Alex Hinton noted (Post, 2 December, 2005) that "assessing whether or not
(the crimes of the Khmer Rouge) were genocide is important, both on a symbolic level
... and a legal level." Despite this remark, the balance of his argument focused
almost entirely on the legal significance of the definition of genocide. He made
little reference to the social consequences of an agreeable definition of genocide.
In deference to Mr Hinton's greater experience on matters such as these, I respectfully
agree that many of the Khmer Rouge's violent techniques may well qualify as genocide
in a legal sense, especially with regard to the violence perpetrated against ethnic
Vietnamese and Cham people. His point is well made. However Mr Hinton's argument
fails to give a legal definition of the violence perpetrated against Cambodian nationals
during that period. Evidently, such violence is more problematic, especially for
lawyers who would like to define this behavior as genocide, even if it is not. In
this sense the debate must surely rage on.
It seems well documented that the primary objective of the Khmer Rouge's style of
governance was to enforce (often through violence) an ideology which in itself represented
a profound rejection of Western capitalism. Such ideological objectives may be evidenced
in many countries around the world.
As a lawyer from Africa (a continent which is no stranger to violent political upheaval),
I hope African experiences can be useful to those who engage in this debate. In many
parts of Africa, the struggle against colonial occupation was characterised by ideological
and often nationalistic sentiment. These campaigns frequently resorted to violence.
Strangely however, the populist political movements in Africa of the 1960s and 1970s
fell silent as soon as the colonial powers disappeared. Since then, populist political
movements in Africa have all but disappeared too - not, I might add, because Africa
is brimming with wealth and good governance.
It is not unreasonable to conclude that the struggle against colonialism was not
so much a struggle for modern political independence as it was a patent rejection
of Western economic and social behaviour. It would seem that in this respect at least,
the African story can be retold as an Asian one with few significant differences.
What all of this might suggest is that from the perspective of native people, traditional
social and cultural imperatives are far more significant than the proponents of global
capitalism are prepared to acknowledge. When such imperatives are placed under the
real threat of extinction, a violent response may be devastating, but not necessarily
extreme. On this basis, it must surely be impossible to define mass murder in the
name of a political objective as genocide. It is therefore appropriate that political
ideology does not provide a legal basis for a finding of genocide and in this one
respect at least, the definition of genocide cannot be heard to be too narrow.
Since the overwhelming objectives of the Khmer Rouge were to give tangible expression
to a political ideology, it will be incredibly difficult to distinguish those acts
of murder which were inspired by genocidal intent from those inspired by a political
objective. Indeed, if it can be shown that ethnic Vietnamese and Cham people were
obstructing the legitimate political objectives of the Khmer Rouge, such violence,
by Mr Hinton's own argument, cannot be defined as genocide either. It could therefore
be argued that the violence perpetrated against ethnic Vietnamese and Cham people
was almost incidental. As a regular visitor to Cambodia, it strikes me that there
will also be an abundance of evidence in favour of the defendents, which may well
show that the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea was frustrated by the ethnic
Vietnamese and Cham people. The subsequent invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam provides
compelling evidence of the enmity between the two nations during that period.
Of course, to say that the political objectives of the Khmer Rouge were appropriate
for this country is another question altogether. But it would seem that a good case
could be made to support the argument that all of the Khmer Rouge's activities were
inspired by political beliefs without reference to ethnicity, and such an argument
will be troubling indeed for the prosecutors in a court of law.
I might add, that while I do not necessarily endorse any act committed by the Khmer
Rouge, it is important to recognise that they were inspired by the rejection of global
capitalism, which is not an altogether unusual motive. This should certainly not
be read as an endorsement of the methods used by the Khmer Rouge and I respectfully
join Mr Hinton in noting that the "devastating reality should not be overshadowed
by definitional debates."
I may add to that by noting that technical legal debates often ignore the social
and political perceptions of ordinary people who continue to struggle to make sense
of a globalized capitalist world. I have only anecdotal evidence to support the assumption
that the prosecution of Khmer Rouge suspects would never have been considered had
it not been for the active intervention of the United Nations and certain Western
countries. Understanding why this is so is of critical importance, lest the sentiments
of the Cambodian people be ignored, yet again.