Then-Chinese ambassador to Cambodia, Sun Hao (center), at Pochentong Airport circa 1975-1978 with friend and close ally Pol Pot. Ieng Sary, far left, doffs his hat in deference to the official party.
Middle kingdom puts squeeze on little kingdom
n May 18-20, Li Peng, Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party, became
the latest in a series of high ranking emissaries of the mighty Middle Kingdom to
As expected, the notorious "butcher of Tiananmen" was feted by government
officials and representatives of Cambodia's ethnic Chinese community, who praised
Beijing's strengthening economic ties and "ever-lasting friendship" with
Away from the red carpet niceties of official banquets, however, the subtext of Peng's
visit was as crude and direct as the line of armored personnel carriers that at Peng's
directive rolled over student pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989.
Behind the donations of office furniture to the National Assembly and considerations
of demobilization aid is China's message that poor, weak Cambodia is again a focus
of China's expanding strategic interests.
Peng is the fourth high-ranking Chinese official in less than six months to land
in Cambodia, visits clearly motivated by something more than the ritual opportunity
to gaze at the wonders of Angkor Wat. In between the high- profile visits, hardly
a week goes by without some PRC delegation adding a little more cement to the special
relationship with more of its vaunted "no strings attached" aid and investment.
Meanwhile the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Law has been stalled since January over a technical
detail which Sok An and everybody else admits would not take up much more than 30
minutes of the National Assembly's time to resolve. Why the inordinate delay? Even
prime minister Hun Sen has remarked that if the tribunal is delayed too long, Ta
Mok and other Khmer Rouge defendants might become too sick or senile to stand trial.
A senior Asean diplomat had no doubt that the Khmer Rouge law was deliberately put
on hold until after the Li Peng visit to avoid embarrassing Cambodia's powerful patron.
Ironically, while Li Peng, the Chinese Communist Party's number two and chairman
of his country's National Assembly, was being shown around Angkor Wat, Cambodians
were observing the annual May 20th "Day of Anger" against the Pol Pot regime,
commemorated every year at the Choueng Ek Killing Fields.
The Phnom Penh municipality-organized ceremony, dedicated to mourning the victims
of the Khmer Rouge, consists of Buddhist prayers for the dead and is usually attended
by leading CPP officials. But this year, participants' grief was mixed with bewilderment
and anger over the unseemly delays in rendering justice to the victims through a
Khmer Rouge tribunal.
What went unsaid at Choueng Ek was that their anger could and should have been directed
at Angkor Wat sightseer Li Peng, for Beijing's implacable opposition to any kind
of credible tribunal with international participation is a matter of public record.
China's special links with Cambodia date back to then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk's neutralist
foreign policy in the sixties and his close friendship with Mao Tse Tung and Chou
Now Beijing has established far more all-pervasive ties to Cambodia. Along with direct
government links, Beijing has aggressively fostered relations with both CPP and Funcinpec
party cadre, sponsored special relations between the two countries' national assemblies
by funding the construction of the parliamentary annex building, and provided liberal
funding to influential Cambodian Chinese associations.
It is clear that China is not only cultivating Cambodia as a "special friend"
in the region alongside a pariah called Myanmar to increase Chinese influence in
Asean , but is piling up goodwill, aid and investment in a sustained bid to head
off what they see as the unpalatable threat of a Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
While various foreign powers have contributed to Cambodia's three decades of war
and genocide, most notably Nixon and Kissinger's secret bombing campaign, only China's
actions in support of the Pol Pot regime could fall under the scrutiny of the court's
jurisdiction, limited under the KR Tribunal Law to the 1975-79 period of Pol Pot's
The Democracy Front for Khmer Students and Intellectuals has twice demanded that
the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh provide an official apology and pay compensation
for their crucial role in providing unqualified support for the genocidal regime.
Between 1975 and 1979, China supplied the Pol Pot regime with over 200 tanks, six
Mig fighters, several naval gunboats, 30,000 tons of ammunition, and at least 15,000
advisors, according to Chung Khuang Weng, a former Chinese embassy official in Phnom
The Chinese embassy and their army of military, agricultural and other advisors had
unique opportunities (not afforded to any other embassy that operated in Phnom Penh
between 1975-1979 ) to travel widely in areas in which mass killings were a daily
fact of life. Then-Chinese ambassador Sun Hao was frequently photographed in the
company of Pol Pot and other KR leaders.
For nearly four years, the country was sealed off from the outside world save for
a weekly and sometimes twice-weekly flight from Beijing to Phnom Penh.
China's lame and standard re- sponse to demands that it account for its passive or
possibly active role in the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians is the mantra
"we do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries," an alibi
that is as false as it is morally repugnant.
By rejecting student protests outside their Phnom Penh embassy, China has said it
has no reason to apologize for its support of the Khmer Rouge regime.
A special embarrassment for Beijing was its failure or refusal to ask the Pol Pot
regime to protect Cambodia's ethnic Chinese community, two-thirds of whom were killed
between 1975-1979. That salient fact makes Beijing's aggressive cultivation of ties
with Cambodia's contemporary ethnic Chinese - and their own curious amnesia about
the true face of Chinese "friendship" with Cambodia - particularly odious.
In the 1980s, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk commented that China's strategy "...
is to fight Vietnam to the last Cambodian."
Two decades on, Hun Sen/Cambodian- China relations have managed an awesome 180- degree
flip fueled by an $18 million foreign aid deal backed up by a $200 million interest-free
loan deal inked in February, 1999 in Beijing.
By the end of 2000, Beijing had completed its Cambodian odyssey from being Hun Sen's
and the CPP's implacable enemy to become the kingdom's second largest investor and
a major aid donor.
The visits of President Jiang Zemin, Defence Minister General Chi Haotian, Foreign
Trade Minister Shi Guangsheng and now Li Peng in quick succession demonstrates a
sustained diplomatic courtship that according to Phnom Penh diplomats poses a challenge
to Wash-ington's long-standing power in the region by asserting Cambodia as part
of "China's backyard".
After his May 19 meeting with Li Peng, Hun Sen, who had just requested a further
$60 million in aid, heaped praise on China, claiming that "...they never interfere
with a country's internal affairs" in contrast to western donors and Japan who
have attempted to link aid to good government, respect for human rights, and military
and civil service reforms.
In a 1988 essay, Hun Sen wrote "China is the root of all that is evil in Cambodia",
referring both to its support of the KR regime and the $300 million Beijing annually
lavished on the KR insurgency in the 1980s. It can only be assumed that at the time
the Prime Minister was less magnanimous about China's avowed "non-interference"
On the subject of the KR tribunal, the Cambodian PM insists that "China does
not talk about this issue" and that it was never discussed.
Hun Sen has never publicly admitted to any Chinese pressure on this issue, but diplomats
and former UN human rights rapporteur Thomas Hamm-arberg insist that the prime minister
has confided privately that Beijing has engaged in frenetic lobbying of the government,
but more in the form of secret diplomacy than bringing up the topic during high-profile
A clear pattern has emerged in the frustrating stop-go process towards a tribunal.
All delays in the process help keep Beijing sweet. Although the KR tribunal law could
have been passed last October, it had to be delayed out of delicadeza and deference
to Jiang Zemin's visit last November.
This time around, the ever-so- small amendment could not be addressed by the National
Assembly until after the Li Peng visit and Cambodian-Chinese harmony was assured
without any irritants casting an ugly shadow over the proceedings.
The government has confirmed that the KR law will be in place and signed by the King
before the June 11-13 donors meeting in Tokyo. But further progress with the UN will
remain hostage to the sensitivities of such leaders as Li Peng, who are determined
that such tribunals - and the resulting potential embarrassing revelations about
China's role in crimes against humanity - will never occur in "China's backyard".
Will Cambodians ever get the satisfaction of an historic day of judgment when key
KR suspects Ta Mok, Duch, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Ke
Pauk appear in court and are indicted for crimes against humanity?
Bob Dylan might have sung: "The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind".
This time round it seems to be an east wind blowing from Beijing.
- Tom Fawthrop has reported for the UK and Australian media on Cambodia and
the region for 20 years and is now writing a book: "The Cambodia Genocide: The
Long Quest for Justice". Comments and contributions are welcome at [email protected].