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Kiernan, Colby, Pol Pot et al: the politics of "Genocide"

Kiernan, Colby, Pol Pot et al: the politics of "Genocide"

F ormer CIA director William Colby and the Cambodian Genocide Program have an odd connection. Serge Thion debates

whether prominent foreigners should also be called to answer for human rights violations.

I write this letter to all of my friends and colleagues who signed a letter of support for Ben Kiernan to "express

[their] concern at Stephen J. Morris' campaign against Professor Ben Kiernan of Yale University and against Kiernan's

leadership of the Cambodian Genocide Program, funded by the US Department of State. ("Disowning Morris",

Phnom Penh Post, June 30-July 13, 1995)."

I quite agree with them that Mr. Morris, who wrote the piece attacking Kiernan in the Wall Street Journal (17 April),

"The Wrong Man to Investigate Cambodia" is himself quite a "Wrong Man" to investigate whatever

has an Indochinese ring.

Morris has been making such a fool of himself in so-called research in archives on Vietnam that his whole life

will not be long enough to have us forget him. Or maybe Morris is just one of those pennames used by intelligence

operatives in mufti. We know quite a number of writers of that kind.

It requires a policeman's mode of thinking to pretend that what was written in 1976-1977 on Cambodia by Kiernan

should be the only basis on which a judgment should be passed on his abilities in 1995 to investigate the Pol Pot

period. We shall not be cruel enough to ask Morris what he knew about Cambodia in 1975-77, when the borders were


It requires a great amount of political duplicity to call, as Morris does, the (pre-UN) Phnom Penh government "another

Khmer Rouge faction". It requires a high dose of dishonesty to say, as Morris does, that the Australian government

"withdrew" the passport of Wilfred Burchett. It is well known, even in Australia, that his passport was

stolen by a spook in the service of this Australian government. This led to a long legal battle which in the end

was won by Burchett.

To put it in a nutshell, Morris seems to be a person with whom it would be impossible to have a drink, even

by chance.

But this does not allow my friends who signed the letter of support for Kiernan to give a kind of Stalinist slant

in the text when it says: "We and our students comprise the majority who publish in the field" (of Cambodian

studies). This is preposterous in the extreme and has justly attracted some lashing by Julio Jeldres (Phnom Penh

Post, 28 July-10 Aug).

It is quite true that Kiernan and his writings are not the object of a consensus, nor anybody else for that matter.

There is nothing astonishing in that. The fact is that Cambodia scholars have nurtured a lot of time-revolving

ideas and sympathies. After all, Khmer politics is difficult to understand and many scholars, journalists and writers

dealing with Cambodia had only a short political experience when they first dealt with the country's politics.

Those who eventually disagree with Kiernan's analyses are quite numerous and could freely express their views.

This exercise of discussion is quite different from base attacks in the Morris style or blanket praise as exhibited

in this letter.

When I see among the signatures attached to the letter of support for Kiernan a number of names followed by the

word "survivor", I start having doubts. If "survivor" becomes a quasi professional definition,

a kind of job, the situation is very bad. These people have to stage their old suffering and turn it into a moving

spectacle. They cannot avoid becoming theatrical and ridiculous. By becoming professional witnesses, they destroy

their own credibility. I do not think Kiernan's defense was improved by such a demagogic use of "holocaust

survivors". Five million Cambodians also survived. Besides, some people who signed this petition may be great

experts but are entirely unknown to me in the field of publications about Cambodia. I can think of many other well-known

experts who do not appear on the list of signatories.

The letter says "He is a first-rate historian" which in itself could be a subject for discussion. "First-rate"

depends very much on how one understands the task of the historian. But the fact is that Kiernan has written a

number of historical studies pertaining to the history of the Communist movement in Cambodia, and that nobody in

the field can afford to ignore them.

They are quite useful and remain, as any historical study, the object of discussion and further elaboration by

fellow historians. This is quite normal.

More puzzling is the end of the sentence: "... and an excellent choice for the State Department grant."

The truth is that we do not have the feeling that there was a real process of choice. Many other names jump immediately

to our minds. In his initial attack, Morris spoke of "a puzzling choice". He says that eight other applications

had been submitted and he speaks highly of their merit. But Morris cannot be trusted. It seems quite clear that

the State Department, where the money voted by Congress was to be administered, did not spend much energy to inquire

in the field of scholarship in order to know where it was going to lay its eggs. To the (tiny) community of scholars,

it seemed that the decision had been taken well in advance. There was nothing like a "choice".

But this can be explained. After all, Congress took a unique decision: to fund an inquiry into an alleged genocide

and provide help in order to take the culprits before an undescribed court, of which the only thing known was that

it would not be a U.S. court. The funny side of the story is that the supposed authors of the alleged crime - Pol

Pot and his colleagues - had been for more than ten years officious and unavowed allies of the US, components of

an anti-Vietnamese alliance organized, financed and armed by Peking and Washington. During all these years, the

word genocide was unknown in the official mouths who spoke about Indochina. It was the monopoly of a small band

of opponents to this US policy, in which gathered some undying remnants of the Peace movement, some pro-Hanoi stooges,

and some pro-Phnom Penh NGO people who saw in the use of genocide propaganda the best political tool to criticize

and change the course of US foreign policy in the region. A "Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge"

(CORKR) was launched to federate these various people, and the key role was played by Kiernan, who had left his

native Australia for a job at Yale. Already, some people wondered why him, and not some more mature and less political


What really changed the nature of this coalition, which could have looked like a living fossil of the anti-war

leftist period, was the joining of former high-ranking US officials who were hostile to the pro-Peking US policy.

Prominent among them was William Colby, who had been for a time the head of the CIA. The unexpected alliance between

what a rightist writer would have labeled "a handful of Commies" and the former chief of the CIA should

provide a good argument for a Le Carré-style of movie, I agree. But it happened. They found out that they

had political interest in common, the former leftists in having an access to the government back alleys through

their newly found allies, and the former rightists in having an intellectual and mediatic cover of which they would

not have dreamed by themselves. This alliance sounded awkward only to a few individuals like me who did remember

that William Colby had been the head of the Phoenix Operation back in the late sixties in Vietnam. Whatever way

you wanted to twist the facts, there was only one way to qualify Colby - with the words "war criminal".

Several tens of thousands of civilians were arrested, tortured and killed in an effort led by Colby and his kin

to "uproot" the Vietcong political infrastructure in the Mekong Delta, mostly in 1969-70. Colby assumed

the political responsibility for the killings. This was not even a secret and Colby spoke to press conferences

back in Saigon in 1969. He said he later wrote a complete report and was entirely whitewashed by Congress.

I had already pointed out the strangeness of the presence of Colby on the roster of CORKR in an article published

by the Phnom Penh Post ("Meaning of a Museum", Aug 27- Sept 9, 1993) and this led to an exchange of letters

with Craig Etcheson, then Executive Director of CORKR and now Cambodian Genocide Program Manger, who took exception

to my mention of Colby. I realized that the memory of the Vietnam war was already vanishing and that an explanation

was in order, and I wrote this on 25 Sept 93: "This relates of course with the presence of Mr. Colby on your

Advisory Board. I have known Mr. Colby for a long time, not as a person, but as a political figure, since in fact

Saigon 1968, the Tet Offensive and its aftermath. I met him once and I told about this encounter in an article

written in 1988 and republished in a book, called Une Allumette Sur la Banquise, published last July, which has

been sent to the Library of Congress. I reproduce here this small extract: In December 1987, I spent a short moment

at a conference in Paris on Vietnam which had been organized by a far right group, the Tran Van Ba Committee, in

Paris, and the US Committee To Rethink Vietnam, for the launching of Olivier Todd's book on the fall of Saigon.

On the platform were seated American and South Vietnamese personalities who had been quite familiar in the olden

times in Saigon, like William Colby, a former head of the CIA, Ambassador Robert Komer and a number of South Vietnamese

generals who were field-commanding officers when I was there. I made a rapid mental calculation which led me to

the conclusion that this particular group of responsible officials could be credited with the death of one hundred

to two hundred thousand civilians, at least. As I was listening to their clever comments about their own defeat

and the way to avoid to be defeated again in Central America, I thought the trial of the German police officer

Barbie, in France, was peanuts in comparison. Like president Waldheim, Barbie, at the time of the incriminated

facts, was a mere lieutenant. Pyramids of chiefs were towering over these petty commissioned officers. And here,

right in the middle of Paris, before my own eyes, I could watch a group of these chiefs, people who had organized

the massacres, the concentration camps, who had directly ordered the tortures and the murders. These people were

free, free to talk like parrots, were feted like heroes who had only been deprived of the possibility to kill more,

to massacre more in order to reach victory.

Then there was a coffee-break. I had never had the chance, if I may use this word, to encounter, in the flesh,

an authentic war criminal, someone who had committed crimes against mankind, much more massive than what is the

object of trial against small fry like Barbie or Demjanjuk. I looked at William Colby. He was drinking his coffee.

This man had conceived and supervised what had been called in Vietnam the Phoenix Program; its official purpose

was to "uproot the VCI", i.e. the civilians who took part in the Vietcong political apparatus in the

Mekong Delta region. It was not dealing with organized military units of the VC, but with activists, organizers,

money collectors, village cadres, sympathizers, etc. These ordinary people had to be eliminated to allow the American

withdrawal. It is difficult to establish the true figures but Colby himself mentioned 60,000 victims. What is clearly

established is the fact that the Phoenix Operation caused several tens of thousands of deaths, quite often in conditions

of unbelievable savagery. And just in front of me stood the man who had masterminded all the horror, with his brick

red cheeks and his hard look. "Mr. Colby," I said, "I would like to ask you a very personal question.

How well is your conscience? With all those killings!". My hand, holding the coffee cup, was trembling. Each

fiber of my inner-self was vibrating in a muted feeling of horror. Although the idea sparked in my mind, I thought

I would not strangle him on the spot. "All these people died in military operations," he replied. "I

testified to this fact in Congress and this is written in my memoirs". Of course, since these civilians were

murdered by military personnel, then they died in military operations, it is pure logic - it must be legal. "But

that is not true," the words were faltering out of my mouth. "Everyone knows what happened. I do not

believe you, I was there". "It is what I said. My conscience is perfectly all right", and he was


In our world, this man is very respectable. Who was talking about Nuremberg, Human Rights, genocide or I dunno

what else? The Mekong river is not in Poland. All these words must refer to a distant past. (P.214-5)

This might give you some light on my reaction when, being at Yale, I saw that Mr. Colby was part of the crowd.

I pointed this out to Ben Kiernan who did not elaborate. Your explanation is that CORKR has been "fortunate

enough to enlist the assistance of a powerful man". This is Realpolitik. And CORKR has a role in American

policy, as I believe that some parts of the Administration are quite happy to see pressures put on other parts

of the same Administration which has gone very far to support the Khmers Rouges.

But my point of view is morality. What is the moral difference between Mr. Pol Pot and Mr. Colby? Let us be quite

conservative and ascribe to Pol Pot 100,000 political executions and only half of that to Mr. Colby. Whatever the

other considerations, for instance the fact that Mr. Colby is more protected against the eventuality of a War Crime

trial than Mr. Pol Pot, the fact is that the presence of this "powerful man" (indeed) destroys the moral

basis on which a campaign against Pol Pot can be launched. There may be a lot of other reasons, for instance a

better understanding of the long term interests of the US in Indochina, a probable motivation of Mr. Colby himself,

on which to base a campaign against the return of Pol Pot."

It is only now that we can clearly understand the end result of the unholy alliance. The return of the Khmer Rouge,

which was a possibility somehow embedded in the Paris Agreements, did not happen, mostly because Pol Pot was not

able to convince his military commanders that the time of political flexibility had come. The object of CORKR was

fading away but the result of its campaign as a Washington established lobby with powerful connections was not

negligible. At the same time the US administration was doing a complicated gymnastics in order to distance itself

from the Khmer Rouge and start supporting the Phnom Penh government. Among the gestures which could abolish or

conveniently forget the past links with the Pol Pot conspiracy, it was easy to support the idea of a genocide trial,

which was currently agitated by CORKR as the best way to disenfranchise Pol Pot and his main followers. But everyone

who was not a pure activist or who just wanted to stick to the legal definition would find the "genocide"

quite difficult to apply to the Cambodian situation. Words have a meaning but propaganda is about the twisting

of this meaning. In a conference, organized in Yale in 1992 by the very same people who were leading CORKR and

now administer the State Department Cambodian Genocide Program, I was alone to argue that the genocide concept

was, both in historical terms and legal terms, inadequate to the Cambodian situation. I argued that any current

criminal code could be used to sue and try Pol Pot in a Cambodian court. I am now quite satisfied to see that two

lawyers hired by the same State Department just concurred with these ideas and conclude to drop altogether the

idea of a genocide trial. Reuters reported that in a paper presented to the conference, quoted in some detail in

a separate dispatch from Reuters, the two lawyers, (Steve Ratner and Jason Abrams) are said to have stated that

they found claims that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide against other Khmers to be "speculative" but

there was evidence of war crimes and of "prima facie culpability for massive offenses of crimes against humanity."

(22 Aug 1995) These two hired lawyers spoke at a conference, called "Striving for Justice" organized

in August in Phnom Penh by the Yale crowd in liaison with the State Department. The dispatch went on: "The

legal work complements research into Khmer Rouge abuses by Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program, which

was set up last year with U.S. State Department funding to look at evidence of war crimes, genocide and crimes

against humanity. The projects will provide guidance and evidence for use in any future trial in Cambodia or overseas

of Khmer Rouge leaders such as Pol Pot, Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary for their role in the deaths of around

one million people from 1975-79. U.S. Chargé d'Affairs Bob Porter reaffirmed Washington's strong support

for the program at the opening of the meeting and noted that "Yale now is making excellent progress"

in research and documentation. He said the forum would allow an exchange of ideas."

I am under no obligation to forget or forgive. What would be the logic of judging Pol Pot and not Colby, or Henry

Kissinger? Is there in any way a possibility to retain left wing ideas and criticisms? I believe it is quite possible

if one does not attach one's ideas and intellectual course to the fate of a particular state and its changing interests,

the pursuit of which is usually achieved by the most cynical means.

I believe we are still free to dissent and I do.

(Notes. Serge Thion adds: The history of the Phoenix Program has not been written, as far as I know. If it is,

one will see a number of parallels between this operation and the German Einsatzgruppen in Russia (1941-44) which

were supposed to "uproot" the communist infrastructure left behind the frontline.

Ed: As a further footnote, Mr Thion refers to his "Genocide as a Political Commodity" in Genocide and

Democracy in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, the United Nations and the International Community, ed. by Ben Kiernan,

New Haven, Yale University, 1994.

Mr Thion is a long-time scholar on Cambodia and Indochina, having been published many times in books and articles.)


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