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Elusive justice

Only days before Vietnamese forces over-ran Phnom Penh in 1979, the Khmer Rouge leadership urged the last of the Cambodian god-kings, Prince Sihanouk, to argue its case before the UN.

After being installed in a luxury suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, the prince denounced the invasion as a violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty before the UN Security Council. Then one night he made a short-lived dash for freedom, seeking political asylum in the United States.

Bowing to Chinese pressure, the US declined. This remarkable story is one of many to be found in this account of the 25-year fight to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice.

By August, Prince Sihanouk was lobbying member states to leave Cambodia’s seat in the General Assembly vacant (thereby reversing his earlier plea).

‘You have never protested,’ said Sihanouk’s open letter to the UN, ‘let alone asked those responsible who were sitting among you for an account of this genocide worse than the one committed by the detestable Nazis.’

In the end, 71 countries—including Australia, the UK, the US and Canada—backed the right of the ousted Pol Pot regime to be represented at the UN.

‘I was told to engineer the result on the Credentials Committee,’ said US delegate Robert Rosenstock before the vote. ‘I think I now know how Pontius Pilate felt,’ he later said.

Getting Away with Genocide? catalogues the ‘frustrations, the delays and dashed hopes’ of those closely aligned with the Cambodian fight for justice, alongside the shifting Cold War realpolitik in the UN and the US State Department that has meant that not one Khmer Rouge leader has answered for the murder of two million Cambodians.

Written by Tom Fawthrop, a British journalist who has reported on south-east Asia since 1979, and Helen Jarvis, an Australian academic and adviser to the Cambodian government’s Task Force on the Khmer Rouge trials, Getting Away With Genocide? presents its case with great urgency.

 This is not surprising, as the few witnesses who survived the killing fields have died, or are ageing fast.
The book includes profiles of the key Khmer Rouge personnel, most of whom are now aged in their late 70s or 80s.

Pol Pot, for example, the man from a well-off background (his sister was one of the king’s concubines) who returned from studies in Paris armed with a revolutionary brand of Marxism-Leninism, died seven years ago.

One of the priorities of the Vietnamese after ‘liberating’ Cambodia was to set up a court to try the Khmer Rouge, but it faced many obstacles. According to Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-term prime minister, when the army rattled into Phnom Penh only 70 residents remained.

The devastation was total. ‘Hundreds of thousands of gaunt and diseased people, dazed as if returning from hell, wandered shoeless among dusty roads,’ recalls a Vietnamese adviser to the SPK news agency. They were ‘reduced to a state where they did not speak or smile any more’.

So-called ‘new people’ from cities and newly captured areas (alongside Buddhist monks and ethnic minorities) were targeted by the Maoist guerrillas in the Khmer Rouge’s bloody three years in power.

In August 1979, the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal under Vietnamese auspices convicted Pol Pot and second-in-charge Ieng Sary of genocide. But it made little difference, as Cold War rivalry between China and Vietnam meant that the US and its allies continued to fund the Khmer Rouge.

Between 1979 and 1989, China provided $80–100 million a year, while the US-influenced World Food Program gave millions to the Khmer Rouge camped on the Thai border. These hungry, malaria- ridden refugees soon became the public face of Cambodia’s plight. Seven years after Pol Pot’s fall, the UN gave $142 per head for the tens of thousands on the border, and only $1.50 for each of the seven million inside the Vietnamese-occupied territory.

Singapore’s former ambassador to Cambodia, Verghese Mathews, has criticised this book for its ‘almost evangelical criticism’ of the refusal by the UN and international community to recognise Cambodia’s post-Khmer government.

‘In their disappointment that no Western country so much as sent a fact-finding mission following the ouster of Pol Pot, they have failed to give adequate expression to the complex international and regional dynamism which drove the then bipolar world,’ he says.

It is true that impatience seeps into the authors’ account of recent events, especially the way the UN and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have resisted aspects of the ‘mixed tribunal’ put forward by the Hun Sen government. Serious concerns about breaches of international law are not given much space, but this is a minor flaw in terms of this vivid, timely and well-researched book’s overall importance. 

Getting Away with Genocide? Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis. UNSW Press, 2005.  isbn 0 868 40904 9, rrp $39.95

Madeleine Byrne is a former SBS journalist. She is a fellow at OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank.



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