Expert says 'lower-downs' share blame
Hun Sen addresses a meeting in 1980: From left, Dith Munty, Chea Soth, Hun Sen, Hor Namhong and perhaps Chan Phin.
n July, London's respectable newspaper The Guardian carried a story suggesting that
Prime Minister Hun Sen and "many of his cohorts" could be implicated in
a Khmer Rouge tribunal were it "free and fair".
It is a claim that appears frequently in the international media, but there are few
experts who will stand behind such a broad statement.
Although Hun Sen was once a low-level cadre in the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime,
and many government officials served as Khmer Rouge (KR) officials or soldiers, hard
evidence of government members' involvement in war crimes is thin or non-existent.
Nonetheless, it is frequently cited as the reason why the government has made extraordinarily
slow progress in bringing the ex-KR leadership to justice since the idea was proposed
to the UN in 1997.
But has the fear of dirty laundry among Cambodian People's Party (CPP) members caused
the negotiations to languish?
The experts offer mixed opinions.
"Without a doubt," says Steve Heder, a Cambodia scholar with the School
of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says government members
have no reason to be worried.
"That question was settled with the passing of the [Khmer Rouge tribunal law
in early 2001]," he says. And he points out that former KR cadre can be found
in all walks of Cambodian life, including all three main political parties.
Yet genocide researcher Craig Etcheson maintains that while anxiety among government
officials has been a factor, most party officials still support the tribunal.
"CPP members have a wide range of views on the tribunal question, but it is
my sense that the majority strongly favors [it]," Etcheson wrote in an email.
"At the same time, it is clear that some elements in the ruling party are not
enthusiastic. [They] have made it more difficult for the party to reach a consensus
on this issue."
That there would be mixed feelings within the ruling party should not be surprising.
The government may include ex-KR but it also contains many victims of Khmer Rouge
The party has used the defeat of the Khmer Rouge as a major source of political capital
since 1979. The party's leadership wedded its image to the overthrow of Pol Pot and
referred to it frequently while campaigning in all elections since 1993.
Yet the identity of the party's senior leadership is inextricably linked to the Khmer
Rogue. The three most powerful members of the CPP-Hun Sen, party chairman Chea Sim
and honorary chairman Heng Samrin-all held positions in the DK regime before fleeing
from the purges of 1977 and 1978.
All returned to establish a new government and wage the long battle against their
former comrades. Of those three, Hun Sen has been most vocal about putting Khmer
Rouge leaders on trial for their crimes. But it is also a position he has appeared
to contradict, saying in 1998 it was "time to dig a hole and bury the past".
Publicly, most other CPP officials voice their support for a tribunal.
Thong Khon, secretary of state at the Ministry of Tourism and a CPP Central Committee
member, says he is typical of the ordinary CPP members who lost family during the
Pol Pot regime and support a tribunal.
"Eighteen members of my family were killed, and every family was like my family,"
he says. He adds that it is ridiculous to suggest Hun Sen and his "cohorts"
could be tribunal candidates.
"Myself and my friends were saved by the leaders we have now," he says.
"They are not the Khmer Rouge, they came to fight the Khmer Rouge."
Khon disputes the allegation that party members are reluctant to hold a tribunal
and claims that the party has remained united on the subject since the beginning.
"Only the Pol Pot people talk like that," he says. "Many members of
the party lived through genocide and suffered. Through the tribunal we can bring
justice to the people but we must also keep the peace."
Chea Sim, left, and Heng Samrin review People's Republic of Kampuchea troops in June 1980.
Article 1 of the law states that only the "senior leaders" and "those
most responsible" for crimes are to be indicted. That formulation is likely
to lead to no more than ten people on trial for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians.
Since that small group did not physically carry out murders themselves, the criminal
case against them will concentrate on the KR "chain of command". UN Legal
Counsel Hans Corell emphasized that point during his Phnom Penh press conference
"Some of the crimes that are in the picture are very special because you
cannot call a witness who saw somebody do something," he said. "It's more
a question of establishing a responsibility on the part of persons in responsible
positions. A responsibility for what their subordinates did, or how much they knew
about what was going on, and what action they took to stop it."
But a recent paper by the University of London's Heder suggests that the moral and
legal responsibility for DK era crimes should be widely shared. He suggests that
a credible tribunal would also examine the DK-era activities of members of the current
"The senior-leaders formula is historically, legally and morally untenable,"
he wrote in an email to the Post. "To proceed this way is to perpetuate a myth
that killings were entirely driven from above. This is clearly not what happened
in Cambodia, in the Soviet Union or-even-Nazi Germany."
In his paper, Heder argues that the "Nuremberg model", where only the most
senior leaders are held responsible, shields many people with blood on their hands.
He claims that those advocating such a model now and in the past, including the Vietnamese,
the Royal Cambodian Government, the US and the UN, have all "knowingly shielded
'lower-downs' from scrutiny" because those people have held power in all the
governments formed since 1979.
Heder, who in 2001 co-authored a report documenting evidence against just senior-level
trial candidates, wrote that he has reconsidered his position based on new information.
The records show that while orders arrived from the top, they were often ambiguous,
giving subordinates a large degree of autonomy. Heder argues that the "[Khmer
Rouge] killings of enemies were of two broad types: obligatory and discretionary".
It is the latter category he believes which were ordered by rank-and-file officials,
such as district-level party secretaries, often in contradiction with the central
policy of Democratic Kampuchea.
The DK forced the inhabitants of cities, known as "new people", to move
to the rural areas where they were stigmatized, denied food and dealt brutal punishment
for any minor indiscretion. This contrasted with the official policy of the DK that
called on cadre to combine both compassion and compulsion.
"In central theory, the accent was on compassion, re-education and judiciousness.
[However in] local practice, it was on compulsion, repression and ruthlessness,"
In large part, this implicates many low-ranking cadres in conducting the atrocities.
Some murders were planned and ordered by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea (Brother Number Two
and a likely target of any tribunal) and were carried out via what was clearly a
chain of command. But "other killings-probably most-were committed by regional
and local authorities.
"These lower-downs were certainly not 'just following orders'... making district
party secretaries key figures in responsibility for killings nationwide," he
The party's own evaluation of party secretaries was that they were second in importance
only to Central Committee members themselves. Heder argues that "district authorities
knew that giving this green light for executions was in violation of party policy".
But under the tribunal agreed to by the UN, it is unlikely that any former party
secretaries will face trial. Heder condemns this as a perversion of justice.
"The criteria for prioritizing prosecutions should be the seriousness of the
crimes committed, not the official place in the hierarchy of the alleged perpetrator.
[Although] formally the law allows this, the politico-diplomatic deal that the UN
was forced to accept effectively precludes it," he told the Post.
Chea Sim, Cambodia's Senate President and powerful Chairman of the CPP, has "escaped
scrutiny" for possible crimes committed when he was a district party secretary
of Ponhea Kraek in the DK regime, Heder's paper states. During interviews with local
villagers conducted in 2001, Heder found that Sim's district in Kampong Cham was
the site of thousands of killings during the Pol Pot years.
"The local sources estimate that thousands of people were killed at the district
security office while Chea Sim was district secretary, with the worst killings under
his rule coming in late 1977 and early 1978, just before and just after a Vietnamese
army incursion overran the district."
When the Post visited the area on April 4 of this year, many villagers echoed Heder's
results. People remembered the killings beginning when the KR assumed power. "All
of my five children were killed in 1975," said a 57-year-old woman from the
People recalled that the "new people" were the most vulnerable.
"About 40 members of my family returned from Phnom Penh to our village. All
of them were killed," said another woman, 63, from the same village.
After the Vietnamese invaded in 1978, the new government recruited both DK cadre
and victims of the regime. That members of the post-1979 People's Republic of Kampuchea
government participated in some of the killings was acknowledged at the time in internal
One report noted that the new government included "some who have blood debts,
who have killed with their own hands or issued direct orders to kill... or who made
lists of cadre, party members and the masses and reported them to the higher level
to be killed".
The report equivocated about who actually bears responsibility. It called the issue
"extremely complicated" because some cadres "were compelled to do
things and some did them of their own accord". Heder argues this policy of co-opting
former DK operatives into the new government glossed over previous crimes.
Chea Sim, as Minister of Interior in the People's Republic of Kampuchea, was a skilled
recruiter of ex-Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) cadre into the new administration.
"As senior-most ex-CPK in the new administrative apparatus Sim was able to protect
them and others from further scrutiny," Heder argues. By Sim's own account some
10,000 urban evacuees were deposited in Ponhea Kraek but, he claimed, very few were
And Heder would like to see other members of the current government placed under
Heng Samrin, former head of state in the People's Republic of Kampuchea, has also
"escaped scrutiny" despite evidence implicating his troops in massacres
of civilians during cross-border raids into Vietnam. Hun Sen avoided investigations
into allegations against him, although no hard evidence linking him directly to crimes
has ever come to light, Heder concedes.
Heder takes the view that the proposed tribunal is a political compromise that subverts
the search for justice. He describes the protracted UN negotiations as a retreat
from the idea of a tribunal that could indict anyone it found evidence against.
Quoting a 1997 UN memo, he states that UN officials were aware that the scope of
individual accountability for DK atrocities was going to be "a highly contentious
political issue" inside the government.
"Hun Sen reminded Special Representative [Thomas] Hammarberg that the 'et al'
[those other than the senior leaders] must not include anyone who-like Chea Sim,
Heng Samrin and himself-could be credited with having 'helped to overthrow the genocide',"
But while Heder highlights mainly those who now hold positions in government, many
more would bear criminal responsibility if his formula for understanding the chain
of command was applied. He stresses the role of lower level cadre and ordinary rural
Cambodians-the so called "veteran people"-who were given higher status
by the CPK.
"Evidence suggests that lower-echelon cadre and 'veteran people' had great discretion
in deciding who to denounce and who to kill, and they often denounced and killed
in violation of central policy," he writes.
A young Hun Sen meets the people in an undated photo.
"The prosecutors should be able to follow the evidence wherever it leads, to
people at whatever level," he argues. "The criteria for prioritizing prosecutions
should be the seriousness of the crimes committed, not the official place in the
hierarchy of the alleged perpetrator." This position, Hun Sen has long warned,
is unacceptable to the government.
"If we prosecute all the lower -level cadres, it will mean war," he told
Newsweek in 2001.
Others point out that trying more than a handful of individuals is simply not practical.
Craig Etcheson expresses some "reservations" about Heder's paper.
"Criminal culpability and moral culpability are not the same thing," he
wrote in an email. "As a general principle, I would place no 'cut-off point'
on either criminal or moral culpability. But that's a different question from who
can be prosecuted under the proposed arrangement, or even who should be prosecuted
under any arrangement."
Those "morally culpable" would number "in the thousands... a complete
accounting might go into the low five-figures," Etcheson wrote.
"As a practical matter, it is simply not feasible to try thousands and thousands
of people in Cambodia's circumstances. Cambodia does not have enough lawyers, money
or time to do it," he wrote. "That said, the situation does cry out for
some mechanism to address the culpability of the lower-level perpetrators, to find
some way for them to confess their sins to their fellow citizens and seek social
harmony, both for their own sakes, as well as the sakes of the victims."
Who's who in the CPP
Only a few CPP parliamentarians and members of the powerful 21-member Standing Committee
have a history of supporting the Democratic Kampuchea regime. Several others were
members of the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), the royalist resistance
movement founded in 1970 to fight the Lon Nol regime which fell under Pol Pot's control
Today's most prominent ex-KR are the CPP's three most powerful figures: Prime Minister
Hun Sen; Chea Sim, president of the Senate; and Heng Samrin, honorary party chairman.
All held positions in the Eastern Zone before splitting with the Khmer Rouge and
fleeing to Vietnam.
Hun Sen was first active in the movement from 1968. He spent most of the first year
of the DK regime in a hospital recovering from injuries sustained in fighting in
Kampong Cham. He was the deputy regional commander of region 21 in the Eastern Zone,
but fled to Vietnam in June 1977.
Heng Samrin rose to be the fifth-highest-ranked military cadre in the Eastern Zone
and chairman of a division of troops before he defected in May 1978.
Chea Sim was party secretary and a military commander in the Eastern Zone. He attempted
to rebel against the Communist Party of Kampuchea hierarchy before fleeing to Vietnam
Pol Saroeun, the Deputy Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and a CPP standing
committee member, was the sixth highest ranked military cadre in the Eastern Zone.
He fled to Vietnam in 1978.
Current Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng was a member of FUNK from 1970. In 1976 he
was the CPK's permanent secretary for the Northeast Zone before defecting to Vietnam
Mat Ly, a CPP standing committee member, was appointed to the standing committee
of the People's Representative Assembly of Democratic Kampuchea in 1976. He fled
to Vietnam in mid-1978.
Nhim Vanda, Assembly member for Prey Veng, was a quartermaster in the army of Democratic
Kampuchea throughout the Pol Pot era.
Sim Ka, an MP for Phnom Penh and on the influential CPP standing committee, broke
with Pol Pot in 1978.
Keat Chhon, current Finance Minister, joined the Royal Government of National Union
of Kampuchea in 1970. He traveled to Beijing with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, with whom
he returned to Phnom Penh in September 1975. He then held several positions, including
aide and interpreter for Pol Pot, before leaving the movement in 1983. He returned
to Phnom Penh in 1992.
Several others were involved in FUNK before the Khmer Rouge came to power but split
with the movement or remained in Vietnam after 1975. They include Chea Soth, Men
Sam, Mean Saman, Tea Banh, Bou Thong and Say Phuthong.
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has been accused of being a member of the Khmer Rouge
on several occasions, and won two libel suits against his accusers.
In a joint letter to the Post in 2000, KR experts Craig Etcheson and Steven Heder
wrote that there was no evidence to support such an assertion.
Namhong, they wrote, was a prisoner at the Boeng Trabaek camp and the "chairman
of the inmates committee".