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20/ Heder versus Kiernan, 1995.


Phnom Penh Post, 16-29 06 95, p. 18-19.


The process of bringing peace to Cambodia has opened up a whole new battlefield among academics. Steven Heder takes Ben Kiernan to task.

Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge, the United Nations and the International Community. Edited by Ben Kiernan, New Haven: Monograph Series No. 41, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1993. 335 pp.

THIS monograph collects ten essays produced for a conference at Yale University in Feb. 1992, four months after the Paris Agreements. In a preface written in June 1993, George Andreopoulos of Yale's Center for International Human Rights explains that they aim at a "thorough re-examination of the origins, nature and extent" of the predicament faced by Cambodia as it embarked on "a difficult and problematic transition to democracy" through the Paris Agreements. He characterizes the diplomatic process which led to the Agreements and their implementation by UNTAC as a test of "the international community's willingness to promote democracy and human rights".

As the monograph suggests, at the center of Cambodia's dilemma was the role of the Partie of Democratic Kampuchea (PDK) the Khmer Rouge. The Paris Agreements indeed involved a risky trial of the thesis that a shock dose of Western-style democracy would lessen the prospects for a resurgence of the power and influence of the PDK and other human rights violators. They tested which Cambodian political forces would gain and which would lose in the attempt to transpose the competition for power on the domestic stage from political mobilization for armed confrontation to political mobilization to vote in elections.

Editor Ben Kiernan's introduction and his long essay, "The inclusion of the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian Peace Process: Causes and Consequences'', form the core of the collection. Revised by publication time to take account of events through July 1993, they describe the whole transition process and are the subject of this review.

Readers might expect that Kiernan's contributions would directly confront the question of whether a democratic political process involving competitive elections might help establish a government in Cambodia that was, first, unlikely to commit gross violations of human rights, and second, was likely to be relatively well able to prevent the PDK from committing such abuses. Unfortunately, it offers no serious discussion of the concept of democratic transition from authoritarianism. Nor does he display any grasp of the concept of human rights or provide any general framework for understanding how they may be successfully promoted in Cambodia's circumstances. These fundamental shortcomings make it difficult for him to answer the essential question of whether an exercise in democracy enhanced or undermined the chances for resolving the problems of genocide and other human rights violations in Cambodia.

Instead, Kiernan is more concerned to update his long-standing argument that the consequences of Chinese and American policy on Cambodia have for many years been to enhance the prospects of the Khmer Rouge, who would otherwise have been a political nonentity. He thus points to the historical support provided to the PDK by China and the US as their proxy for efforts to drive Vietnam out of Cambodia and unseat the regime it built up, the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), rechristened the State of Cambodia (SoC) in 1989. He suggests that the Cambodian predicament arose largely from the failure of the international community to punish the PDK leadership for its violations of human rights. He draws particular attention to the cynical diplomatic realpolitik, a result of which any reference to Khmer Rouge responsibility for gross violations of human rights, much less genocide, was expunged from the Paris Agreements. There is substantial truth in much of this, particularly as regards the Chinese and US roles in reviving the PDK after 1979 and the near-total ineffectiveness of international mechanisms for bringing gross human rights violators to justice, at least until very recently. But Kiernan goes much further. He suggests that because, at the behest of China and the US, the PDK was given the chance to participate in the process the Paris Agreements laid down, the international community was bound to fail to promote democracy and human rights in Cambodia. He attacks the Paris Agreements by asserting that a very different but still very viable political solution could have been arranged. He argues that this could have come about through a Southeast Asian diplomacy which would have excluded the PDK from the political process and prevented it from attempting to upset that arrangement through armed violence or other means. He implies this arrangement could have incorporated Sihanouk's Funcinpec and Son Sann's Khmer People's National Liberation Front "KPNLF" into the political administration in Phnom Penh, and that the resulting political construction could have enjoyed domestic and international legitimacy. He blames great power maneuvering for having prevented such an outcome.

Great Powers Versus Southeast Asians ?

Kiernan postulates that before the Paris Agreements, "the Cambodia conflict was played out on three levels: the national, regional and great power levels." He contends that SoC's foreign opponents had "hegemony" at the great power level, which he appears to equate more or less with the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, China, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union/Russia). He claims that "the forces were fairly evenly divided" at the "intervening regional level", which he do not define but in which he appears to include Southeast Asian countries and sometimes also Japan, and occasionally Australia. His main thesis is that the great powers, particularly the US and China, managed to overpower the balance forces within the region to impose a solution that gave the PDK the opportunity to make massive gains at the expense of the SoC.

Put in such terms, the idea of a lost historical alternative appears attractive. In fact, however, it is questionable whether any political solution could have been reached that was not agreeable to the great powers. Similarly questionable is Kiernan's suggestion that the Permanent Five's peace plan was the only path fraught with dangers and difficulties, or the one most fraught with dangers and difficulties. A deal contrary to US and Chinese wishes might also have offered the PDK chances to extend its powerand influence. There could have been no guarantee that ASEAN, Japan and Australia, acting against the wishes of the US, China, and other Permanent Five actors, could have crafted a deal, maneuvered the relevant Cambodian players to accept it, and then successfully ensured such a stable and effective outcome that the PDK would have been politically and militarily checkmated. Kiernan argues that exclusion of the PDK from the peace process could have prevented a continuation or the resumption of the civil war that had plagued Cambodia for years, while its inclusion via the terms of the Paris Agreements could at best only delay a return to fighting. While the latter appears to have been true, the former seems implausible.

As Kiernan suggests, the regional role of the Thai military in supporting the PDK against the PRK was historically crucial, but his prescriptions about what could have been done about this are as unrealistic as his hypotheses about the might-have-beens of regional diplomacy. Thus, Kiernan is right in postulating that a great diminution of the PDK's leverage could have been achieved by cutting its lines of supply from Thailand. However, in the late 1980s and early 90s, this could not have been achieved inside Thailand itself without a fundamental restructuring of Thai policy that would have eliminated the ability of the Thai armed forces to determine major aspects of Thailand's foreign policy, or act autonomously within a broader foreign policy framework set by a civilian government. In fact, it was easier to end Chinese supplies than to cut the supply line through Thailand, and the former was achieved by the Paris Agreements, a fact which he only reluctantly admits. Even though elements within the Thai military continued to allow material resupply of the PDK after the Paris Agreements, the change in the Chinese position achieved through the Agreements helped create conditions which made the long-term diminution of such support more likely and possible.

Great Powers Versus Cambodians?

Moreover, even if the alternative Kiernan proposes had been diplomatically possible, it is highly doubtful whether it would have been workable politically in Cambodia, and even more doubtful that it would have been preferable to the Paris Agreements from the point of view of ordinary Cambodians. Contrary to what Kiernan hints, there was never any real indication that SoC was seriously prepared to share power with Funcinpec and the KPNLF or to offer Sihanouk anything more than a figurehead role. Even more importantly, a regionally-crafted alternative would never have resulted in elections freer and fairer than those conducted by UNTAC. Herein lies perhaps the best reason for favoring the path laid down in the Paris Agreements: it gave ordinary Cambodians the greatest chance to express their political desires. It is therefore ironic that Kiernan implies that in pushing for the path contained in the Paris Agreements, the US and China ran roughshod over Cambodian public opinion. He asserts that the US and China remained determined to eliminate the SoC and its leadership from the political landscape. He thus ascribes pressure for the displacement of the SoC to a US desire for the establishment in the country of "not merely an independent Cambodian government, but an anti-Vietnamese one". In fact, all the evidence suggests that both China and the US were quite prepared to accommodate a continued political role for SoC leaders, as long as they were prepared to remain basically faithful to the provisions of the Agreements and show some respect for the popular will as expressed in elections.

Because the views of Cambodian people themselves are absent from his analytic schema, Kiernan's analysis does not recognize the popular domestic pressures against SoC which conditioned the Cambodian political process under the Paris Agreements. In discussing the domestic situation before Oct 1991, he asserts that "within Cambodia, the balance of forces favored the incumbent SoC." He later makes it clear, without directly saying so, that he is referring to the military balance. He fudges the question of the balance of political forces. While Kiernan stresses that the PDK lacked popular support, he does not venture a straightforward assessment about the extent to which SoC, Funcinpec or the KPNLF enjoyed popular backing.

However, Kiernan's beliefs shine through, most notably in his treatment of their human rights records and nationalist credentials of SoC, Funcinpec and the KPNLF. Kiernan chronicles PDK atrocities, particularly attacks by its armed forces on Cambodian civilians, before and after the Agreements. He also notes that the PDK's "allies were not innocent of atrocities". Although he cites only one examplea KPNLF attack on a refugee campit is certainly true that both it and Funcinpec bore responsibility for numerous human rights abuses in the camps which they administered before the repatriation under UNTAC auspices emptied them. However, Kiernan is conspicuously silent about human rights violations by the SoC before the Agreements, although a pattern of such violations were confirmed by facts that came out after Oct 1991. To highlight a history of human rights violations by the opposition while saying nothing about the record of the SoC, Kiernan misleadingly suggests that the SoC was not politically plagued by its authoritarian record in power.

Kiernan also underplays the legitimacy problems faced by the SoC due to its historical domination by Vietnam. While stressing great power backing for the opposition, he pointedly describes the SoC leaders as nationalists and underlines the fact that even before the Agreements, the Vietnamese political cadre and troops who had crafted and protected the regime in which the SoC leaders came to power had withdrawn from Cambodia. Although he is right to point out that the SoC leaders were hardly enthusiastic stooges of the Vietnamese and makes it possible to understand why they were happy to be out from under Vietnamese tutelage, Kiernan misses out the experience of ordinary Cambodians with the PRK. This was such as to leave strong doubts in the popular mind about the nationalist pedigrees of the SoC leaders. The credibility of SoC's efforts to re-legitimize itself by switching from the Marxist-Leninist mode of the era of Vietnamese domination to the nationalist mode once the Vietnamese were gone was low.

Conversely, Kiernan's stress on the extent of foreign backing for the Funcinpec and the KPNLF leaves the impression that they were merely creatures of foreign creation with no domestic support. It ignores their roots in the various strains of non-communist nationalism dating to the Cambodian struggle for independence from France, against American interference in Cambodian domestic affairs and against Vietnamese encroachment on Cambodian territorial integrity.

Thus, while Kiernan's last-minute revisions mention the Funcinpec electoral victory, he cannot explain it. In an apparent attempt to do so, he credits SoC-inspired allegations that Funcinpec was politically controlled by the PDK and suggestions that the Funcinpec electoral victory resulted from PDK votes for it. Both assertions were egregiously and dangerously wrong at the time they were made, and subsequent events have demonstrated that the argument-saving device of depicting Funcinpec as a Khmer Rouge Trojan horse had no basis in reality. The facts are that Funcinpec won because it enjoyed greater popularity than the CPP, and that despite its one-time alliance with the PDK it had always jealously and successfully maintained its organizational and political independence from the Khmer Rouge.

PDK Intentions, Capabilities and Achievements

Kiernan argues that the PDK never intended to go along with the Agreements, and that while violating them it also gained the most from them. Extensive evidence, some of which I have presented previously, suggests that Kiernan's view of PDK intentions is simplistic. It ignores the numerous indications that while the PDK intended to cheat on the demobilization process, it was also prepared to go along with it to a significant extent, and that it initially conducted a major troop-cut on its own even while damning UNTAC's implementation of the Agreements. It ignores the evidence that while the PDK remained fundamentally hostile to "bourgeois democracy", Pol Pot and other PDK leaders had not only long advocated playing the parliamentary game, but insisted that it was essential to do so. Kiernan fails to take into account the ambition of Pol Pot to build up the PDK from a military force into a politically-strong movement. This ambition led Pol Pot into the Paris Agreements and to be prepared to risk at least partial and temporary military demobilization if the political conditions were perceived as sufficiently favorable to the PDK. The course of events after Oct 1991 convinced him and most other PDK leaders that political conditions were unfavorable, and thus to refrain from demobilization and progressively resume military action against SoC. They were not proceeding according to plan, but changing course in reaction to what they saw as setbacks. They did not, as Kiernan puts it, withdraw "from the peace process with the gains they had made from it," but rather turned against it in what proved to be a failed attempt to recoup PDK losses.

Kiernan nevertheless stubbornly insists that the Agreements favored the PDK, and that as a result of their implementation, the PDK managed to make large-scale absolute and relative gains. He believes the Agreements were both designed to advance the PDK and achieved this result, even if not always in the ways expected by its backers. Kiernan thus asserts that the PDK was bound to gain "from the turmoil engendered by the Peace Plan's attempt simultaneously to freeze hostilities and open up political competition", and concludes that although the Agreements were "marketed to the concerned international public as a means to dispatch them, the Khmer Rouge gained the most". He also maintains that by being soft on the PDK, UNTAC allowed it to make such advances.

On the empirical level, Kiernan offers a variety of evidence to support his conclusion that the PDK gained massively during the implementation of the Agreements. None of this evidence bears close scrutiny. For example, the maps that Kiernan offers as proof of spectacular PDK advances between Oct 1991 and March 1993 are wildly inaccurate. Comparing his map showing supposed PDK areas of control in Oct 1991 with the results of the careful research of Christophe Peschoux in his Les "Nouveaux" Khmers Rouges (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1992) reveals that it vastly underestimates the spread of the PDK. His map showing PDK areas of control in March 1993 and attributed to UNTAC sources bears no resemblance to those actually produced at this time by UNTAC's military intelligence specialists, which show the PDK controlling territory and exerting influence in pretty much the same areas as those depicted by Peschoux. Kiernan's quotations about the number of people under PDK administration and of troops under its control reflect the vagaries of estimation and selective use of sources rather than real changes in the statistics. The truth is that the PDK probably administered fewer people and certainly had fewer troops under its control at the end of the transitional period defined by the Agreements process than at the beginning.

The logic of the Agreements and their implementation was to put the PDK in the position either of accepting an imperfect but reasonable chance of rejoining the Cambodian political mainstream through peaceful participation in the political process, or to suffer the international and domestic isolation that would result if it rejected this opportunity. The PDK chose to boycott the process and thus isolate itself while other political parties, especially Funcinpec, built up a mass party membership in areas to which the PDK had no real access. The PDK was marginalized in the competition for rural political support which pitted CPP against Funcinpec. The real outcome of the Agreements was that the PDK gained least from them, precisely because it proved unwilling to move into the political arena and then unable to wreck the electoral process despite its retention of military options.

Initially, the big winner appeared to be Funcinpec, which was set to gain enormously through its electoral victory and entry into the mainstream of the state through a power-sharing arrangement, even if it got less than the vote suggested it deserved. The KPNLF, although split badly and performing poorly in the elections, also gained because it, too, entered the mainstream. However, already in the months before the voting, it was fairly obvious that processes were at work which meant that SoC was gaining political advantages from PDK intransigence and UNTAC's non-confrontational approach. For example, because PDK refused to demobilize, SoC maintained much of its own military structure. Greater demobilization would have favored those competitors who were politically strong but militarily weak, such as Funcinpec, and certainly not SoC. More generally, UNTAC's non-confrontational posture vis-à-vis PDK encouraged SoC not to comply as strictly as it might otherwise have done with the provisions of the Agreements. This meant that SoC engaged in greater use of political violence against Funcinpec and misuse of SoC state assets to advance CPP electoral prospects in violation of the Agreements than it might otherwise have been able to get away with. This creation of a lowest common denominator of compliance operated to the disadvantage of Funcinpec. Funcinpec had to operate politically in SoC administered zones despite violent SoC repression even while rejecting blandishments and inducements from the PDK to join it in boycotting and wrecking the whole process. Moreover, the continued threat of PDK violence against ordinary Cambodians enhanced SoC's ability to win votes by emphasizing to the electorate the CPP's militant opposition to the PDK and SoC's history of protecting people from such violence.

Although the CPP electoral defeat meant that SoC lost its power monopoly, from the beginning it retained a formal half-share of power and gained the international legitimacy denied it for so many years. In coalition with Funcinpec, it shared in the international aid and trade which was increasingly flowing into Cambodia. Moreover, in the two years since the elections, the CPP has out-maneuvered Funcinpec in one battle for bureaucratic power and influence after another. Indeed, it now seems incontestable that the CPP got a very good result out of the process: instead of being faced with international isolation and an opposition coalition allying Funcinpec and the KPNLF to the PDK, it enjoys international respectability and Funcinpec and the KPNLF's remnants are now fully allied with it against the PDK. It has had to share power, but in an arrangement that has isolated and weakened the PDK, has given the Cambodian government international and domestic legitimacy and has allowed it to remain powerfully entrenched. Despite all the problems it faces and the criticisms of it which have been voiced, the CPP remains the most powerful part of the most broadly-based government Cambodia has known since independence, and one enjoying the widest spectrum of international support.

The PDK, on the other hand, has definitively lost its Cambodian allies and most of its international support. A month after Kiernan finished his revisions, his analysis was confounded when the PDK found itself under attack by joint SoC / Funcinpec / KPNLF forces, which penetrated deep into territory the PDK had held since before the Agreements. Although elements within the Thai military were at that time prepared to come to its rescue, this prop no longer had any Chinesemuch less US support. Thai support has since become an increasingly thin reed, as well as one more than ever deserving to be eliminated. Meanwhile, while the tide of battle has sometimes been turned by the PDK in its favor, the trend of the war now seems clearly against it.

It follows from this that it is impossible to argue that the Agreements increased the danger of a new, full-scale PDK genocide in Cambodia. Instead, this danger has receded, although genocidal acts and other egregious human rights abuses by the PDK continue. As for the human rights picture in Cambodia more generally, Kiernan's studied avoidance of SoC's human rights record means he is unable to deal with the implications of the real results of the implementation of the Agreements for human rights in most of Cambodia. Along with deeper historical, social and cultural factors that condition the political scene in the country, the institutional continuity of SoC's old organs of political repression are an important part of the explanation for continuing serious human rights violations in today's Kingdom. Yet even here, a nuanced evaluation is necessary. Despite the impunity with which ex-SoC organs and personnel all too frequently act (sometimes in tandem or parallel with Funcinpec elements), political repression is less comprehensively harsh in the Kingdom than it was under the PRK and under SoC before and during the implementation of the Agreements. But it remains very much to be seen for how much longer this will be true. Important struggles for human rights are now being conducted by Cambodian and international human rights organizations to prevent backsliding, by the fledgling elements of Cambodian civil society to institutionalize themselves as counterweights to the forces of organized repression, and by individual moderates within the ranks of the government, bureaucracy and security forces to stay the hands of the worst perpetrators.

This brings us back to Kiernan's lack of any overall framework for dealing with big issues like democracy, genocide and human rights. The basic question remains whether more democracy and human rights in the Kingdom will enhance or reduce the likelihood that the Khmer Rouge will be able to continue their genocidal acts. Most theorists and practitioners would argue that, in the long run at least, they will decrease the chances, even if the causal relationship is neither simple nor direct. In his rush to condemn not only the PDK, but the Paris Agreements, Funcinpec, the KPNLF, the Chinese, the US, the UN and numerous othersbut not SoC Kiernan begs this main issue.

In this connection, one final comment on Kiernan is unfortunately necessary. While as an editor he is civil with the contributors to his monograph, Kiernan also pursues in it the crusade he has conducted elsewhere against those who disagree with him. His ill-manners in this regard are reminiscent of the Polpotism which at other levels he attacks and despises. He suggests that those with contrasting views are subjectively or objectively in league with Pol Pot or the forces responsible for Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia. The deus ex machina here is often the alleged super-influence of that certain superpower, the US. Kiernan would have readers believe that, to paraphrase the notorious Khmer Rouge adage, this influence has created a raft of people with the bodies of journalists, human rights activists and scholars, but US government minds, all of whom disagree with him for that reason. This nonsense must be recognized and criticized for what it is: a smear tactic pursued in lieu of genuine debate and argument about facts and analysis. More recently, it has appeared againthinly disguised as a stab at sociology of knowledgein a scurrilous review in the Journal of Asian Studies of David P. Chandler's Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. There, attempts to suggest that Chandler, myself and others who have disagreed with him have done so because we are biased against Vietnamese, an accusation for which he has no evidence and which is both defamatory and absurd. He suggests that this supposed bias is connected to what he alleges is the fact that those whose work he dislikes are "serving or former employees" of the US government, "other western governments" or, just as hideously, "the UN". For Kiernan to imagine that the differences he has with so many others on matters of historical and political analysis are reducible to his fabricationthat they are prejudiced against Vietnameseonly underlines the poverty of his understanding of Cambodia and the meanness of his personality as a scholar. His insinuations about the insidious influence of any connection to the US government, however distant or tenuous, are all the more ironic given his assimilation into this intellectually damned group since he became the Director of the Cambodian genocide program, which is funded by the office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations of US State Department. Can we suppose that if, for example, he now starts to change some of his mistaken views about what happened in Cambodia via the Paris Agreements, this is a result of such contamination?

Steven Heder,

School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

(This version includes the "corrections" indicated in the Phnom Penh Post, August 11-24, 1995, p. 7.)


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