Stephen Morris: "Mass killing is the history of Communism. People were killed for their class position but also to set an example - kill some to discourage the rest; create a state of fear and obedience to the regime. You do have cases of racism in Communism - the Chams - it is a normal part of extreme communism. In North Korea, if you're caught with a Bible then you are executed, but that's not genocide."
A Western scholar who studied the archives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,
author Stephen Morris frames the "genocide" debate in a larger historical
Rarely does Cambodia get a mention in the international media without a few stock
phrases about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge "genocide."
For academic Stephen Morris, author of Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia, published in
1999, the prevalence of the term genocide "reflects the fact that Vietnam initiated
and maintained control of the debate over the Khmer Rouge," he says. In the
1980s Morris visited the Khmer Rouge zones of Cambodia where he met many of the senior
KR figures, including Ieng Sary, who now face charges in the KR tribunal.
During the 1990s Morris gained access to the archives of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union, becoming the only western scholar to read secret Russian-language documents
concerning the history of Vietnamese Communism, the American intervention in Vietnam
and the eventual Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that ousted the Khmer Rouge. Morris'
work attempts to examine the Cambodian experience in light of international Communist
Back in Cambodia recently to research a new book, Morris spoke to the Post's Cat
Barton about Vietnam, Cambodia, and Pol Pot's psychology.
Does Democratic Kampuchea have to be seen in light of international Communist
history to be understood?
It was a totalitarian state, like Nazism, the Taliban, and various Communist regimes,
which are the most common way this has manifested. I have written about Vietnam's
ambitions to Cambodia. Vietnam did have and always had ambitions regarding Cambodia,
but evidence suggests that they were not trying to subvert the regime. Pol Pot had
paranoid personality disorder - all great Communist leaders have this. There are
two key points on this: first, the relevant political culture is inherently paranoid;
second, all tyrants feel they are attached to this system. Some people who are attracted
to regimes or movements are already disturbed personalities: Kim Il Sung, Stalin
and Mao. Or tyranny can result from personality disorders - like Pol Pot. You can
find examples of the phenomenon in the Communist world. Stalin and Mao felt they
were always in a state of disturbance and fear, always looking for secret enemies.
How was Democratic Kampuchea similar to these other regimes?
During Stalin's great terror a famous slogan was, "The mark of a good Communist
is his ability to unmask the class enemy, no matter how well he may be hidden."
This was the guiding principle for denunciation in Stalin's society at the height
of the terror. This was how innocent people got denounced for anything. What we saw
in Stalinist Russia and China during the 1950s and 1960s under Mao's personalized
tyranny was repeated in a condensed form and time period in Cambodia under the Khmer
Rouge. It was not just condensed because the regime had less time - they didn't know
that would be the case - but the speed they moved at was unprecedented. They wanted
to show they were purer Communists - partly as they were frightened that if they
didn't implement a system of total domination as soon as possible they would be overthrown.
How important is Vietnam in terms of understanding Cambodian Communism?
Cambodia had an inferiority complex regarding their big powerful neighbor who had
exploited them for centuries. Politically conscious Cambodians, especially Communists,
had a bad dose of this. It came from their experience of dealing with Vietnam. Pre-1970
the Khmer Rouge was isolated. Pol Pot and his group were not anti-Vietnamese before
1970. From late 1971 the Khmer Rouge decided Vietnam was the main enemy. This was
not objectively true; the Khmer Rouge was weak. Their prospects of gaining power
rested on help from the Vietnamese. They couldn't have done it alone. The Khmer Rouge
depended on North Vietnam during 1970 to 1972.
What do you think about the use of the term "genocide" ?
The Vietnamese initiated the use of genocide in 1978 - no one had ever used it before
them. The term was embraced by the supporters of Hanoi. In the political culture
of the West the use of this term spread. But no one thought about it, they equated
"horrible thing" with genocide. But not everything horrible is genocide.
A lot of mass killings have nothing to do with genocide. It was an attempt by the
Communists to disassociate from the Khmer Rouge to say "what happened under
the Khmer Rouge had nothing to do with Communism." But it has everything to
do with Communism - just a Cambodian version. Not every Communist regime is identical
but there are similar patterns of behavior. Fundamentally, the Khmer Rouge followed
a Stalin/Mao pattern, not a Nazi pattern. Yes, there was talk of the "Khmer
Race" but it was for motivational reasons. Why did they turn the whole kingdom
into a giant concentration camp? Mao. Thirty five million starved to death during
the "great leap forward" and what Pol Pot did was the same as Mao. Is Mao
accused of genocide? People of the far left have an interest in maintaining a separation
between the Khmer Rouge and Communism.
So what relation does mass killing have to Communism?
Mass killing is the history of Communism, people were killed for their class position,
but also to set an example: kill some to discourage the rest. Create a state of fear
and obedience to the regime. You do have cases of racism in Communism, the Chams.
It is a normal parts of extreme Communism. In North Korea, if you're caught with
a Bible then you are executed, but that's not genocide. What Pol Pot was doing followed
in the tradition of Communist history, Stalin and Mao and the Great Leader.
When did you go to Cambodia?
I went to the Khmer Rouge zones in 1983 to see Meas Muth. [son in law of notorious
KR leader Ta Mok]. I met Ieng Sary then and Keat Chhon. He was not high ranking in
What do you think about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal?
The government has confirmed that the tribunal can try "senior leaders and those
most responsible," but they won't get to the real killers. Duch is the only
one who's actually admitted to the killings. The others deny it. The KRT won't accept
that the whole system was rotten. They take the Vietnamese view that the Pol Pot
clique usurped power and from 1978 onwards they were denouncing the Pol Pot section
of the regime. ... At the village level there were huge atrocities. In Germany they
went to the roots of Nazism, pursued by the Israelis and other Western governments.
In Cambodia they have to find all those who massacred at the village level and district
level. But they've been defined out. Why? They still have positions of power and
influence in the country. This is a reasonable suspicion. The killers live among
us. All Western countries regard Nazi atrocities - from the top to the guy who pulled
the trigger - as guilty .... Here it is not being done. The excuse is that it will
create social instability. Western governments accept this, they don't want instability.