" Killing fields of Cambodia, not the only injustice for Cambodian victims only; but, it's for the whole humanity." A survivor

The Wrong Man (Ben Kiernan) to Investigate Cambodia… A KR defender?

3/ Morris/Wrong Man

Wall Street Journal 17 April 1995

The Wrong Man to Investigate Cambodiaby Stephen J. MORRISToday is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of one of the great moral catastrophes of our brutal century — the fall of Phnom Penh to the communist Khmer Rouge and the subsequent extinction of more than a million souls in the killing fields of Cambodia. As this unhappy observance approached, Congress last year created an Office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations under the State Department’s East Asia and Pacific Bureau. Its mission is to fully document Khmer Rouge crimes, and train Cambodians who will work for a tribunal to prosecute Khmer Rouges leaders.

It’s a worthy goal, but in a bizarre exercise of its mandate, The State Department has awarded $500,000 of US taxpayers money for a Yale University project headed by a man who spent most of the years of Khmer Rouge rule defending the regime and denouncing its critics. In considering applications, State had its choice of individuals with impeccable reputations and credentials for this important project. Yet for reasons that are unfathomable, research into Khmer Rouge crimes is to be carried out by Ben Kiernan, an Australian radical activist cum academic known as one of the Khmer Rouge’s most ardent defenders during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Mr Kiernan eventually changed his line, denouncing the Pol Pot regime. But he still champions another Khmer Rouge faction that is now in the Phnom Penh government.

An Appalling Record

To understand why the choice of Mr. Kiernan as chief documenter of Cambodia’ nightmare is so appalling, let us recall the Khmer Rouge’s record, and Mr. Kiernan’s public statement during the time their crimes were being committed.

After the surrender of the Lon Nol government on April 17, 1975, the victorious Khmer Rouge leaders deported the two million residents of Phnom Penh and hundreds of thousands from other Cambodian towns in the countryside, where they became slave laborers. All former military officers and government officials who the Khmer Rouge could identify, and often their entire families, were slaughtered. Then the Khmer Rouge sought out and killed anyone they could find with an education. Between their victory in 1975 and defeat by invading Vietnamese in 1978, the Khmer Rouge executed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and condemned perhaps a million more to death by starvation and disease.

When all this began, Ben Kiernan was a graduate student in Australia specializing in Cambodia. And soon after the communist victory in April 1975, he published a flattering account of the nominal leader of the Khmer Rouge. In a June 1975 article in the Dyason House Papers titled “Khieu Samphan, Cambodia’s Revolutionary Leader,” Mr. Kiernan wrote that “Khieu Samphan’s personality — particularly his unassuming manner, ready smile and simpler habits — endeared him to Khmer peasants. Himself a peasant by birth, he is said to have been somewhat ascetic in his behavior, but never fanatical and always calm.”

When terrified Cambodians began escaping across the border into Thailand that summer and fall, however, a totally different picture of Khieu Samphan and Cambodia’s revolution emerged. Interviewed by Western reporters, the refugees provided horrifying accounts of barbarity.

But Ben Kiernan was angry with the Western press, not the Khmer Rouge. Writing in 1976 in the Melbourne Journal of Politics, Mr. Kiernan asserted that “there is ample evidence in Cambodia and other sources that the Khmer Rouge movement is not the monster that the press have recently made it out to be.” M. Kiernan admitted that some terror had been created by what he called “untrained and vengeful” soldiers in Northwest Cambodia. But he explained this a strictly local breach of discipline. “These atrocities were committed against orders from the [central] government,” he wrote, “and there is no evidence that the situation in eastern, southern and central Cambodia resembles that of the north-west.”

Then, as today, Mr. Kiernan drew a distinction between good Khmers Rouge and bad Khmers Rouge. In another 1976 article, “Social Cohesion in Revolutionary Cambodia,” published in the foreign-policy journal Australian Outlook, he embellished his apologia for the revolution with a Marxist class analysis of how newly liberated poor peasants were taking revenge against the rich. At the same time as hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were dying of hunger, Mr. Kiernan was confidently predicting a wonderful future for Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. “As a result of the Khmer Rouge irrigation program,” he wrote, “Cambodian agriculture will be modernized and peasant living standards will be increased.”

Mr. Kiernan wrote and spoke tirelessly against most refugee accounts and Western reporting. In 1977, for instance, when harrowing photographs of Khmer Rouge forced labor were published in Western newspapers, Mr. Kiernan wrote to a Melbourne newspaper, the Age, falsely asserting that what he called “photographs of alleged atrocities in Cambodia” had been “exposed as fake”. His conclusion: “The Western press have more of an interest in a bloodbath in Cambodia than the communists do.”

Mr. Kiernan’s conclusion were at variance with those of other interviewers of Cambodian refugees. For example, François Ponchaud, who had interviewed hundreds of Cambodian peasants from all regions, wrote in 1977: “The liquidation of all towns and former authorities was not improvised, nor was it a reprisal or expression of wanton cruelty on the part of local cadres. The scenario for every town and village in the country was the same and followed exact instructions issued by the highest authorities.”

During 1977-78, Mr. Kiernan and his Cambodian-born wife, Chanthou Boua, were part of the editorial collective that produced “News from Kampuchea”, a newsletter extolling life in Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The Kiernans did not know then that the regime they were promoting had killed Ms. Boua’s family. But this subsequent discovery did not shake their faith in communism.

At the beginning of 1978, The Vietnamese communists and the Khmers Rouge, who since 1970 had been allies against “U.S. imperialism”, publicly split. Western leftists were force to choose sides. Mr. Kiernan’s decision was assisted by event in Cambodia.

During 1977-878, Pol Pot, fearing traitors, purged his own Khmer Rouge apparatus, especially in the eastern zone. As the purges spread, many who had willingly obeyed Pol Pot’s orders in 1975-78 fled for their lives to Vietnam. These cadres returned with Vietnam’s invading army in 1979, denouncing the “Pol Pot genocidal clique” but celebrating communism and the Khmer Rouge.

The creation of a Cambodian communist alternative under Vietnamese sponsorship gave Mr. Kiernan a new mission. Since 1979, he has worked tirelessly as the academic world’s de facto defence lawyer for what he considers the good Khmers Rouge of the eastern zone and their Vietnamese patrons. There may have been some differences in the degree of brutality between eastern Cambodia and other zones during the Pol Pot years. But the distinction Mr. Kiernan draws is morally equivalent to praising the relatively milder Nazi policy in France by contrasting it with the more brutal Nazi policy in Russia.

Interestingly, Mr. Kiernan has maintained a long professional with association with the French activist Serge Thion , who was not only France’s leading supporter of the Khmers Rouges from 1972 to 1978 but also a promoter of the view that the Nazis did not murder six million Jews. Equally revealing is Mr. Kiernan editorship of a 1985 book that celebrates the life of Wilfred Burchett, the Australian journalist who entered Chinese-run POW camps during the Korean war and threatened Allied prisoners. The Australian government withdrew Burchett’s passport, while North Korea’s Kim Il Sung personally awarded him a medal.

Many Australians were puzzled in 1991 when Mr. Kiernan was plucked from obscurity at the University of Wollongong for a post at Yale University. Members of Yale’s distinguished history department probably did not know his full record when they offered him a temporary position.

A Puzzling Choice

But how did the State Department, which is paid to know about the politics of foreigners it funds, choose Mr. Kiernan to carry out research into Cambodia’s history? There were eight other applications submitted, many by teams (including one from the founder of Amnesty International USA) more distinguished than Mr. Kiernan’s.

State Department officials may claim that the Kiernan’s team proposal was more comprehensive and simpler to administer. And they may point to his modified views on Cambodia namely, that he no longer supports Pol Pot. But given his record of scholarship tailored to extremist political views and his current allegiance to potentially guilty politicians in Phnom Penh, Mr. Kiernan cannot be expected to lead a credible investigation.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Assistant Secretary Winston Lord can easily rectify this problem by withdrawing the award from Yale and re-opening the grant process. If they refuse to reverse a terrible decision that disgraces American honor and spits upon the graves of more than a million Cambodian, then Congress should take this matter into its own hands.

Mr. Morris, an Australian, is a research associate in Harvard’s department of government

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