In Other Words

Burying the Killing Fields

L’ histoire récente du Cambodge et mes prises de position (A Recent History of Cambodia and My Successive Positions) By Khieu Samphan 172 pages, Paris: l’Harmattan, 2004 (in French) In Cambodia, justice takes time. For nine years, the United Nations has been working to establish an international tribunal to try the leaders of the Khmer ...

L’ histoire récente du Cambodge et mes prises de position (A Recent History of Cambodia and My Successive Positions)
By Khieu Samphan
172 pages, Paris: l’Harmattan, 2004 (in French)

In Cambodia, justice takes time. For nine years, the United Nations has been working to establish an international tribunal to try the leaders of the Khmer Rouge for the crimes of the genocidal regime three decades ago. It was Cambodian authorities who put up roadblocks and delays for several years. But, in October, Cambodian lawmakers finally ratified an agreement between the United Nations and Phnom Penh to prosecute the surviving leaders.

Now, as the country moves closer to a trial for the deaths of 1.7 million people under the former Maoist regime, some of the figures who may be charged with crimes against humanity have begun to prepare their defense. Only one of them, Khieu Samphan, has written a book. Regarding this uneven and disingenuous memoir, Samphan recently declared, "I am ready to go and answer the court when they ask me. I have a book that proves my innocence."

The book does nothing of the kind. Instead, it leads readers to believe that a level of cluelessness and naiveté that would be unnerving in a 9-year-old has afflicted this seasoned apparatchik. Samphan, who headed the Khmer Rouge state of Democratic Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979 and later served as the regime’s spokesman, claims he learned of the Khmer Rouge’s excesses only at the time of his surrender in 1998 — a claim, like most of those in the book, that is extremely hard to swallow.

Samphan’s selective retelling of history begins with his own. Educated in French-language schools with other members of Cambodia’s elite, Samphan won a scholarship in the 1940s to study in France, where his standoffish, judgmental personality earned him few friends. But, along with several classmates, including Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot), Samphan joined the French Communist Party. Unlike most classmates, Samphan ultimately earned a doctorate. He became a teacher and journalist upon returning home in 1957, where his students testified to admiring his idealism and incorruptibility. Because his weekly newspaper, L’Observateur, followed a pro-Communist line, Cambodian monarch Prince Norodom Sihanouk closed down the paper in 1960 and briefly imprisoned Samphan. However, Samphan’s book omits any mention of his early run-ins with Sihanouk. Clearly he is still holding out hope for a royal pardon.

In 1967, after five years in the National Assembly, Samphan was again threatened with arrest for antagonizing Sihanouk’s allies in the one-party legislature. But, aided by members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, the political wing of the Khmer Rouge, he was hustled into the Cambodian backwoods. He remained in hiding for the next three years. Samphan fails to explain why the party considered him worth protecting, or why others initially accorded similar treatment were later put to death.

In 1970, following Sihanouk’s ouster in a military coup, the Party asked Samphan to assume leadership of the government-in-exile formed to resist the newly installed regime. To be sure, real power rested in the top echelons of the party. But, from that point, Samphan’s position in their ranks was secured. From 1971 onward, Samphan was a member of the party’s central committee, which he now claims played no role in governing the country. Its meetings, he tells us, were cozy and fraternal, with "nothing resembling fear"affecting their proceedings. In a footnote, he writes that he only "recently"learned that many party members had feared for their lives during the Pol Pot era. Perhaps he wasn’t paying attention when one colleague after another disappeared.

Samphan consistently paints the Khmer Rouge as a nationalist, anti-Vietnamese force, rather than one seeking to establish — at breakneck speed and enormous human cost — a Marxist-Leninist paradise on Earth. He writes that he knew nothing of the party’s decision to evacuate Cambodia’s cities in 1975, which resulted in the death by starvation or disease of more than 1 million people. The surprising news made him "heavy hearted…. Powerless, I could only distill my regrets and desperation in silence."His regrets and desperation, even if genuine, have taken 27 years and the threat of a tribunal to surface.

Similarly, Samphan claims that it was only in 1998, 19 years after the collapse of the regime, that he learned from "books written by foreign authors" that the Khmer Rouge had committed atrocities inside Vietnam from 1976 to 1977. In all those years, it seems, he never read any books, asked any questions, or overheard any news. For page after disingenuous page, Samphan suggests that he lacked courage, curiosity, and a capacity for dissidence. Yet these shortcomings served him admirably as a cat’s-paw for the party’s leaders, and, to be fair, enabled him to survive.

At one point Samphan poses a hypothetical question: "Based on the facts that have recently come to light, how can the increasingly brutal and repressive character of the regime be understood?"It’s unclear, however, to what "facts"he refers and who he thinks was kept in the dark, other than himself. Samphan’s answer to his own query is that Pol Pot perceived violence in Cambodia as originating from abroad, and that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge stemmed from Pol Pot’s insistence on presiding over a revolution that kept Vietnam at bay, but differed completely from the revolution within Cambodia. This is a persuasive and valuable insight considering the depth of Pol Pot’s own delusions, but, arriving on page 128, comes much later than it should.

In the closing chapter, Samphan claims that he never sought promotion and always followed his conscience. Given the trajectory of his career, his conscience was miraculously in sync with the party for 30 years. He now admits that "most of the militants"of his generation were "fundamentally mistaken" (about what, he doesn’t say), but he quickly adds that he has no intention of explaining his errors to his children.

In the end, Samphan suggests that most Cambodians — like most people everywhere — prefer flawed antiheroes as leaders. It is, after all, easier to accept an unjust, hierarchical system than to fight against it. "This attitude,"he writes, "can often lead to servility, the abandonment of professional pride, to, more generally, of all ambition."The oblique suggestion that he was a victim of the Khmer Rouge is probably as close to an admission of guilt as Samphan will ever come. A true verdict on Samphan’s past must wait — a little longer — for his day in court.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola