Getting Away With Genocide? and Facing Death in Cambodia both provide a thorough, well-written, if imperfect exploration of the questions surrounding Cambodia's defining tragedy and the international tribunal that could follow.
* Book Review
An American academic, a British journalist and an adviser to the Cambodian government
have, among them, written two new books on the Khmer Rouge that, in different ways,
will be valuable additions to libraries on the period.
Not a moment too soon, either. New NGO workers, UN officials, journalists and other
followers of the looming tribunal are, or should be, boning up on what happened,
key players, legal issues and why it has taken a quarter-century to get here. Tourists
and less demanding readers such as NGO officials in the West and foreign desk editors
will need to get the basics down. They, too, will find these books useful.
Facing Death in Cambodia, by American scholar Peter Maguire, and Getting away with
Genocide? Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, by Tom Fawthrop and Helen
Jarvis, are not, separately or together, a complete education on the Khmer Rouge
trial issues, and each has particular weaknesses. Each, though, is well worth reading
and provides different sorts of resources for learning about the Khmer Rouge years.
Maguire's book is deftly written and gives a historian's-eye view of Cambodian history,
although it is written by a historian who was disappointed by what he saw and the
book "is written in two voices: that of the academic historian and that of the
often stunned observer."(6)
The book is a sober, clear-eyed look at the questions surrounding the probable tribunal
and Maguire makes no bones about his skepticism of what might be called the human
"Those looking for the 'glass half full' optimism that characterized much of
the human rights scholarship during the 1990s should read no further. This is a sad
story with an inconclusive ending," he says in his opening paragraph (1).
This is a serious but not dour book. Maguire, who made a number of trips to Cambodia
and talked to a variety of Cambodians and foreigners as he explored this question,
engagingly takes the reader through recent Cambodian history and builds his case
for his final thoughts about the tribunal.
This book quickly takes readers through Cambodia's recent past, including the Khmer
Rouge victory, the roles of the United States and United Nations in events of the
last 30 years, UNTAC, Cambodian politics and efforts to institute a Khmer Rouge tribunal.
For someone who stresses that he is a historian, not a journalist (17), he does a
creditable job of boiling down a great deal of information into an engaging and readable
Maguire's writing is economical, but not in the sense that it is sparse or superficial.
It is economical in the sense that he knows where he is going and doesn't waste the
reader's time with irrelevant side trips or with narcissistic navel-gazing.
This is an important point. He periodically steps away from his discussion of issues
to recount tales of his visits to Phnom Penh, replete with references to the traffic,
journalists, what a shock it was the first time he landed at Pochentong Airport (16),
etc., the sorts of references that are common in cliche-ridden hip travel writing.
To his great credit, though, Maguire uses these interludes to make important points,
nowhere more so than in his chapter dealing with the death of his "fixer,"
Sok Sin (175).
Maguire, watching Sin's decline, notes that while he supports the idea of trials
if Cambodians want them, they are not a panacea for the massive problems facing Cambodia
(72). Later, he says that the "four-year-old negotiations over a war crimes
trial thirty years after the fact seemed irrelevant, a mere distraction compared
to the impact that AIDS was having on hundreds of thousands of Cambodian families."
Occasionally some minor flaws crop up -- a badly checked footnote, some awkward phrasing
that could have been smoothed -- but these seem to reflect more on the editors than
on the author.
All in all, this is a very satisfying read. It is a solid and well-written work that
makes some good points and makes them well.
Fawthrop and Jarvis have written a different kind of book, more of a blow-by-blow
history of how we have gotten where we are today.
"This book," Fawthrop writes in the final chapter, "has catalogued
the frustrations, the delays and the dashed hopes that have derailed the tribunal
for a quarter of a century." (252)
Catalogue it does. The authors - Fawthrop is a Phnom Penh-based journalist whose
work has appeared in the Economist, the Guardian, the Phnom Penh Post and other places;
Jarvis is an Australian academic serving as an adviser to the Cambodian government
- make no bones about their impatience with the United Nations and various other
players in the quarter-century drama that has preceded the presumptive opening of
This is a very well-organized book, partly because Fawthrop and Jarvis wrote separate
chapters, allowing each chapter to make distinct points. They each bring a distinct
style to the book as well.
Fawthrop, for example, brings a trained journalist's touch to his evocative description
of Phnom Penh on liberation in January 1979.
"It resembled the aftermath of a massive typhoon, with street after street of
derelict houses along which were to be found piles of books, TVs and old Peugeot
and Citroen deux chevaux cars. The tree-lined boulevards of the once beautiful capital
were abandoned and deserted. Pieces of paper and old money were blowing along the
gutters. Thousands of shoes littered the entrance to Psar Thmei, the city's main
market. It was a scene straight out of Dante's Inferno." (13)
As the book proceeds after the opening, it continues a detailed history of the events
surrounding the quest for a trial for the Khmer Rouge. Scattered through the book
are a number of interesting insights, observations and conclusions that will be valuable
to those who will be watching the trial's formation and execution.
Jarvis's discussion of the 1979 four-day genocide trial is a solid academic analysis
of the trial, including her statement (49) that despite its shortcomings, it provided
a venue for Cambodians to recount their sufferings at a time that much of the world
was not paying attention to the Khmer Rouge crimes.
Despite the "legal shortcomings" of the People's Revolutionary Tribunal,
she writes, "it was the cold logic of the cold war that determined that its
verdict would be ignored."(51)
Jarvis is, of course, part of the Hun Sen team, and sometimes that gets in the way.
The reader is frequently aware that he or she is getting pretty much one side of
things - this book does not make clear that concerns about Cambodia's legal system
are held by a wide variety of parties, including some who now support the approaching
trials, and both foreigners and Cambodians. In addition, she sometimes writes like
an adviser - on page 195 she still refers to Hun Sen by his full title as "Prime
Minister Hun Sen."
Readers, however, know who Jarvis is before they open the book and her conclusions
should be judged on their own value.
The book continues its blow-by-blow account through to the June 6, 2003, UN-Cambodia
agreement to set up tribunals. This book will be valuable for those who need to begin
to understand the events leading up to the trial both as a chronology and as a source
for interesting insights.
There are, it should be said, times that it seems the reporting in this book could
have been tightened.
In discussing Oxfam's 1979 effort to get aid to Cambodians living inside the country,
not just in the border refugee camps, Fawthrop says the British Foreign Office warned
that relief flights might be fired on.
"No western government had any observer mission inside the country and the UK
Foreign Office confirmed to us that they made no request to open one. Hence the British
government had no reliable source of information and no credible basis for their
warnings to Oxfam," Fawthrop says (65), making what seems to be an unjustified
Later, when Fawthrop raises the issue of divisions within the CPP, he cites and quotes
specialist Craig Etcheson's analysis of divisions within the party on a UN tribunal
(153). Etcheson is a perceptive and astute observer, but given the authors' backgrounds,
they should have presented their own analysis.
This is a book that is full of interesting details that will be useful to those approaching
these trials for the first time. For example, Americans of all political stripes
- as well as others - will be interested in Jarvis's description of Sen. John Kerry's
role in establishing the idea of a mixed tribunal (155).
The United Nations takes a lot of heat these days over its performance in Cambodia,
and this book is not likely to win a lot of friends at UN headquarters.
The chapter on events following the February 2002 UN withdrawal from the trial talks
is titled "The Gangs of New York," which seems to be merely a witty barb
until well into the chapter (199), when Jarvis recounts how the Cambodians went to
see The Gangs of New York at the movies after a frustrating resumption of talks.
"How appropriate for the atmosphere they found themselves in - a knockdown,
drag-out war between 'native' New Yorkers (the [UN] Secretariat) and interloping
'foreigners' (Cambodia and the other member states)."
However, when Jarvis moves in the next chapter to legal questions, her tone becomes
more academic and this chapter comes across as more useful to those who need an overall
guide to such tribunal issues as differences between Cambodian law and the Anglo-American
system, evidence, who is covered by Cambodian law, and crimes that can be prosecuted.
Fawthrop wraps the book up nicely with his final chapter, parts of which are particularly
thoughtful and relevant to evaluations of the trials that are about to happen.
One criticism of the current trial setup is that by concentrating completely on the
Khmer Rouge years, it ignores what happened before and after them. Although this
book is not long on criticism of the Hun Sen years, Fawthrop alludes to the possibility
that events prior to 1975 may be revisited, specifically US bombing raids against
the country during the US Vietnam War and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's
role in that bombing, and to the possibility that some post-1979 actions by the Americans
and British may come to light.
Ta Mok is said to have "some fresh revelations to tell the court about the involvement
of western agencies, CIA and the British SAS with the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s,"
(246) Fawthrop says, noting that (245-6) Ta Mok wants to call Kissinger as a witness.
It may be that, as Fawthrop says, Kissinger is not likely to answer any subpoena
from the court, but many will agree with Fawthrop's statement that "a tribunal
that managed to avoid any reference to the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians bombed
into oblivion long before Pol Pot took power, would be sadly lacking in historical
Fawthrop is eloquent when he says, in his closing paragraphs, that although the trial
"cannot be a panacea for all the ills of contemporary Cambodian society"
it will accord some respect to the nearly 2 million who died and show that the world
cares about what happened.
"The day the tribunal indicts all the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders is the day
that impunity ends for a group of mass murderers that have been succoured and protected
by the international community for far too long," he writes. (253)
These two books are both excellent reads. Each has stumbled slightly short of perfection,
but the value of both of them far outweighs any minor problems readers find. As the
trials approach, these are two examples of the kind of book that not only journalists
and UN workers coming to Cambodia should read, but that should be on the shelves
of the bookstores that tourists frequent in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Bangkok.