Cocktails with Khmer Rouge killers
By Angus MacSwan
The sentencing of Khmer Rouge torturer Kaing Guek Eav this week and the forthcoming trial of former leader Khieu Samphan by a United Nations-backed court has brought renewed attention to their murderous rule of Cambodia in the 1970s — and a certain amount of satisfaction in the “international community” for its role in seeing justice done.
But there was a time when you could meet Khmer Rouge officials at cocktail parties in Phnom Penh, with the drinks provided by the United Nations.
It was one consequence of a Faustian pact between the Khmer Rouge and the United States, Britain and other countries following the Pol Pot regime’s overthrow by Vietnamese troops in 1979.
The relationship illustrates the sometimes bizarre nature of Cold War politics and is one that today’s governments probably hope is forgotten.
I found myself next to Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot’s right hand man, at a party at the U.N. mission’s headquarters in Phnom Penh at the end of 1991. Standing behind him was Son Sen, who had run the Khmer Rouge’s torture apparatus during their “Killing Fields” rule from 1975-79, in which at least 1.5 million Cambodians had died.
They had just returned to Phnom Penh after years in jungle camps and friendly foreign capitals and were in the decrepit city as the representatitves of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea — as they prefered to be known — in a new national council set up under a peace accord aimed at ending decades of war.
How had the Khmer Rouge survived and prospered in the decade since their reign of terror was ended by the Vietnamese invasion?
Their main supporter was China — an enemy of both Vietnam and its backer the Soviet Union despite their shared communist beliefs. The United States was still smarting from its defeat in the Vietnam War and saw China as an indispensable regional ally with a bright future.
Thus a coalition government was formed, dominated by the Khmer Rouge and including two non-communist factions, even though they controlled hardly any territory other than border enclaves. Its nominal head was Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who actually spent most of his time in North Korea of all places, but despite this fig leaf the military muscle in the bush war was provided by the Khmer Rouge.
Throughout the 1980s, this body held Cambodia’s seat in the United Nations, supported by the United States, Britain and other European nations, China and pro-Western Asian countries. The Vietnamese-backed government — which included Khmer Rouge defectors — was recognised only by the Soviet bloc.
Denied international aid and trade, Phom Penh was one of the most forlorn places on earth as war raged in the Cambodian countryside.
Thailand played a crucial role in supporting the coalition and Thai officials got rich through timber and gems deals with the Khmer Rouge based in the border enclaves.
U.S. officials in Bangkok and Washington would play a game of smoke-and-mirrors when asked about Washington’s support for an alliance spearheaded by some of the 20th Century’s worst mass murderers.
Arms and other other aid only went to the non-communist groups, they said. The Khmer Rouge had changed and was now genuinely popular in some areas, they ventured. While the film “The Killing Fields” made many people aware of the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told a British children’s TV show in 1988 “There’s a much, much reasonable grouping within that title, Khmer Rouge…who will have to play some part in the future
The British elite military unit the SAS were later revealed to have trained their fighters.
The guerrilla factions also ran the vast refugee camps on the Thai border, so the Khmer Rouge were able to keep tens of thousands of people in their grip with generous helpings of United Nations aid. With the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1989 and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, a peace agreement was painstakingly hammered out.
All four parties joined the national council pending elections and a huge U.N. peacekeeping mission swept into the country.And so the Khmer Rouge came back to Phnom Penh.
Khieu Samphan was run out of town by an angry crowd at his first attempt to return in October 1991. A few months later, though he was back and looking relaxed.At the U.N. party, he was dressed in a neatly-pressed grey safari suit and looked well-manicured — quite different to the black pyjamasand checkered scarves of the iconic Khmer Rouge image. After a few pleasantaries, I asked him about their bloody rule. Nonplussed, he replied almost by rote that yes, some mistakes were made but that most of the accusations were just
propaganda. Cambodia’s real problem was Vietnam’s plan to annex
the country, he said with a smile.
With Son Sen lurking sinisterly in the background, I thought the conversation had probably run its course.
This accommodation with killers threw up many other surreal situations. A few months after the cocktail party encounter, I was in the town of Kompong Thom when Indonesian peacekeepers arrived to police the area. For some reason, they sang the old British army song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” as they marched down the street.
A Khmer Rouge general, Men Ron, stood by the roadside, smiling as if this was the jolliest knees-up this side of the Emerald Isle. That night, he dined at a lakeside restaurant with a British envoy and an Australian general.
The next day, refugees were fleeing down the highway outside the city from Khmer Rouge attacks to the north.
An election to bring peace and democracy to Cambodia was held in 1993. The Khmer Rouge boycotted it and went back to war, but without the backing they previously enjoyed, they dwindled.
Son Sen was killed in 1997 in an internal power struggle and Pol Pot died the next year in mysterious circumstances. Khieu Samphan was arrested in 2007 and the next year was charged in court with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
I’ve not been back to Phnom Penh since 1993 but I’m told its a very different place, with bistros, night clubs and fast cars for the new rich elite. Its a favourite destination for Western youths on gap years.
The angy reaction from ordinary Cambodians to what they saw a light sentence for Kaing Guek Eav showed many of them still want atonement for the past. In some quarters though, the past will probably remain a closed chapter.