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Book review: 'Getting away with genocide'

By Tony Kevin - posted Tuesday, 11 January 2005

Cambodia engages hearts and minds. Memorable books have been written about this little country’s tortured recent history, in which the Khmer Rouge played so central and malign a role: Highways to a War, Chris Koch’s haunting Australian novel; River of Time, Jon Swain’s equally moving memoir of his experiences as a journalist in the Vietnam and Cambodia wars; The Gate, Francois Bizot’s indelible account. of his jungle imprisonment by the fanatical Khmer Rouge activist Duch, who later became head jailer at the Toul Sleng interrogation centre, and now awaits trial; Cambodia Year Zero, Father Francois Ponchaud’s early exposé in 1977 of the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. Sydney Schanberg’s and Dith Pran’s harrowing shared experiences gave rise to the enormously influential film The Killing Fields. Then there is William Shawcross’s best book, Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the destruction of Cambodia, an unsurpassed analysis of how US saturation bombing of the “Ho Chi Minh trail” opened the way for the Khmer Rouge takeover. Finally there are the first-class academic histories of the period by scholars David Chandler, Ben Kiernan and Milton Osborne. There is no shortage of good writing on modern Cambodia.

We engage with this history, we feel guilt at what great-power "realpolitik" did to the people of Cambodia since 1965. But we express that guilt in different ways, and it takes us in different ideological directions. Sadly, the unspeakable cruelties visited in our lifetimes on Cambodians by other Cambodians, in the name of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge political movement, are far from unique in modern history.

One may properly ask, what were the special historical and cultural circumstances in Cambodia that made the civic madness of Khmer Rouge rule possible? What drove Cambodia beyond the normal instinctive constraints of any functioning civil society, into a pathological state-directed nightmare? This historical discussion is far from over.


A notable contribution to the literature is a new book by Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis, Getting away with genocide. It is a work of specialised historical scholarship by two authors very familiar with Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, focused on the question: What is the history of efforts to establish legal accountability for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge?

The authors remind us that this quest for justice started in 1978, soon after Vietnamese forces and Cambodian communist insurgents overthrew by armed invasion, the hated Khmer Rouge regime. The trials they conducted soon after were never recognised by the West or by the UN. The quest resumed 21 years later in 1999, when the UN began to work with the present Cambodian Government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen on a project to set up internationally recognised and funded trials of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.

The intervening 21 years have been highly complex and politically contested. In telling their story of the history of efforts to set up these trials, Fawthop and Jarvis at the same time illuminate this convoluted history in which Hun Sen’s personal leadership role has been an internationally polarising issue. His Cambodian government has had many enemies in the West, among both liberals and conservatives. But his government has had influential friends in the West as well: People like Senator John Kerry, who very nearly became President of the United States; US Congressmen Steve Solarz; former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans; Dr Gregory Stanton, founder of the Cambodian Genocide Project; UN Human Rights Commissioners since UNTAC days, Michael Kirby; Thomas Hammarberg; Peter Leuprecht; and almost every Western or Japanese ambassador who has served in Cambodia since the time of UNTAC, the UN peace building operation in Cambodia in 1992-94.

Fawthrop and Jarvis cast fresh perspectives on this recent history.

For instance, I had not understood how crucial to the opening up of settlement prospects in Cambodia in 1998 was Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan’s democratic revolution in 1988, with its “golden dream” of turning Southeast Asian battlefields into peaceful marketplaces. The new Thai Prime Minister challenged the power of the corrupt money nexus between the Khmer Rouge-led insurgency on the Cambodian-Thai border, and their powerful protectors, arms suppliers and business partners in the Thai Army.

We like to congratulate ourselves in Australia that the Cambodian peace process came about because of Gorbachev’s perestroika, the war-weariness and economic exhaustion of Vietnam and the Soviet Union, and the energetic Evans and Costello peace diplomacy. They were certainly all major contributing factors, but this book reminds us of how crucial the shifting Thai role was: both then, and later in the post-UNTAC years when Thailand continued, yet again, to prop up surviving Khmer Rouge resistance strongholds in western Cambodia, and insisted on protected status for their Khmer Rouge leadership friends in the final Cambodian settlement of the Khmer Rouge insurgency. These are important insights into the - even now - difficult Thai-Cambodian relationship.


Again, I had not known where the joint Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh Cambodian government appeal to the UN in May 1997 had originated. It aimed to help Cambodia mount Khmer Rouge trials and was their last joint act as co-Prime Ministers before their long-expected military contest in July 1997. Now I know it started with the UN Human Rights Commissioner for Cambodia Thomas Hammarberg, who saw how vital it was for Cambodia to tackle this unfinished business, if a legal culture of accountability was ever to take root.

I still don’t understand fully why the Head of the UN Legal Division, Hans Corell, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, remained so stubbornly hostile to the Cambodian government’s insistence on some degree of shared ownership of the Khmer Rouge trials. I know Annan is a brave and moral man. He has proved this repeatedly over Iraq. So why did he take such a personal stand against Hun Sen from the time of the “weekend war” in July 1997 onwards? I suspect the answer lies with the influence within the UN of the Anglo-American liberal regime-change movement, which decided firmly - perhaps prematurely - that it would be better for Hun Sen to be eased out of office, so that the presumed liberal democrat leader Sam Rainsy might be given his chance to introduce Western democracy to Cambodia.

One also reads in this book about a fascinating “might-have-been”, before the time of the Jakarta peace diplomacy and Paris accords. It is well known that King Sihanouk admired and even loved Hun Sen as a son he wished he might have had. But I did not know that when the two men first met in Europe in 1987, a meeting facilitated by the influential Franco-Cambodian Galabru family, the mutual chemistry between them was so warm that they almost reached their own Cambodian peace agreement then and there on how to end the civil war: via a royalist-communist power-sharing agreement under the sovereign endorsement of King Sihanouk, excluding the Khmer Rouge movement, while offering amnesty to Khmer Rouge soldiers.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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