I would like to thank Bora Touch for his response to the question I raised in my
previous letter to the Post (October 7): "Was it a genocide?" In contrast to the
affirmative answer that I provided, Bora Touch makes several counter-arguments
to assert that the events that occurred during Democratic Kampuchea should not
be considered genocide.
Before replying, I want to emphasize that the
most important thing to keep in mind - and on this I'm sure Bora Touch and I
agree - is that Cambodians lived through a period of extreme brutality,
suffering, and terror and that the Khmer Rouge committed horrific crimes for
which they should be held accountable. This devastating reality should not be
overshadowed by definitional debates.
Nevertheless, assessing whether or
not these crimes were genocide is important, both on a symbolic level (to
acknowledge the extremity of Democratic Kampuchea) and a legal level (to
determine the charges that should be brought against former Khmer Rouge
Bora Touch claims that I am "wrong in law and in fact" to
assert that a genocide took place in Cambodia, arguing that there "is no
evidence that the Khmer Rouge leadership had an intent to destroy any group
based on their race, ethnicity or religion."
His assertion is inaccurate.
In the upcoming tribunal, a court of law will pass judgment on whether or not
genocide was perpetrated in Democratic Kampuchea (according to the strict
definition of genocide set out in the 1948 UN Genocide Convention). The evidence
presented will include primary documentation, interviews, surveys, and
Among the latter type of evidence will be demographic
findings that ethnic Chams and ethnic Vietnamese perished in much greater
numbers than other Cambodians.
The most comprehensive study of Chams to
date, Ysa Osman's Oukoubah (DC-Cam, 2002) found that as many as 400,000 to
500,000 of Cambodia's 700,000 ethnic Chams perished during DK, a figure that
constitutes a 57-to-71 percent mortality rate, two to three times higher than
that of the Cambodian population as a whole. A demographic analysis by Ben
Kiernan (The Pol Pot Regime) suggests an even higher mortality rate for ethnic
Vietnamese: almost all of the 20,000 or so ethnic Vietnamese who remained after
the 1975 expulsions perished.
Such statistical studies alone, of course,
do not provide proof of genocide (though they are certainly evidence of it).
They must be paired with other supporting evidence, such as witness testimony.
Based on my interviews with Cambodian villagers in Kampong Siem district,
Kampong Cham, I am confident that testimony of a coordinated plan to eradicate
ethnic Chams and Vietnamese will not be difficult to find. Over and over again,
I was told how all of the ethnic Cham and Vietnamese families in given villages
were annihilated. One former Khmer Rouge cadre told me that such killings took
place after the subdistrict office received a letter specifying that ethnic
Chams and Vietnamese, among other "enemy groups," should be "swept
This official's memory suggests that there may still exist at
least some primary documentation directly implicating high-ranking members of
the Khmer Rouge in the genocide of ethnic Chams and Vietnamese. Until the
enormous amount of archival material held by the Documentation Center of
Cambodia has been catalogued and analyzed, however, we won't know if an
unequivocal "smoking gun" exists. Still, documentation that already has been
examined provides at least indirect evidence that ethnic Chams had been targeted
as counter-revolutionaries (and clearly were the victims of ethnocide) and that
Vietnamese (even those having "Khmer bodies but Vietnamese minds") were regarded
as enemies of the state.
Having said this, I want to emphasize that,
while highly desirable, primary documentation directly implicating high-ranking
former Khmer Rouge officials is not the only type of evidence that is needed to
determine that genocide took place in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Contrary
to Bora Touch's argument, which ignores eyewitness testimony, demographic
information, forensic studies, mapping projects, and so forth, there is
substantial evidence of genocide, particularly for the mass murder of ethnic
Chams and Muslims (the case for Buddhist monks is harder to make and awaits
further investigation and analysis).
Bora Touch also claims that I am
"incorrect to claim that (1) killing of political and economic groups is also
genocide in the 'broad sense' of the convention, and (2) that most scholars of
genocide agree [on this]." He inaccurately describes my argument. I stated that
the Cambodian case qualifies as genocide "in the broader sense used by most
scholars of genocide" (Phnom Penh Post, October 7). In other words, I never
referred to the "'broad sense' of the convention."
When the genocide
convention was originally formulated, a Soviet-bloc faction led a movement to
exclude political and economic groups, arguing that these group identities were
The person who coined the term "genocide," Rapheal
Lemkin, included such groups in his original definition ("political and other
groups" were also included in a preliminary 1946 draft resolution), but they
were ultimately excised from the final text of the 1948 UN Genocide
Most genocide scholars recognize that the language of the
convention is overly restrictive; many use a broader definition in their own
research, one that encompasses political and economic groups as Lemkin
For such scholars, myself included, there is little
doubt that the Cambodian case qualifies as a genocide, since there is
substantial documentary, statistical, survey, forensic, and testimonial evidence
that such groups were targeted for destruction by the Khmer Rouge.
Touch missed this point. Still, I appreciate his willingness to participate in
this complex debate, one that will take on even greater significance when the
tribunal begins and the evidence for and against a genocide conviction is
presented in a court of law.
Alex Hinton - Rutgers University,
Newark, New Jersey