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Dead and Buried?

By Bertil Lintner

Khmer Rouge crimes may never be redressed

Getting Away with Genocide? Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, by Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis. Pluto Press, London and Ann Arbor: 2004. 327 pages

Any book about the question of guilt for the Cambodian genocide, and who should be brought to justice, is bound to cause controversy, and Getting Away With Genocide, by Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis is no exception. It has been praised by Gregory Stanton, founder of the Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University and now president of Genocide Watch, as "an insider's account of the twenty-five year struggle to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice." Stanton, like the two authors, also slams "the morally bankrupt realpolitik of the West" that kept the Khmer Rouge in the UN after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion, and denied recognition and development aid to the regime that Hanoi's forces subsequently installed in Phnom Penh. Verghese Mathews, a former Singaporean ambassador to Cambodia, takes issue with the book for being "opinionated," but adds that "this should not detract from its evident and immense scholarship and research."

Johns Hopkins fellow Stephen Morris, on the other hand, criticized the book's findings and even questioned the integrity of the authors in an unusually acerbic review in the March 2005 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Fawthrop, said Morris, is a "free-lance British journalist, who has managed to live for decades without ever being staff at any news organization that he is willing to identify," while Jarvis "was rescued from academic obscurity by being part of the Cambodia Genocide Program...funded by the United States Department of State... [but] what she probably didn't mention in her application was that she was a member of one of Australia's Marxist-Leninist sects of Trotskyist inclination." The realpolitik that Stanton, Fawthrop and Jarvis harshly criticize is to Morris understandable in the context of "not recognizing regimes installed by armed foreign invasion" at a time when "the West was concerned with the priority of stopping Soviet and Vietnamese expansion, which threatened Western and Thai security, and [thus] a Khmer Rouge tribunal was not its highest priority."

The period in Cambodian history from the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 to the UN intervention in 1991-93 will remain one of the most debatable chapters in modern Western diplomacy. With the backing of the West, China and Asean, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea was formed in Kuala Lumpur in 1982, bringing together three anti-Vietnamese resistance factions and representing Cambodia in the UN. The coalition seemed perfect. Led by Son Sann, a veteran politician and former banker, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front was the closest to a liberal, democratic grouping that the West could identify itself with in Cambodia.

But since Son Sann was virtually unknown inside Cambodia, prince Sihanouk's Royalist faction provided popular appeal in the countryside. However, neither the KPNLF nor the Royalists had any viable fighting force that could resist the Vietnamese; only the Khmer Rouge had the manpower, weaponry and fighting skills to do that -- and, therefore, they had to be included in the coalition. Bringing Pol Pot and the other Khmer Rouge leaders to justice for what they did when they were in power from April 1975 to January 1979 was definitely not on the agenda of the West, China or Asean.

Now, at long last, that controversial realpolitik is seen as history and justice is expected to be done. Well, perhaps. In mid-2003 the Cambodian government and the UN agreed to hold a tribunal conducted jointly by international and Cambodian jurists. But it is still uncertain whether this will ever take place. The Hun Sen government complains that it does not have enough funds for it, and has asked the international community for astronomical sums to cover the costs. And it should not be forgotten that Hun Sen's government is filled with former Khmer Rouges, who may have fled to Vietnam for fear of being purged during the last years of Pol Pot's reign of terror, but who, before that, also belonged to the same murderous regime.

And what would come out during any trial of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders about China's role in supporting them from the 1970s to the early 1990s? Or about America's guilt? In 1999, Benson Samay, lawyer for Ta Mok--one of the few Khmer Rouge leaders who have been arrested -- announced that he was planning to file subpoenas for several former Western leaders to appear in the tribunal, including Henry Kissinger, whom he held responsible for the "secret" bombing of Cambodia in the 1970s, and others for later supporting the CGDK. In the end, the Khmer Rouge may well get away with genocide because no one really wants to stir up this hornets' nest.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, June 2005

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