Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The debate to apportion blame

The debate to apportion blame

The debate to apportion blame

M ichael Vickery takes issue with academics who, he says, take every opportunity

to discredit the former PRK regime.

A REVIEW of an academic book is

expected to focus on the major theme of the book - at least if the review is

destined for a scholarly publication.

Of course in journalism things are

different; and this has permitted Stephen Heder, in the frame of a review of

Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia, to unload a get-Ben-Kiernan-at-any-price

attack (Phnom Penh Post, 16-29 June 1995).

It is not surprising that

Heder shied away from "Genocide", the theme both of the book and of the

conference from which it emerged, and the dominant concern of the conference

organizer and book editor Ben Kiernan, who has insistently argued that DK was

genocidal and that an international trial for genocide should be


Everything Heder has written, at least until the 1990s, as

well as conversations with me in Aranyaprathet in 1980 when we were both

interviewing refugees, indicate that he doubts the historical accuracy of

"genocide" in Democratic Kampuchea (DK).

This is not a trendy position to

take, but I for one would be in agreement, as I explained in a letter to Z

Magazine (July/Aug 1994).

Not only do I doubt the accuracy of "genocide",

but I maintain that a trial organized by foreign organizations is further

unjustified intervention in Cambodian affairs, and that most of those, although

not Kiernan, who campaigned in western countries for a trial were as interested

in getting the PRK leaders as those of DK.

To his credit, Heder, who was

the Cambodia specialist most in favor with those who sought to undermine the PRK

via a genocide trial of DK leaders, put a stop to that in 1990, saying, "...I

have seen no evidence that any of the ex-Khmer Rouge in positions of high

political authority in today's Cambodia were involved in large-scale or

systematic killing of Cambodian civilians". ("Recent Developments in Cambodia",

a talk by Stephen Heder, Australian National University, 5 Sept 1990, pg2,

printed and distributed by Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge,

Washington, D.C, a group led by Ben Kiernan and Craig Etcheson, with the

collaboration of William Colby).

Whatever the weaknesses of Kiernan's

treatment of human rights, Heder is hardly the one to deal with


Heder's own record as a writer of special reports for the Lawyers'

Committee (1984, 1985), and then Amnesty International (1986, 1987, 1988) shows

thoroughly biased misrepresentation of the human rights situation in Cambodia in

order to discredit the side he most disliked, the PRK and their Vietnamese


Disregarding the circumstance that the very existence of the

PRK in place of DK was an enormous improvement of human rights, and that with

exiguous resources in terms of qualified personnel and funds, in a war situation

cranked up year after year with the assistance of the world's largest and

richest states, the new Cambodian government was making efforts to effect

further improvements, Heder jumped on every defect, real or rumored, and

blackened the PRK beyond all justification.

His special reports, released

conveniently to coincide with important UN debates or, in 1987, with an

international NGO conference in Brussels, were in startling contrast to

Amnesty's Annual Reports, and contrary to Amnesty policy on countries more

favored by the US regime and to the practices of American legal affairs teachers

in the US-backed FUNCINPEC and KPNLF camps on the border.

Heder and other

human rights advocates refused to countenance any special credit for mere

improvement. Human rights violations were human rights violations, and standards

were absolute. Contrast this with an article on China by William F. Schulz,

executive director of Amnesty International USA. (Christian Science Monitor

Weekly, 15-21 April, 1994, "The Problem With Most Favored Nation".)


made some conciliatory and reasonable suggestions concerning pressure on China

about human rights, insisting that consideration should be given for what

progress the Chinese were making on their own, quite contrary to the Lawyers'

Committee and Heder's Amnesty work on Cambodia.

"Our approach to China",

he said, "must recognize that the Chinese themselves are divided over human

rights". The "US must show the Chinese Government... that its concerns are

identical with many of those expressed by respected 'mainline' figures within

China itself. He cited two Chinese law journal articles condemning torture and

detention contrary to laws in force.

Building on critiques such as these

the US government should press the Chinese to abolish torture because torture is

prohibited in Chinese law, and "no government can lose face by enforcing its own

laws and international obligations... Indeed the Chinese government would

receive universal acclaim if it were to end this malicious abuse of power by

local - often corrupt - police and prison officials [sic, emphasis


This is precisely the type of reasoning Amnesty rejected in its

work on Cambodia. Had Mr Schulz been active then, and consistent with his views

on China, he would have taken the new PRK law on criminal procedure promulgated

in 1986 as evidence for internal Cambodian pressure to improve human rights

which deserved encouragement, not petty carping and contempt. He would also have

praised an article in Kampuchea, no. 462 of 28 July 1988, listing 61 lawsuits

reported as "stuck" in the courts, as both confirmation that courts were

functioning, and in its implied criticism of the judicial system's efficacy as

evidence of a degree of openness in Cambodian society.

Contrast also the

remarks by legal affairs educators Ken Bingham and company, assigned by UNBRO

(United Nations Border Relief Operations) and the Catholic COERR to teach basic

law in the camps of the Coalition Government on the Thai border.


explicitly recognized that considerable leeway had to be allowed. As one of the

lawyers said, "Many of these things [police practices in the camps] fly in the

face of what we believe about the law... But... we came here as a 'liaison'. Who

are we to challenge basic Khmer concepts of justice and fair play?". Those

'liaison' lawyers were attempting to introduce a new code, "the backbone" of

which is "an allowance for Khmer tradition... accordance with Khmer practice",

for "We don't want to force anything on the population here", certainly not, at

least, the standards which Heder and AI thought they were entitled to impose on

Phnom Penh. (Tom Nagorksi, "Wanted at Site 2: Law and Order", The Nation, 9 June

1989, pg25. After the formation of the post-election government in 1993 at least

one of the lawyers quoted by Nagorski, Ken Bingham, moved to Phnom


Heder objects to Kiernan placing blame for Cambodia's predicament

on American policy, even though in the end he admits that Kiernan's assignment

of blame is largely correct. And to say that "it is questionable whether any

political solution could have been reached that was not agreeable to the great

powers", is not only to agree implicitly with Kiernan, but to cop


Kiernan, and I, and others concerned with foreign intervention and

aggression in Indochina since the 1970s, as Heder once upon a time also appeared

to be, have felt that one should oppose great power aggression and interference

where one could, if only in fringe publications, not just give in as an act of

personal realpolitik.

With respect to the Thai role, where Heder mainly

agrees with Kiernan's view of Thai complicity in support of DK, Heder slides

over a "might-have-been", which at the time showed real promise for "diminution

of the PDK's leverage".

In 1988, for the first time, a capitalist

political party led by practising capitalists won a democratic election in

Thailand, and except for the short period of democracy in 1973-76 it was the

first time since the 1940s that the leader of a winning party, Chatichai

Choonhavan, could assume, as an elected civilian, the post of Prime Minister,

long reserved to non-elected generals.

Chatichai then announced a

reversal of policy on Cambodia and even invited Hun Sen to Bangkok.


matter the upsurge of democracy and capitalism, Chatichai's efforts on Cambodia

were damned by the US, and in 1991 he was conveniently overthrown by the

military, who returned Thai-Cambodia policy to the old China-US line (let all

journalistic hip-shooters take note - I am not trying to say the US, instigated

the 1991 military coup; it certainly made their day in Cambodia,


Heder, in defending the Paris Agreements, also slides over the

drafts and negotiations leading up to it.

If in the end "both the Chinese

and the US were quite prepared to accommodate a continued political role for SOC

leaders", it was only in the end, and because the latter had been able to defend

themselves against efforts all through the 1980s to remove them through various

internationally brokered scenarios.

There can be no doubt, from the

record, that Kiernan's argument that the US desired "not merely an independent

Cambodian  government, but an anti-Vietnamese one" is correct.


final section on an allegedly "scurrilous" review by Kiernan of David Chandler's

biography of Pol Pot is entirely inappropriate in the given context, and it

shows what he is up to. The review in question is neither scurrilous nor "thinly

disguised". (It appeared in Journal of Asian Studies 52/4, November


It is a straightforward critique of Chandler's book.

It is

harsh, and controversial, in part because some of the facts are themselves

controversial and the evidence anything but clear, and on some points I am more

in agreement with Chandler, and perhaps with Heder (if only he would say what

his views are), than with Kiernan.

Heder could legitimately take up the

defense of Chandler, but the place would be a reasoned argument against

Kiernan's treatment sent to The Journal of Asian Studies.

On one point,

however, Kiernan is quite right. Chandler's and Heder's work shows an uncritical

bias against Vietnam and against the PRK in relation to Vietnam which invited


Perhaps Chandler and Heder honestly deny the bias because they

have emotionally internalized the Cambodian chauvinist view of Vietnam, but

subjective sincerity cannot give them immunity to criticism.

Heder has

moreover misrepresented Kiernan's remark on this point. Kiernan did not say that

those "who have disagreed with him have done so because... they are biased

against Vietnamese". He said that an "anti-Vietnamese bias is commonplace" in

Cambodia studies, which is factually true.

I agree that Kiernan went too

far in linking this to US government employment, if only because such linkage

cannot be firmly enough established for the requirements of an academic


But in answer to Heder's extreme sensitivity on this point I

would say, if you want to play the game, you have to take the name.


  • Massive stingrays may live in Mekong’s deep pools

    US scientists have suggested that unexplored deep pools in the Mekong River in an area of Stung Treng could potentially be home to significant populations of giant freshwater stingrays, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish species. This comes as a fisherman hooked a 180

  • PM takes time to meet, greet Cambodians living in the US

    After landing in the US ahead of the ASEAN-US Special Summit, Prime Minister Hun Sen was received by over 1,000 Cambodian-Americans including political analysts who welcomed him with greetings, fist bumps and selfies. Hun Sen also met with analyst Mak Hoeun, who had allegedly spoken ill

  • PM heads to Washington for ASEAN-US special summit

    Regional and international issues and how to bring the ASEAN-US partnership to another level will be discussed at length as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ministers arrive in Washington, DC, for a special summit on May 12-13. During the trip, Hun Sen and ASEAN

  • National Assembly refutes EU resolution

    The National Assembly (NA) has hit back at a European Parliament resolution condemning the political and human rights situation in Cambodia, calling it another display of the Parliament’s “double standards”. Key points of the resolution include a warning that the Parliament could exclude the

  • Soaring global fuel prices: an opportunity for Cambodia?

    Cambodia is feeling the squeeze from the soaring global coal and oil prices. Electricity du Cambodge (EDC)would certainly be hurting from this reality, and most likely re-assessing its plans to add more coal power stations. EDC buys half of Cambodia’s electricity from plants

  • PM reflects on shoe throwing: Free speech or act of violence?

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 17 questioned whether a man who threw a shoe at him while he was in the US was exercising freedom of expression or if it was an act of hostility. Hun Sen was referring to an incident last week when