At the Khmer Rouge trial yesterday, Nuon Chea said that Vietnam intended to “swallow Cambodia and rip Cambodia of her ethnic race” adding “never trust a foreigner.” This came after a litany of testimony of unspeakable torture and violence inflicted by the KR on fellow Cambodians. The ugly truth is that Nuon Chea’s comments have deep roots in mainstream Cambodian politics. Political violence and the humiliation and destruction of political opponents are far from rare in modern Cambodian politics. Nuon Chea’s view of Vietnam, Cambodian political opposition, and foreigners is a common theme in mainstream Cambodia politics. The unspoken truth is that far too many Cambodian political leaders are not against murder, human rights abuses, and political violence—they oppose them only when they are the targets.
The Khmer Rouge regime was a mixture of paranoia, hatred, intolerance, a deep historical resentment, inferiority complex, desire for vengeance, and an absurd belief to not just defeat and extinguish their historical enemy, but the Vietnamese race itself. This Khmer Rouge intolerance fits not uncomfortably in the belief system of their Cambodian political opponents. The Khmer Rouge hatred of Vietnam and foreign nefarious intentions against Cambodia has a long precedence in mainstream Cambodian political views. They are shared by a majority of Cambodians of all political stripes. Even their focus on “internal enemies” of the KR party is rooted in centuries of Khmer reality. Cambodia has always had one leader who demanded complete loyalty and absolute political power, no history of coalition politics, opposition parties, or any kind of independent judiciary, press, or even thinking. Anything that reflected any of the former categorized one as an enemy that must be crushed, usually after being publicly humiliated. If one was not submissive, then one was a political enemy by definition. This has virtually always been true in Khmer political culture. When Khieu Samphan—also on trial this week—was in parliament and the cabinet of the then Sihanouk government, he was stripped naked in broad daylight by government police and paraded down the street. He soon fled to the Khmer Rouge and jungle amid public threats to assassinate him. Humiliation and abuse of one’s opponents has a long tradition in Khmer politics. Leaders routinely insult each other in public. And the murder of political opposition is a common method employed by all Cambodian factions. Sihanouk murdered many opposition figures. After seizing power in 1970, the U.S. backed Lon Nol regime, which overthrew Sihanouk ( who then joined and publicly led the Khmer Rouge into power) rounded up and publicly executed tens of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese civilians prior to expelling the remainder. As an example of acceptance of the murder of Vietnamese civilians by today’s mainstream Cambodian political parties and leaders, during the UN elections the Khmer Rouge rounded up and executed 29 women and children of Vietnamese origin who had been fisherman for generations in Cambodia. Not one Cambodian political party, of which there were more than 30 registered with the UN, raised a voice of objection. They knew that they would alienate the views of the population if they did so. Hun Sen, during his bloody coup of 1997, overthrowing the UN elected government, hunted down and executed hundreds of opposition figures, many brutally tortured, their eyes gouged out and their penises severed and stuffed in their mouth while alive, then disemboweled and their liver fried and eaten. Some had their tongues ripped from their mouths with pliers while alive under interrogation. So in many ways Nuon Chea and Pol Pot were an extreme reflection and logical extension of a Cambodian leader, their views a reflection of their predecessors, successors, and countrymen. Just some food for thought.
The long overdue and politicized trial of the three remaining top Khmer Rouge leaders offers an opportunity for an unvarnished history on one of the most unspeakable blights on modern abuse of power, human dignity, human rights, and international rules of law and war. Or it may be squandered, serving to once again whitewash, deflect, and demonize a few for which many others share guilt and responsibility. It is a reality deeply rooted in other mainstream players in current Cambodian political culture, and those which preceded and succeeded the Khmer Rouge. It also deeply implicates the international community and other Cambodian political leaders, in participating, supporting, reacting to, and delaying taking responsibility for their role in this tragedy. The Khmer Rouge were not an aberration. And the responsibility was far from limited to those on trial now. The ugly truth is that the trial reflects a very uncomfortable--but fundamental--psychology that is alive and ignored in mainstream Cambodia today. I will post excerpts from never before published interviews and documents of Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Ta Mok, Duch, Pol Pot, the current Cambodian government, and other international players in a small attempt to add some context to the current trial and commentary. They include three recorded interviews with Nuon Chea in the jungles of Northern Cambodia, and a roundtable recorded several hour discussion with Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, and Khieu Samphan on the killings while they were in power, their justifications for them, and the ideology that motivated their policies. These were conducted in the months and weeks before their capture and surrender.