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The debate to etch history in stone

The debate to etch history in stone

T he process of bringing peace to Cambodia has opened up a whole new battlefield

- among academics. Steven Heder takes Ben Kiernan to


THIS monograph collects ten essays produced for a conference

at Yale University in Feb 1992, four months after the Paris Agreements. In a

preface written in June 1993, George Andreopoulos of Yale's Center for

International Human Rights explains that they aim at a "thorough re-examination

of the origins, nature and extent" of the predicament faced by Cambodia as it

embarked on "a difficult and problematic transition to democracy" through the

Paris Agreements. He characterizes the diplomatic process which led to the

Agreements and their implementation by UNTAC as a test of "the international

community's willingness to promote democracy and human rights".

As the

monograph suggests, at the center of Cambodia's dilemma was the role of the
Partie of Democratic Kampuchea (PDK) - the Khmer Rouge. The Paris

Agreements indeed involved a risky trial of the thesis that a shock dose of

Western-style democracy would lessen the prospects for a resurgence of the power

and influence of the PDK and other human rights violators. They tested which

Cambodian political forces would gain and which would lose in the attempt to

transpose the competition for power on the domestic stage from political

mobilization for armed confrontation to political mobilization to vote in


Editor Ben Kiernan's introduction and his long essay, "The

inclusion of the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian Peace Process: Causes and

Consequences", form the core of the collection. Revised by publication time to

take account of events through July 1993, they describe the whole transition

process and are the subject of this review.

Readers might expect that

Kiernan's contributions would directly confront the question of whether a

democratic political process involving competitive elections might help

establish a government in Cambodia that was, first, unlikely to commit gross

violations of human rights, and second, was likely to be relatively well able to

prevent the PDK from committing such abuses. Unfortunately, it offers no serious

discussion of the concept of democratic transition from authoritarianism. Nor

does he display any grasp of the concept of human rights or provide any general

framework for understanding how they may be successfully promoted in Cambodia's

circumstances. These fundamental shortcomings make it difficult for him to

answer the essential question of whether an exercise in democracy enhanced or

undermined the chances for resolving the problems of genocide and other human

rights violations in Cambodia.

Instead, Kiernan is more concerned to

update his long-standing argument that the consequences of Chinese and American

policy on Cambodia have for many years been to enhance the prospects of the

Khmer Rouge, who would otherwise have been a political non-entity. He thus

points to the historical support provided to the PDK by China and the US as

their proxy for efforts to drive Vietnam out of Cambodia and unseat the regime

it built up, the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), rechristened the State of

Cambodia (SoC) in 1989. He suggests that the Cambodian predicament arose largely

from the failure of the international community to punish the PDK leadership for

its violations of human rights. He draws particular attention to the cynical

diplomatic realpolitik, a result of which any reference to Khmer Rouge

responsibility for gross violations of human rights, much less genocide, was

expunged from the Paris Agreements. There is substantial truth in much of this,

particularly as regards the Chinese and US roles in reviving the PDK after 1979

and the near-total ineffectiveness of international mechanisms for bringing

gross human rights violators to justice, at least until very


But Kiernan goes much further. He suggests that because, at the

behest of China and the US, the PDK was given the chance to participate in the

process the Paris Agreements laid down, the international community was bound to

fail to promote democracy and human rights in Cambodia. He attacks the Paris

Agreements by asserting that a very different but still very viable political

solution could have been arranged. He argues that this could have come about

through a Southeast Asian diplomacy which would have excluded the PDK from the

political process and prevented it from attempting to upset that arrangement

through armed violence or other means. He implies this arrangement could have

incorporated Sihanouk's Funcinpec and Son Sann's Khmer People's National

Liberation Front "KPNLF" into the political administration in Phnom Penh, and

that the resulting political construction could have enjoyed domestic and

international legitimacy. He blames great power maneuvering for having prevented

such an outcome.

Great Powers Versus Southeast Asians?

Kiernan postulates that

before the Paris Agreements, "the Cambodia conflict was played out on three

levels: the national, regional and great power levels." He contends that SoC's

foreign opponents had "hegemony" at the great power level, which he appears to

equate more or less with the five Permanent Members of the United Nations

Security Council (the US, China, Great Britain, France and the Soviet

Union/Russia). He claims that "the forces were fairly evenly divided" at the

"intervening regional level", which he does not define but in which he appears

to include Southeast Asian countries and sometimes also Japan, and occasionally

Australia. His main thesis is that the great powers, particularly the US and

China, managed to overpower the balance of forces within the region to impose a

solution that gave the PDK the opportunity make massive gains at the expense of

the SoC.

Put in such terms, the idea of a lost historical alternative

appears attractive. In fact, however, it is questionable whether any political

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

Similarly questionable is Kiernan's suggestion that the Permanent Five's peace

plan was the only path fraught with dangers and difficulties, or the one most

fraught with dangers and difficulties. A deal contrary to US and Chinese wishes

might also have offered the PDK chances to extend its power, and other Permanent

Five actors, could have crafted a deal, maneuvered the relevant Cambodian

players to accept it, and then successfully ensured such a stable and effective

outcome that the PDK would have been politically and militarily checkmated.

Kiernan argues that exclusion of the PDK from the peace process could have

prevented a continuation or the resumption of the civil war that had plagued

Cambodia for years, while its inclusion via the terms of the Paris Agreements

could at best only delay a return to fighting. While the latter appears to have

been true, the former seems implausible.

As Kiernan suggests, the

regional role of the Thai military in supporting the PDK against the PRK was

historically crucial, but his prescriptions about what could have been done

about this are as unrealistic as his hypotheses about the might-have-beens of

regional diplomacy. Thus, Kiernan is right in postulating that a great

diminution of the PDK's leverage could have been achieved by cutting its lines

of supply from Thailand. However, in the late 1980s and early 90s, this could

not have been achieved inside Thailand itself without a fundamental

restructuring of Thai policy that would have eliminated the ability of the Thai

armed forces to determine major aspects of Thailand's foreign policy, or act

autonomously within a broader foreign policy framework set by a civilian

government. In fact, it was easier to end Chinese supplies than to cut the

supply line through Thailand, and the former was achieved by the Paris

Agreements, a fact which he only reluctantly admits. Even though elements within

the Thai military continued to allow material resupply of the PDK after the

Paris Agreements, the change in the Chinese position achieved through the

Agreements helped create conditions which made the long-term diminution of such

support more likely and possible.

Great Powers Versus Cambodians?

Moreover, even if the

alternative Kiernan proposes had been diplomatically possible, it is highly

doubtful whether it would have been workable politically in Cambodia, and even

more doubtful that it would have been preferable to the Paris Agreements from

the point of view of ordinary Cambodians. Contrary to what Kiernan hints, there

was never any real indication that SoC was seriously prepared to share power

with Funcinpec and the KPNLF or to offer  Sihanouk anything more than a

figurehead role. Even more importantly, a regionally-crafted alternative would

never have resulted in elections freer and fairer than those conducted by UNTAC.

Herein lies perhaps the best reason for favoring the path laid down in the Paris

Agreements: it gave ordinary Cambodians the greatest chance to express their

political desires. It is therefore ironic that Kiernan implies that in pushing

for the path contained in the Paris Agreements, the US and China ran roughshod

over Cambodian public opinion. He asserts that the US and China remained

determined to eliminate the SoC and its leadership from the political landscape.

He thus ascribes pressure for the displacement of the SoC to a US desire for the

establishment in the country of "not merely an independent Cambodian government,

but an anti-Vietnamese one". In fact, all the evidence suggests that both China

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

leaders, as long as they were prepared to remain basically faithful to the

provisions of the Agreements and show some respect for the popular will as

expressed in elections.

Because the views of Cambodian people themselves

are absent from his analytic schema, Kiernan's analysis does not recognize the

popular domestic pressures against SoC which conditioned the Cambodian political

process under the Paris Agreements. In discussing the domestic situation before

Oct 1991, he asserts that "within Cambodia, the balance of forces favored the

incumbent SoC." He later makes it clear, without directly saying so, that he is

referring to the military balance. He fudges the question of the balance of

political forces. While Kiernan stresses that the PDK lacked popular support, he

does not venture a straightforward assessment about the extent to which SoC,

Funcinpec or the KPNLF enjoyed popular backing.

However, Kiernan's

beliefs shine through, most notably in his treatment of their human rights

records and nationalist credentials of SoC, Funcinpec and the KPNLF. Kiernan

chronicles PDK atrocities, particularly attacks by its armed forces on Cambodian

civilians, before and after the Agreements. He also notes that the PDK's "allies

were not innocent of atrocities". Although he cites only one example

- a KPNLF attack on a refugee camp - it is certainly true that both it and

Funcinpec bore responsibility for numerous human rights abuses in the camps

which they administered before the repatriation under UNTAC auspices emptied

them. However, Kiernan is conspicuously silent about human rights violations by

the SoC before the Agreements, although a pattern of such violations were

confirmed by facts that came out after Oct 1991. To highlight a history of human

rights violations by the opposition while saying nothing about the record of the

SoC, Kiernan misleadingly suggests that the SoC was not politically plagued by

its authoritarian record in power.

Kiernan also underplays the legitimacy

problems faced by the SoC due to its historical domination by Vietnam. While

stressing great power backing for the opposition, he pointedly describes the SoC

leaders as nationalists and underlines the fact that even before the Agreements,

the Vietnamese political cadre and troops who had crafted and protected the

regime in which the SoC leaders came to power had withdrawn from Cambodia.

Although he is right to point out that the SoC leaders were hardly enthusiastic

stooges of the Vietnamese and makes it possible to understand why they were

happy to be out from under Vietnamese tutelage, Kiernan misses out the

experience of ordinary Cambodians with the PRK. This was such as to leave strong

doubts in the popular mind about the nationalist pedigrees of the SoC leaders.

The credibility of SoC's efforts to re-legitimize itself by switching from the

Marxist-Leninist mode of the era of Vietnamese domination to the nationalist

mode once the Vietnamese were gone was low.

Conversely, Kiernan's stress

on the extent of foreign backing for the Funcinpec and the KPNLF leaves the

impression that they were merely creatures of foreign creation with no domestic

support. It ignores their roots in the various strains of non-communist

nationalism dating to the Cambodian struggle for independence from France,

against American interference in Cambodian domestic affairs and against

Vietnamese encroachment on Cambodian territorial integrity.

Thus, while

Kiernan's last-minute revisions mention the Funcinpec electoral victory, he

cannot explain it. In an apparent attempt to do so, he credits SoC-inspired

allegations that Funcinpec was politically controlled by the PDK and suggestions

that the Funcinpec electoral victory resulted from PDK votes for it. Both

assertions were made, and subsequent events have demonstrated that the

argument-saving device of depicting Funcinpec as a Khmer Rouge Trojan horse had

no basis in reality. The facts are that Funcinpec won because it enjoyed greater

popularity than the CPP, and that despite its one-time alliance with the PDK it

had always jealously and successfully maintained its organizational and

political independence from the Khmer Rouge.

PDK intentions, Capabilities and Achievements

Kiernan argues

that the PDK never intended to go along with the Agreements, and that while

violating them it also gained the most from them. Extensive evidence, some of

which I have presented previously, suggests that Kiernan's view of PDK

intentions is simplistic. It ignores the numerous indications that while the PDK

intended to cheat on the demobilization process, it was also prepared to go

along with it to a significant extent, and that it initially conducted a major

troop-cut on its own even while damning UNTAC's implementation of the

Agreements. It ignores the evidence that while the PDK remained fundamentally

hostile to "bourgeois democracy", Pol Pot and other PDK leaders had not only

long advocated playing the parliamentary game, but insisted that it was

essential to do so. Kiernan fails to take into account the ambition of Pol Pot

to build up the PDK from a military force into a politically-strong movement.

This ambition Pol Pot took into the Paris Agreements and was prepared to risk at

least partial and temporary military demobilization if the political conditions

were perceived as sufficiently favorable to the PDK. The course of events after

Oct 1991 convinced him and most other PDK leaders that political conditions were

unfavorable, and thus refrained from demobilization and progressively resumed

military action against SoC. They were not proceeding according to plan, but

changing course in reaction to what they saw as setbacks. They did not, as

Kirenan puts it, withdraw "from the peace process with the gains they had made

from it", but rather turned against it in what proved to be a failed attempt to

recoup PDK losses.

Kiernan nevertheless stubbornly insists that the

Agreements favored the PDK, and that as a result of their implementation, the

PDK managed to make large-scale absolute and relative gains. He believes the

Agreements were both designed to advance the PDK and achieved this result, even

if not always in the ways expected by its backers. Kiernan thus asserts that the

PDK was bound to gain "from the turmoil engendered by the Peace Plan's attempt

simultaneously to freeze hostilities and open up political competition", and

concludes that although the Agreements were "marketed to the concerned

international public as a means to dispatch them, the Khmer Rouge gained the

most". He also maintains that by being soft on the PDK, UNTAC allowed it to make

such advances.

On the empirical level, Kiernan offers a variety of

evidence to support his conclusion that the PDK gained massively during the

implementation of the Agreements. None of this evidence bears close scrutiny.

For example, the maps that Kiernan offers as proof of spectacular PDK advances

between Oct 1991 and March 1993 are wildly inaccurate. Comparing his map showing

supposed PDK areas of control in Oct 1991 with the results of the careful

research of Christophe Peschoux in his Les "Nouveaux" Khmers Rouges
(Paris: L'Harmattan, 1992) reveals that it vastly underestimates the spread

of the PDK. His map showing PDK areas of control in March 1993 and attributed to

UNTAC sources bears no resemblance to those actually produced at this time by

UNTAC's military intelligence specialists, which show the PDK controlling

territory and exerting influence in pretty much the same areas as those depicted

by Peschoux. Kiernan's quotations about the number of people under PDK

administration and of troops under its control reflect the vagaries of

estimation and selective use of sources rather than real changes in the

statistics. The truth is that the PDK probably administered fewer people and

certainly had fewer troops under its control at the end of the transitional

period defined by the Agreements process than at the beginning.

The logic

of the Agreements and their implementation was to put the PDK in the position

either of accepting an imperfect but reasonable chance of rejoining the

Cambodian political mainsteam through peaceful political process, or to suffer

the international and domestic isolation that would result if it rejected this

opportunity. The PDK chose to boycott the process and thus isolate itself while

other political parties, especially Funcinpec, built up a mass party membership

in areas to which the PDK had no real access. The PDK was marginalized in the

competition for rural political support which pitted CPP against Funcinpec. The

real outcome of the Agreements was that the PDK gained least from them,

precisely because it proved unwilling to move into the political arena and then

unable to wreck the electoral process despite its retention of military


Initially, the big winner appeared to be Funcinpec, which was

set to gain enormously through its electoral victory and entry into the

mainstream of the state through a power-sharing arrangement, even if it got less

than the vote suggested it deserved. The KPNLF, although split badly and

performing poorly in the elections, also gained because it, too, entered the

mainstream. However, already in the months before the voting, it was fairly

obvious that processes were at work which meant that SoC was gaining political

advantages from PDK intransigence and UNTAC's non-confrontational approach. For

example, because PDK refused to demobilize, SoC maintained much of its own

military structure. Greater demobilization would have favored those competitors

who were politically strong but militarily weak, such as Funcinpec, and

certainly not SoC. More generally, UNTAC's non-confrontational posture vis-à-vis

PDK encouraged SoC not to comply as strictly as it might otherwise have done

with the provisions of the Agreements. This meant that SoC engaged in greater

use of political violence against Funcinpec and misuse of SoC state assets to

advance CPP electoral prospects in violation of the Agreements than it might

otherwise have been able to get away with. This creation of a lowest common

denominator of compliance operated to the disadvantage of Funcinpec. Funcinpec

had to operate politically in SoC administered zones despite violent SoC

repression even while rejecting blandishments and inducements from the PDK to

join it in boycotting and wrecking the whole process. Moreoever, the continued

threat of PDK violence against ordinary Cambodians enhanced SoC's ability to win

votes by emphasizing to the electorate the CPP's militant opposition to the PDK

and SoC's history of protecting people from such violence.

Although the

CPP electoral defeat meant that SoC lost its power monopoly, from the beginning

it retained a formal half-share of power and gained the international legitimacy

denied it for so many years. In coalition with Funcinpec, it shared in the

international aid and trade which was increasingly flowing into Cambodia.

Moreover, in the two years since the elections, the CPP has out-maneuvered

Funcinpec in one battle for bureaucratic power and influence after another.

Indeed, it now seems incontestable that the CPP got a very good result out of

the process: instead of being faced with international isolation and an

opposition coalition allying Funcinpec and the KPNLF to the PDK, it enjoys

international respectability and Funcinpec and the KPNLF's remnants are now

fully allied with it against the PDK. It has had to share power, but in an

arrangement that has isolated and weakened the PDK, has given the Cambodian

government international and domestic legitimacy and has allowed it to remain

powerfully entrenched. Despite all the problems it faces and the criticisms of

it which have been voiced, the CPP remains the most powerful part of the most

broadly-based government Cambodia has known since independence, and one enjoying

the widest spectrum of international support.

The PDK, on the other hand,

has definitively lost its Cambodian allies and most of its international

support. A month after Kiernan finished his revisions, his analysis was

confounded when the PDK found itself under attack by joint SoC/Funcinpec/KPNLF

forces, which penetrated deep into territory the PDK had held since before the

Agreements. Although elements within the Thai military were at that time

prepared to come to its rescue, this prop no longer had any Chinese - much less

US - support. Thai support has since become an increasingly thin reed, as well

as one more than ever deserving to be eliminated. Meanwhile, while the tide of

battle has sometimes been turned by the PDK in its favor, the trend of the war

now seems clearly against it.

It follows from this that it is impossible

to argue that the Agreements increased the danger of a new, full-scale PDK

genocide in Cambodia. Instead, this danger had receded, although generally,

Kiernan's studied avoidance of SoC's human rights record means he is unable to

deal with the implications of the real results of the implementation of the

Agreements for human rights in most of Cambodia. Along with deeper historical,

social and cultural factors that condition the political scene in the country,

the institutional continuity of SoC's old organs of political repression are an

important part of the explanation for continuing serious human rights violations

in today's Kingdom. Yet even here, a nuanced evaluation is necessary. Despite

the impunity with which ex-SoC organs and personnel all too frequently act

(sometimes in tandem or parallel with Funcinpec elements), political repression

is less comprehensively harsh in the Kingdom than it was under the PRK and under

SoC before and during the implementation of the Agreements. But it remains very

much to be seen for how much longer this will be true. Important struggles for

human rights are now being conducted by Cambodian and international human rights

organizations to prevent backsliding, by the fledgling elements of Cambodian

civil society to institutionalize themselves as counterweights to the forces of

organized repression, and by individual moderates within the ranks of the

government, bureaucracy and security forces to stay the hands of the worst


This brings us back to Kiernan's lack of any overall

framework for dealing with big issues like democracy, genocide and human rights.

The basic question remains whether more democracy and human rights in the

Kingdom will enhance or reduce the likelihood that the Khmer Rouge will be able

to continue their genocidal acts. Most theorists and practitioners would argue

that, in the long run at least, they will decrease the chances, even if the

causal relationship is neither simple nor direct. In his rush to condemn not

only the PDK, but the Paris Agreements, Funcinpec, the KPNLF, the Chinese, the

US, the UN and numerous others - but not SoC - Kiernan begs this main


In this connection, one final comment on Kiernan is unfortunately

necessary. While as an editor he is civil with the contributors to his

monograph, Kiernan also pursues in it the crusade he has conducted elsewhere

against those who disagree with him. His ill-manners in this regard are

reminiscent of the Pol Potism which at other levels he attacks and despises. He

suggests that those with contrasting views are subjectively or objectively in

league with Pol Pot or the forces responsible for Pol Pot's genocide in

Cambodia. The deus ex machina here is often the alleged super-influence of that

certain superpower, the US. Kiernan would have readers believe that, to

paraphrase the notorious Khmer Rouge adage, this infuence has created a raft of

people with the bodies of journalists, human rights activists and scholars, but

US government minds, all of whom disagree with him for that reason. This

nonsense must be recognized and criticized for what it is: a smear tactic

pursued in lieu of genuine debate and argument about facts and analysis. More

recently, it has appeared again - thinly disguised as a stab at sociology of

knowledge - in a scurrilous review in the Journal of Asian Studies of

David P Chandler's Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot.

There, attempts to suggest that Chandler, myself and others who have disagreed

with him have done so because we are biased against Vietnamese, an accusation

for which he has no evidence and which is both defamatory and absurd. He

suggests that this supposed bias is connected to what he alleges is the fact

that those whose work he dislikes are "serving or former employees" of the US

government, "other western governments" or, just as hideously, "the UN". For

Kiernan to imagine that the differences he has with so many others on matters of

historical and political analysis are reducible to his fabrication - that they

are prejudiced against Vietnamese - only underlines the poverty of his

understanding of Cambodia and the meanness of his personality as a scholar. His

insinuations about the insidious influence of any connection to the US

government, however distant or tenuous, are all the more ironic given his

assimilation into this intellectually damned group since he became the Director

of the Cambodian genocide program, which is funded by the office of Cambodian

Genocide Investigations of US State Department. Can we suppose that if, for

example, he now starts to change some of his mistaken views about what happened

in Cambodia via the Paris Agreements, this is a result of such


- Steven Heder, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.


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