'Why didn't they arrest him 20 years ago?'


Tom Fawthrop

PHNOM PENH — Kim Bophana is bitter about the failure of US plans to capture Pol Pot and deliver him to an international tribunal. Bophana lost 38 relatives during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge rule.

"The US had the power to arrest Pol Pot 20 years ago", she complained. "I feel angry that they left it so late. Why did they wait so long? The US ignored our suffering. They never even supported the [1979] Pol Pot tribunal here in Phnom Penh. What can they teach us about human rights?"

Why indeed has the world waited so long before agreeing to consider the Cambodian case of genocide as meriting the same concern for justice as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia? Why did it take the United Nations 18 years just to pass the resolution — last November — that even recognised that "crimes against humanity and genocide" had taken place in Cambodia?

The simple answer is the Cold War. Washington was lining up with China and ASEAN against Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Cambodia was the battleground. The dark secrets of the Tuol Sleng torture centre and mass graves around the country had leaked out to the world from 1979 to 1980. The Vietnamese intervention and ousting of Pol Pot opened the country to foreign media and international organisations, but its impact on US foreign policy was negligible.

In 1979, the People's Republic of Kampuchea set up a "people's tribunal" which tried the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique" in absentia and found them guilty of genocide. The west dismissed it as a propaganda trial with no legal merit. Nearly 20 years later, it still remains the only trial that has ever pondered the Cambodian genocide.

While the US president in 1977-80, Jimmy Carter, did condemn the mass killings of the Khmer Rouge, his rhetoric made little difference to US policy. The mandate given to Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brezynski, ensured that geopolitical concern over Vietnamese troops occupying Cambodia trumped any residual moral qualms about providing support to the remnants of a genocidal regime.

In 1979, a secret meeting took place between Brezynski, a deputy foreign minister from China and the Thai prime minister, General Kriangsak Chomanand, at U-Tapao air base near Bangkok. The ex-US base was formerly used for B-52 bombing missions against Vietnam.

The US, China and Thailand agreed to help rebuild Pol Pot's army: China with arms and Thailand as a facilitator and transit country to funnel those arms to the Khmer Rouge and provide them sanctuary. The US would send medicine and food via its influence over international agencies, and give diplomatic support at the UN. Genocide and human rights were not part of the agenda.

Brezynski publicly admitted in 1981, "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot". The US, he added, "winked publicly" as China sent arms through Thailand.

The clandestine meeting created the basis of the post-1979 alliance of the US, China, Thailand and the Khmer Rouge, with other ASEAN countries supporting. Together, they conspired with great diplomatic success to bury the genocide issue for the best part of a decade.

Washington played a vital diplomatic role at the UN in New York. Sary, convicted of crimes against humanity in Phnom Penh, did not fear any legal reprisals whenever he visited New York to address the UN General Assembly.

In spite of annual protests by the USSR and its allies challenging the credentials of the Khmer Rouge delegation and trying to raise the issue of genocide, the axis of Washington, Beijing and ASEAN ensured that Sary never had to lose any sleep over the enforcement of the 1948 Convention Against Genocide.

The Democratic Kampuchea regime ceased to exist as an effective government on January 7, 1979. However, the newly installed Heng Samrin government — with 28-year-old Hun Sen as foreign minister — was denied recognition by the west, China and ASEAN on the grounds that it was a Vietnamese-dominated "puppet regime".

Washington led the lobby inside the UN to affirm that the Pol Pot regime was still "the legal representative of the Cambodian people". The result of this diplomatic charade in 1979 was to prolong the life of Democratic Kampuchea by handing it the Cambodian seat at the UN.

In reality, all the Khmer Rouge leaders were now sheltering in Thailand. Pol Pot once admitted that his forces were close to extinction in 1979.

Arresting him for genocide at the time, when he was living under Thai military protection, would have been possible, given the enormous influence of the Pentagon on their oldest military ally in the region. But Washington, still smarting from the humiliation of the Vietnam War, opted to side with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in their fight with Vietnam.

The annual UN General Assembly resolutions from 1979 to 1990 always condemned Vietnamese occupation and demanded its unconditional withdrawal. But scant attention was paid to the very real fear of millions of Cambodians that a sudden Vietnamese withdrawal could lead to the return of a resurgent Pol Pot army.

[Abridged from the April 24-May 7 issue of the Phnom Penh Post.]