance factions

(FUNCINPEC and the KPNLF - "Khmer People's National Liberation Front")

and the Khmer Rouge were continuously fraught, even hostile. A Report delivered to

the US Congress dated 28 February 1991 noted that between 1986 and 1989 "both

non-communist groups faced serious and continuing problems resulting from repeated

Khmer Rouge attacks against their forces".

Prince Sihanouk was able to acknowledge by late September 1989 that Khmer Rouge attacks

against the Non-Communist Resistance had at long last ceased, and, fearful that the

Vietnamese promise to withdraw their troops from Cambodia would not be honored, sought

with Chinese support to rally all Cambodians in defense of the motherland, calling

on PRK troops to defect to the "National Resistance" who were now said

to be co-operating together. With hindsight, it can be seen that this was a tactical

move in a highly volatile and uncertain situation.

When the reality of the Vietnamese withdrawal was confirmed by international observers

soon afterwards, the troops from all four factions remained firmly entrenched in

their own positions and there was no further talk of supposed "co-operation"

between the resistance forces.

The Report to Congress in 1991 examined the detailed evidence, from various sources,

of military collaboration between the factions from 1986 to 1991, and concluded that

this evidence "does not substantiate a judgment that the NCR (Non-Communist

Resistance) and the Khmer Rouge have been fighting as an integrated force. Nor is

there evidence that the NCR has been fighting under Khmer Rouge command. Nor is there

evidence that the senior leaderships of the NCR and the Khmer Rouge are cooperating

in strategic planning."

The Report did nonetheless acknowledge that : "At the tactical level, however,

there have been reports of use by some ANS units of Khmer Rouge supplies and logistical

lines when they were operating in the same areas.......". At the same time,

the Report recognized "the vulnerability of the marginally funded and supplied

Non-Communist forces to pressure from the well-equipped Khmer Rouge to accept supplies."

Firm assurances were given at the time by the two Non-Communist Commanders-in-Chief,

Prince Ranariddh (of FUNCINPEC) and General Sak Sutsakhan (of the KPNLF forces, known

as "KPNLAF" ["Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces"])

that clear directives had been sent to their field commanders against any diversion

of non-lethal US aid or military co-operation.

In a nutshell, the main allegation in the "Observer" article, attributed

to Ta Mok's lawyer, Benson Samay, that "The Khmer Rouge benefited substantially

from the British operation. All these groups were fighting together - but the Khmer

Rouge were in charge" is factually untrue, and the evidence for this is not

just limited to the 1991 Report to Congress, but is reflected in many documents at

the time. Thus, the "Bangkok Post" on 29 March 1991 highlighted an action

which the newspaper said was the "first ever" instance of cooperation between

the KPNLF and the Khmer Rouge when a KPNLF unit ran short of ammunition during an

engagement and had to appeal to the Khmer Rouge for resupply. Note this "first

ever", repeated several times in the article. No doubt the local KPNLF commander

had his knuckles firmly rapped, and not least by the Americans. The KPNLF did indeed

have supply problems because the Chinese are believed to have restricted supplies

of arms and ammunition at the time to both Non-Communist factions, possibly as a

means of compelling co-operation with the KR.

The facts about British military training provided to the Non-Communist Resistance

were given to the House of Commons in a Written Answer on 25 June 1991. The key sentences

were: "The purpose was to strengthen the position of those forces in relation

to the more powerful forces of the Khmer Rouge in their struggle against the Vietnamese

imposed regime. There never has been, and never will be any British assistance or

support for the Khmer Rouge."

I note that the "Observer" article repeats the old canard that the SAS

"created a 'sabotage battalion' of 250 experts in explosives and ambushes".

This story is taken from "Janes Defense Weekly" of 30 September 1989, which

actually reported that it was four Cambodian instructors who had been trained by

the SAS who set up the "battalion," and not the SAS themselves. Janes also

reported in the same issue that the SAS training team consisted only of seven non-commissioned

Falklands veterans and a captain. Not exactly a massive military intervention!

The objectives of British policy, which were to provide the Cambodian people with

a non-communist alternative to two very powerful Communist movements, one supported

by China and the other by the Soviet Union, have been totally vindicated by events.

Prince Sihanouk is now His Majesty, King of Cambodia, the two non-communist factions

have survived and one is now a coalition partner of the Cambodian People's Party.

The principles of democracy, the rule of law and progress towards a market economy

are now the ideals and objectives of the current Cambodian administration, and indeed

of all established political parties in Cambodia. All this might not have happened

if the Non-Communist Resistance had not received a measure of political and military

support from Britain - and others - against dominant adversaries.

We can only wait to see whether or not the Ta Mok trial will lead to new, or a repeat

of old allegations about British involvement with the Khmer Rouge. There are however

those who positively wallow in conspiracy theories, and can produce all manner of

"fact" to support their allegations. It only needed one Khmer Rouge defector

to say that he had seen (well he would, wouldn't he?) a jeep with six British army

officers in uniform at his camp at "Nong Nhai" on the Thai border for this

to be taken as evidence that six British army officers had indeed been giving training

at this camp (wherever it was, if it indeed existed). But I ask you: would six British

officers actually drive around a camp in uniform together in just one jeep? Would

they not have been a little more discreet, since news of their presence, if true

and made known publicly, would be bound to have had very serious domestic political

consequences in the UK?

It is indeed possible, and even understandable at the time that PRK military commanders

may genuinely have believed, or suspected that the British were up to no good. Rumours

were very rife. The reality, however, as these commanders would later have realised,

was that the British were not in any way involved with the KR.

The only "explanation" ever given of an alleged British national interest

in assisting the KR is that Britain gave support to the Khmer Rouge at the request

of the US, who had become too embarrassed and passed on this unwelcome chore to the

British, who agreed to accept the task in recognition of US intelligence support

given during the Falklands War.

But is it remotely likely that the US would have made such a request to Britain?

Is it remotely likely that Britain would have accepted? Is it remotely likely that

anyone concerned in the chain of command (including myself) would have agreed to

and carried out such totally unacceptable and morally repugnant instructions? The

answer to all these questions is of course: not in a thousand years.

But the "conspiracy" theories, however illogical, unsustainable and bereft

of serious evidence, will persist. For the sensation seekers, they are too good a

story to miss to be concerned about what really happened.

Derek Tonkin was British Ambassador to Vietnam 1980-82 and to Thailand and Laos 1986-89.

He worked at the British Embassy in Phnom Penh from 1961 to 63. He is currently a

Director of Ockenden International, which has a refugee resettlement program based

at Sisophon in Western Cambodia, and he is also Chairman of Beta Mekong Fund Limited,

a British venture capital investment fund for the six countries of the Mekong Region

including Cambodia.


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