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
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.
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.
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.