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23/ Thion to signatories


This letter was printed with slight editorial changes in the Phnom Penh Post, October 20 -- November 2 issue, 1995, p. 8-9.


by Serge Thion

I write this letter to all of my friends and colleagues who signed a letter of support for Ben Kiernan to « express [their] concern at Stephen J. Morris' campaign against Professor Ben Kiernan of Yale University and against Kiernan's leadership of the Cambodian Genocide Program, funded by the US Department of State. ("Disowning Morris", Phnom Penh Post, June 30 -- July 13,1995.)

I quite agree with them that Mr Morris, who wrote the piece attacking Kiernan in the Wall Street Journal (17 April 1995), "The Wrong Man to Investigate Cambodia" is himself quite a Wrong Man to investigate whatever has an Indochinese ring. Mr Morris has been making such a fool of himself in so-called research in archives on Vietnam that his whole life will not be long enough to have us forget him. Or maybe Mr Morris is just one of those pennames used by intelligence operatives in mufti. We know quite a number of writers of that kind.

It requires a policeman's mode of thinking to pretend that what was written in 1976-1977 on Cambodia by BK (Ben Kiernan) should be the only basis on which a judgement should be passed on BK's abilities to investigate the Pol Pot period in 1995. We shall not be cruel enough to ask Mr Morris what he knew about Cambodia in 1975-77, when the borders were sealed. It requires a great amount of political duplicity to call, as Mr Morris does, the (pre-UN) Phnom Penh government "another Khmer rouge faction". It requires a high dose of dishonesty to say, as Mr Morris does, that the Australian government "withdrew" the passeport of Wilfred Burchett. It is well known, even in Australia that his passport was stolen by a spook in the service of this Asutralian government. This led to a long legal battle which in the end was won by W. Burchett. To put it in a nutshell, Mr Morris seems to be a person whith whom it would be impossible to have a drink, even by chance.

But this does not allow my friends who signed the letter of support for BK to give a kind of Stalinist slant in the text when it says : "We and our students comprise the majority who publish in the field" (of Cambodian studies). This is preposterous in the extreme and has justly attracted some lashing by Julio Jeldres (Phnom Penh Post, 2807-100895). It is quite true that BK and his writings are not the object of a consensus, nor anybody else for that matter. There is nothing astonishing in that. The fact is that Cambodia scholars have nurtured a lot of time-revolving ideas and sympathies. After all, Khmer politics is difficult to understand and many scholars, journalists and writers dealing with Cambodia had only a short political experience when they first dealt with the country's politics. Those who eventually disagree with BK's analyses are quite numerous and could freely express their views. This exercise of discussion is quite different from base attacks in the Morris style or blanket praise as exhibited in this letter.

When I see among the signatures attached to the letter of support for BK a number of names followed by the word "survivor", I start having doubts. If "survivor" becomes a quasi professional definition, a kind of job, the situation is very bad. These people have to stage their old suffering and turn it into a moving spectacle. They cannot avoid becoming theatrical and ridiculous. By becoming professional witnesses, they destroy their own credibility. I do not think BK' defense was improved by such a demagogical use of "holocaust survivors". Five million Cambodians also survived. Besides, some people who signed this petition may be great experts but are entirely unknown to me in the field of publications about Cambodia. I can think of many other well-known experts who do not appear on the list of signatories.

The letter says : "He is a first-rate historian" which in itself could be a subject for discussion. "First-rate" depends very much on how one understands the task of the historian. But the fact if that BK has written a number of historical studies pertaining to the history of the Communist movement in Cambodia and that nobody in the field can afford to ignore them. They are quite useful and remain, as any historical study, the object of discussion and further elaboration by fellow historians. This is quite normal.

More puzzling is the end of the sentence : "and an excellent choice for the State Department grant." The truth is that we do not have the feeling that there was a real process of choice. Many other names jump immediately to our minds. In his initial attack, Mr Morris spoke of "a puzzling choice". He says that eight other applications had been submitted and he speaks highly of their merit. But Mr Morris cannot be trusted. It seems quite clear that the State Department, where the money voted by Congress was to be administered, did not spend much energy to inquire in the field of scholarship in order to know where it was going to lay its eggs. To the (anyway tiny) community of scholars, it seemed that the decision had been taken well in advance. There was nothing like a "choice".

But this can be explained. After all, Congress took a unique decision : to fund an inquiry into an alleged genocide and provide help in order to take the culprits before an undescribed court, of which the only thing known was that it would not be a US court. The funny side of the story is that the supposed authors of the alleged crime, I mean Pol Pot and his colleagues, had been for more than ten years officious and unavowed allies of the US, components of an anti-Vietnamese alliance organized, financed and armed by Peking and Washington. During all these years, the word genocide was unknown in the official mouthes who spoke about Indochina. It was the monopoly of a small band of opponents to this US policy, in which gathered some undying remnants of the Peace movement, some pro-Hanoi stooges, and some pro-Phnom Penh NGO people who saw in the use of genocide propaganda the best political tool to criticise and change the course of US foreign policy in the region. A "Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer rouge" (CORKR) was launched to federate these various people, and the key role was played by BK, who had secured a job at Yale and had left his native Australia. Already, some people wondered why him, and not some more mature and less political scholar was chosen to fill this position.

What really changed the nature of this coalition, which could have looked like a living fossil of the Anti-war leftist period, was the joining of former high-ranking US officials who were hostile to the pro-Peking US policy. Prominent among them was William Colby who had been for a time the head of the CIA. The unexpected alliance between what a rightist writer would have labelled "a handful of commies" and the former chief of the CIA should provide a good argument for a Le Carré style of movie, I agree. But it happened. They found out that they had political interest in common, the former leftists in having an access to the government back alleys through their newly found allies, and the former rightists in having an intellectual and mediatic cover of which they would not have dreamed by themselves. This alliance sounded awkward only to a few individuals like me who did remember that William Colby had been the head of the Phoenix Operation back in the late sixties in Vietnam. Whatever the way you wanted to twist the facts, there was only one way to qualify Mr Colby, with the words "war criminal". Several tens of thousands of civilians has been arrested, tortured and killed in an effort led by Mr Colby and his kin to "uproot" the Vietcong political infrastructure in the Mekong Delta, mostly in 1969-70. (1) Mr Colby had assumed the political responsability of the killings. This was not even a secret and Mr Colby spoke to press conferences back in Saigon in 1969. He said he later wrote a complete report and was entirely whitewashed by Congress.

I had already pointed out the strangeness of the presence of Mr Colby on the roster of the CORKR in an article published by the Phnom Penh Post ("Meaning of a Museum", 2, 18, Aug. 27 -- Sept. 9, 1993) and this had led to an exchange of letters with Craig Etcheson, then Executive Director of CORKR and now Cambodian Genocide Programme Manager, who had taken exception to my mention of Mr Colby. I realized that the memory of the Vietnam war was already vanishing and that an explanation was in order, and I wrote this on 25 sept 93 :

This relates of course with the presence of Mr Colby on your Advisory Board. I know Mr Colby since a long time, not as a person, but as a political figure, since in fact Saigon, 1968, the Tet Offensive and its aftermath. I met him once and I told about this encounter in an article written in 1988 and republished in a book, called Une Allumette sur la banquise, published last July, which has been sent to the Library of Congress. I reproduce here this small extract: (I shall try here to give a rendering in my own broken English ;

In december 1987, I spent a short moment at a conference in Paris on Vietnam which had been organized by a far right group, the Tran Van Ba Committee, in Paris, and the US Committee To Rethink Vietnam, for the launching of Olivier Todd's book on the fall of Saigon. On the platform were seated American and South Vietnamese personnalities who had been quite familiar in the olden times in Saigon, like William Colby, a former head of the CIA, Ambassador Robert Komer and a number of South Vietnamese generals who were field-commanding officers when I was there. I made a rapid mental calculation which led me to the conclusion that this particular group of responsible officials could be credited with the death of one hundred to two hundred thousand civilians, at least. As I was listening to their clever comments about their own defeat and the way to avoid to be defeated again in Central America, I thought the trial of the German Police officier Barbie, in France, was peanuts in comparison. Like president Waldheim, Barbie, at the time of the incriminated facts, was a mere lieutenant. Pyramids of chiefs were towering over these petty commissioned officers. And here, right in the middle of Paris, before my own eyes, I could watch a group of these chiefs, peoples who had organized the massacres, the concentration camps, who had directly ordered the tortures and the murders. These people were free, free to talk like parrots, were feted like heroes who had only been deprived of the possibility to kill more, to massacre more in order to reach victory.

Then there was a coffee-break. I had never had the chance, if I may use this word, to encounter, in the flesh, an authentic war criminal, someone who had committed crimes against mankind, much more massive than what is the object of trial against small fry like Barbie or Demjanjuk. I looked at William Colby. He was drinking his coffee. This man had conceived and supervised what had been callled in Vietnam the Phoenix Program ; its official purpose was to "uproot the VCI", i.e. the civilians who took part in the Vietcong political apparatus in the Mekong Delta region. It was not dealing with organized military units of the VC, but with activists, organizers, money collectors, village cadres, sympathizers, etc. These ordinary people had to be eliminated to allow the American withdrawal. It is difficult to establish the true figures but Colby himself mentionned 60 000 victims. What is clearly established is the fact that the Phoenix Operation caused several tens of thousands of deaths, quite often in conditions of unbelievable savagery. And just in front of me stood the man who had masterminded all the horror, with his brick red cheeks and his hard look. "Mr Colby, I said, I would like to ask you a very personal question. How well is your conscience ? With all these killings !". My hand, holding the coffee cup, was trembling. Each fiber of my innerself was vibrating in a muted feeling of horror. Although the idea sparked in my mind, I thought I would not strangle him on the spot. "All these people died in military operations, he replied. I testified to this fact in Congress and this is written in my Memoirs ". Of course, since these civilians were murdered by military personnel, then they died in military operations, it is pure logic, it must be legal. "But that is not true," the words were faltering out of my mouth; "Everyone knows what happened. I do not believe you, I was there". "It is what I said. My conscience is perfectly all right" and off he was gone.

In our world, this man is very respectable. Who was talking about Nuremberg, Human Rights, genocide or I dunno what else ? The Mekong river is not in Poland. All these words must refer to a distant past. (p . 214-5 )

This might give you some light on my reaction when, being at Yale, I saw that Mr Colby was part of the crowd. I pointed this out to Ben Kiernan who did not elaborate. Your explanation is that the CORKR has been "fortunate enough to enlist the assistance of a powerful man". This is Realpolitik. And CORKR has a role in American policy, as I believe that some parts of the Administration are quite happy to see pressures put on other parts of the same Administration who has gone very far to support the Khmers Rouges. But my point of view is morality. What is the moral difference between Mr Pol Pot and Mr Colby ? Let us be quite conservative and ascribe to Pol Pot 100 000 political executions and only half of that to Mr Colby. Whatever the other considerations, for instance the fact that Mr Colby is more protected against the eventuality of a War Crime trial than Mr Pol Pot, the fact is that the presence of this "powerful man" (indeed) destroys the moral basis on which a campaign against Pol Pot can be launched. There may be a lot of other reasons, for instance a better understanding of the long term interests of the USA in Indochina, a probable motivation of Mr Colby himself, on which to base a campaign against the return of Pol Pot (2)


It is only now that we can clearly understand the endresult of the unholy alliance. The return of the Khmers rouges, which was a possibility somehow embedded in the Paris Agreements, did not happen, mostly because Pol Pot was not able to convince his military commanders that the time of political flexibility had come. The object of the CORKR was fading away but the result of its campaign as a Washington established lobby with powerful connections was not negligible. At the same time the US administration was doing a complicated gymnastics in order to distance itself from the Khmers rouges and start supporting the Phnom Penh government. Among the gestures which could abolish or conveniently forget the past links with the Pol Pot conspiracy, it was easy to support the idea of a genocide trial, which was currently agitated by the CORKR as the best way to disenfranchise Pol Pot and his main followers. But everyone who was not a pure activist or who just wanted to stick to the legal definition would find the "genocide" quite difficult to apply to the Cambodian situation. Words have a meaning but propaganda is about the twisting of this meaning. In a conference, organized in Yale in 1992 by the very same people who were leading the CORKR and now administer the State Department Cambodian Genocide Program, I was alone to argue that the genocide concept was, both in historical terms and legal terms, inadequate to the Cambodian situation. I argued that any current criminal code could be used to sue and try Pol Pot in a Cambodian court. I am now quite satisfied to see that two lawyers hired by the same State Department just concurred with these ideas and conclude to drop altogether the idea of a genocide trial (3). Reuters reported that :

"in a paper presented to the conference, quoted in some detail in a separate dispatch from Reuters, the two lawyers, [Steve Ratner and Jason Abrams,] are said to have stated that they found claims that the Khmers Rouges committed genocide against other Khmers to be 'speculative' but there was evidence of war crimes and of 'prima facie culpability for massive offences' of crimes against humanity."(22 August 1995) These two hired lawyers spoke at a conference, called "Striving for justice" organised in August in Phnom Penh by the Yale crowd in liaison with the State Department. The dispatch went on : "The legal work complements research into Khmer Rouge abuses by Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Programme, which was set up last year with U.S. State Department funding to look at evidence of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. The projects will provide guidance and evidence for use in any future trial in Cambodia or overseas of Khmer Rouge leaders such as Pol Pot, Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary for their role in the deaths of around one million people from 1975-79.
"U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Bob Porter reaffirmed Washington's strong support for the programme at the opening of the meeting and noted that "Yale now is making excellent progress" in research and documentation. He said the forum would allow an exchange of ideas on the legal options and on the best way to get legal redress and « accounting before history. »"

It is typical that this operation was conducted and financed entirely by US authorities. Cambodians, as I warned in my 1992 paper, are entirely indifferent because in the first place they do not believe in independant justice, something that never existed in their country. And it is not part of the Cambodian historical experience to solve power conflicts with legal means. The loser is usually killed (and eventually beheaded) and everybody thinks it is normal. It occurred only to the Western Allies in 1945 to establish a kangaroo court to dispose of the vainquished. The result of the Nurnberg trials, when it is examined now with a minimal request for "the due process of law", is quite unimpressive. This concept of "accounting before history" may sound obvious for someone educated in New York but for the rest of mankind it rings hollow. It should well deserve a real probe. I suppose it would not be difficult to show that it originates in a profane twisting of basically judeo-christian ideas which keeps currency only inside an English-speaking Puritanical world.
One can doubt that "any future trial" will ever be held anywhere at any time. This is probably a total delusion but it will have been instrumental in whitewashing the Administration which has done its utmost to protect its rear, reduce the Khmero-Thai border papertrail to a minimum, as evidenced by some affairs which had been unearthed by John Pilger and were soon aborted by grand style maneuvers of the US administration.
It will come as a final irony that those leftist scholars who built a career in denouncing the heavy hand of American intervention in Indochina finish up, in league with those who used the roughest and bloodiest means to carry it in the field, by becoming the instruments of the US establishment's desire to forget the past (its own past, not its former enemies' past, as usual), while they are attacked by nostalgic warmongers who cannot accept that the US offer full partenership to its former enemies, like Mr Morris. This turn of events had long been anticipated by the Vietnamese communists themselves who have understood they needed an American alliance againt Chinese expansionism, a concrete reality. They had created a Society to warm up relations with former US soldiers. "War crime" is an expression that has disappeared since a long time from the vocabulary in use in Hanoi. "Dollar" and "Coca Cola" seem more befitting.
I am under no obligation to forget or forgive. What would be the logic of judging Mr Pol Pot and not Mr Colby, or Mr Kissinger ? Is there in any way a possibility to retain left wing ideas and criticisms ? I believe it is quite possible if one does not attach one's ideas and intellectual course to the fate of a particular state and its changing interests, the pursuit of which is usually achieved by the most cynical means. I believe we are still free do dissent and I do.


1) The history of the Phoenix Program has not been written, as far as I know. If it is, one will see a number of parallels between this operation and the German Einsatzgruppen in Russia (1941-44) which were supposed to "uproot" the communist infrastructure left behind the frontline.

2) Mr. Colby was not unknown to Ben Kiernan, since, in the last issue (vol. I, No 5) of News from Kampuchea (December 1977), still at the time an Australian pro-DK publication, one can find this extract from the Sydney Morning Herald (29/12/77): "Mr. William Colby, former director of the CIA, and other retired CIA officers appeared yesterday before the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee's oversight subcommittee (sic). All spoke of the value to the CIA of its use of American journalists as sources and agents, and also the value of allowing its employees to pose as journalists abroad."

3) See my "Genocide as a Political Commodity" in Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, the United Nations and the International Community, ed. by Ben Kiernan, New Haven, Yale University, 1994.


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