Reviewed by Allen Myers Suzannah Linton's Reconciliation in Cambodia, being published
in August by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, is number 5 in DC-Cam's Documentation
Series. Sadly, it is the least successful, for several reasons.
National Reconciliation has been a political buzzword for over a decade. Photo ops aside, like the one above in Poipet in 1996, a new book on the subject, according to Allen Myers, misses the mark.
The author writes that the book was "inspired" by a survey conducted by
DC-Cam in 2002. But the survey, while of interest in a number of respects, was not
a sufficient source to provide a basis for the topic described in the book's title.
The survey covered only 712 respondents, who were not at all representative of the
Cambodian population, and many of the questions were on topics other than reconciliation.
So the other source of information about reconciliation in Cambodia becomes Linton's
reading of other writers on Cambodia and on reconciliation. As a newcomer to the
field of reconciliation studies, I found much of the review of experiences in Bosnia,
East Timor, South Africa and so on intriguing and thought-provoking.
However, regarding aspects of Cambodia where I have some previous information, I
found her presentation tendentious and often factually wrong. The reader unfamiliar
with Cambodia would be left, for example, with the impression that the government
had granted hundreds or even thousands of amnesties and pardons to Khmer Rouge offenders.
Moreover, the attempt to combine the survey and the review of reconciliation literature
remains forced, and it shows. To take just one example, the chapter analyzing the
DC-Cam survey includes a nine-page discussion of the extent to which testifying is
cathartic for victims of genocidal crimes who appear in trials or truth commissions.
I found it very interesting, but there was no logical reason for it to appear where
it does, tacked at the end of statistics about how many people in the DC-Cam survey
thought it was important to learn the truth about the Khmer Rouge regime.
Since I have said the book is tendentious, I should reveal what the tendency is.
Linton describes this on page 95, where she "sums up" a message repeated
many times throughout the book: the Cambodian government is uninterested in a trial
of the Khmer Rouge that produces justice, or in "social repair" or real
reconciliation or the rule of law.
Linton or anyone else is of course entitled to hold this view, but if she wants her
readers to share it, she ought to do them the courtesy of supplying evidence and
rational argument. On this, the book fails badly, relying mainly on unsupported,
or poorly supported, generalizations. Here is one example among many:
Linton writes that the Cambodian government's 1997 request to the UN for assistance
in trying KR leaders "is widely assessed as having been a strategic political
move by Hun Sen in response to other political pressures". The statement is
accompanied by two references. One is from David Chandler, who wrote that the request
was "probably ... tactical" and who did not attribute it to Hun Sen any
more than to Ranariddh. The other is a Bangkok Post article saying, "The actual
intentions of Ranariddh and Hun Sen ... are not clear." Two sources are not
"wide", especially when both of them disagree with the statement they are
supposed to support.
Even worse, Linton is rather cavalier about the use of quotation marks. For example:
"... the government has in effect been pursuing a policy akin to 'peace and
reconciliation at all costs, and carefully controlled and calibrated justice if we
absolutely cannot avoid it'."
The charitable reader who is also a native English speaker may eventually work out
that Linton didn't really mean to say that the words in single quotes were spoken
by a member of the government. But there will be many readers for whom English is
a second language, and they might miss the fact that direct quotes in this book are
enclosed in double quotation marks. Furthermore, there is no good grammatical reason
for putting quotes around the phrase, and using the pronoun "we" within
it can only mislead.
Where it is a matter of real remarks from members of the government, Linton has two
methods. If she thinks the remark can be forcibly interpreted to fit her thesis,
she attempts to do so. If the remark is too contradictory of her thesis for such
treatment, she dismisses it as "rhetoric" - or even, in some cases, as
Conversely, anything critical of the government is guaranteed a warm welcome. For
example, Linton tells us that Stephen Heder - whose well-known antipathy for the
government and the trial arrangements is never mentioned - believes that "the
prevailing fear that Cambodians speak about is actually 'much more of current powerholders
than a psychological legacy of the [Khmer Rouge] period'."
The footnote tells us that this observation was made in "personal correspondence
with the author". How's that for academic rigor! A sweeping polemical generalization
is supported by nothing more than an observation in a private letter: readers are
given nothing that allows them to judge whether Heder had any objective basis for
Unfortunately, this sort of sloppiness, which seems mainly designed to sharpen Linton's
political axe, spills over into the rest of the book, including her handling of the
DC-Cam survey. She acknowledges that, because of its size and other limitations,
the survey cannot be taken as representative of the whole Cambodian population. But
having stated the caveat, she ignores it throughout, repeatedly claiming that the
survey results demonstrate what Cambodians generally think regarding some issue.
Here, she is not above forcing interpretations on the results. For example, we are
repeatedly told that the survey showed "tremendous" support for "rule
of law". However, at the bottom of page 24 appears the admission that respondents
"did not use the specific term 'rule of law'"! Oh well, she seems to say,
I know what they really meant.
The presentation of the statistics from the survey also suffers. Figures are all
in percentages carried to two decimal places, creating a mere illusion of precision
when there were only 712 respondents. And some of the percentages are clearly wrong:
they imply, for example, that 550.5 respondents answered "yes" to question
3, while 110.7 respondents declined to answer question 2.
Strangely, the book begins with an "executive summary" - as though it were
a report to the head of an NGO or corporation, rather than a book for the reading
public. However, an executive summary is supposed to be brief, so that busy executives
can make a quick choice, but this one is 37 pages long and full of detail and repetition.
Its main function appears to be to allow Linton to bash the reader one more time
with her political preconceptions.
This is indeed overkill, because the main text is itself exceedingly repetitive,
in both argument and detail. One quotation from Stephen Heder appears four times,
including once in the executive summary.
Last and least, Linton concludes with 15 pages of finger-wagging instructions to
the government and a smaller list for NGOs, consisting mostly of jargon (eg "creative
and culturally-sensitive mechanisms for accountability").
The author calls the book a "multi-disciplinary" study. Reading it, I kept
wondering what those disciplines were. Clearly, self-discipline is not one of them.