Wednesday, 19 November, 2014

Andrew Johnston is a post-viva PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS), his thesis is entitled, The Politics of Killing: A comparative study of Political Genocide in Democratic Kampuchea.  Following on from the topic at our public conversation, which explored the role of perpetrators in genocide education and commemoration, he explores responsibility in post-genocide Cambodia and asks who is accountable in the search for justice?

‘These lower-downs were certainly not just following orders’ [i] Stephen Heder, Khmer Rouge historian

In periods of widespread political violence, are murderous perpetrators simply following their orders, or do they themselves employ varying degrees of agency and autonomy, enabling them to pursue their own motivations and desires? The short answer is, we will never really know, but investigative analysis of periods of sustained political violence demonstrate characteristics of both.

The degree of autonomy enjoyed by individual perpetrators becomes an increasingly important issue when perpetrators are subject to judicial proceedings.  If judicial proceedings focus on the ‘most senior leaders’ there is a risk that no further responsibility (either legal or moral) is apportioned upon those subordinate individuals who may have gone well above and beyond their own orders to carry out murder. This issue takes particular pertinence when we consider that those who are not brought to justice are often free to remain in society, living side by side with those people upon whom they may have committed the most heinous of crimes.

Senior leaders will invariably be the most responsible in a court of law given that it is they who usually create the environments in which violence can occur, but being the most responsible is not the same as being entirely or wholly responsible.

My own investigations have been largely focused on the violence that was committed in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. This period is often referred to as the ‘Khmer Rouge’ era of ‘Democratic Kampuchea’. This period of history is undoubtedly one of the bloodiest chapters of modern history, and yet relatively little is known about the behavior of the perpetrators of the violent regime. Approximate figures for the final death toll range from 20,000 deaths to four million deaths, but most historians agree that a figure in the region of 1.5 million[ii] is the most plausible total. This equates to approximately one quarter of the total Cambodian population perishing in a timeframe of three years.

Over the course of 100 or so interviews with victims, perpetrators, historical and legal experts of the Khmer Rouge period, it became very clear that a significant portion of the lower-level, peripheral violence was orchestrated by perpetrators who had personal scores to settle and axes to grind with issues that dated back to pre-Khmer Rouge days. That is to say, they were not solely following their superior’s orders; rather they were using the new environment as a smokescreen to be violent of their own volition. In an interview with the former defence lawyer for the now deceased Ieng Sary[iii], Michael Karnavas, Karnavas stated,

‘the country peasants (who perpetrated much of the violence) really, really hated the city people. You know, because they had it rough… these peasants now had the opportunity to get even. There wasn’t some policy that was sent from the top to do this… there was no policy to go out there and kill all these people. The people in the countryside were ripe for revenge’.[iv]

The ‘city people’ (or ‘new people’) that Karnavas is referring to were those members of society who were evacuated from the towns and cities to be relocated to perform agricultural labour alongside their rural cousins. However, these city people were often stereotyped as being the cause and benefiters of much of the rural peoples’ suffering before 1975. For example, it was a popular myth that the bourgeoisie of Phnom Penh had orchestrated much of the US-bombing of the Cambodian countryside, when in fact it was part of the war happening at the time. A vast majority of the bombing experienced in the Cambodian countryside was in fact a very unfortunate consequence of a wider geopolitical war that was being waged by the Nixon government upon Vietnam (and other states considered to be communist). Therefore, it is unsurprising that many of the city people found their Khmer Rouge lives to be particularly grim. More often than not, they were last on the food ration list and first on the execution lists.

Ieng Sary at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, December 2011

Ieng Sary at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, December 2011

The interviews that I conducted with the victims of the regime painted a similar picture. An interviewee from Kampot province (southern Cambodia) stated,

‘the cadres here hated me, just because I was from the city. I worked in a unit, carrying land for dam building. I had to carry human excrement as well. The Khmer Rouge used to order me to taste the excrement to test for its ‘saltiness’. If I refused, they wouldn’t have fed me. I had to do this work because I was a new person’[v].

Such harrowing stories were repeated to me on a very regular basis and it is well documented that it was never the intention of the party to treat the city people and the rural people any differently.

Unsurprisingly, many of the perpetrators whom I interviewed saw themselves in a very different light. For many, they had joined the regime because it offered them an opportunity to be a part of something, an opportunity to fight for a socialist cause that was prepared to challenge the feudalistic legacy of the French colonial system. Many told me that they gave everything for the regime, including the rights to remain with their families, and with the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, so too did their own lives. During a lengthy interview with a former perpetrator from Takeo province (southern Cambodia), I was informed that,

‘we couldn’t see our families even when they were really ill. I really feel very angry at the regime, even now, as I was told that I couldn’t see my father before he died. And now, I have nothing’[vi].

For most former perpetrators, they wished to impress upon me how they were also victims of the regime and not without personal losses and grievances.

Over the course of meeting several former perpetrators of violence, it became clear that for many, their standard of living is not as high as those members of society who are conventionally considered to be ‘victims’. Their skin was often much darker and weathered than their ‘victim’ counterparts suggesting that they perform longer hours of agricultural work without shade. Their houses were often dilapidated, and set further back from the main roads.

Currently, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is operating in Phnom Penh under the mandate of international law. Its aim is to incarcerate those members of society who are considered to be ‘most responsible’ for the crimes committed between 1975-1979. To date, three men have been sentenced (Kang Kek Iew[vii], Nuon Chea[viii] and Khieu Samphan[ix]), and it seems at this stage that the tribunal will prosecute no more. Whilst the function of the court is to try those most responsible, a byproduct of such a tribunal is the creation of an ‘official memory’. The three prosecuted men are undoubtedly guilty of varying degrees of crimes against humanities, but drawing the line at just these three does, to a degree, absolve other perpetrators of their crimes. This result and ‘official memory’ creation will therefore hugely affect how the Khmer Rouge atrocities are understood by future generations. Without a spotlight on the other side of story, one could easily believe that those convicted are entirely responsible for 1.5 million deaths, because no mainstream efforts are in play to at least suggest that many former perpetrators bear at least moral responsibility for going above and beyond what they had to do. Khmer Rouge historian, Dr Stephen Heder, has documented the same issue stating,

‘the evidence for the culpability of lower-downs has continued to mount, suggesting that a theory of the case focusing on the prosecution of only the big fish is seriously incomplete… (and) may shield guilty subordinates from scrutiny for their genocidal crimes…(as) from the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime, lower-downs went beyond the instructions from the top’[x]

Of the interviews that I conducted regarding the topic of lower level justice, one particular individual’s comments were particularly poignant. The interviewee’s brother was murdered in a provincial prison, and the guard who committed the murder lives in the same village as he does. He explained to me that before the regime, the guard had disliked his brother from the days of school and certainly had an axe to grind with him. During an emotional interview he stated,

‘the lower-level village staff (of the prison) were the most dangerous and murderous cohort, the lowest levels of the Khmer Rouge regime were 100 per cent the most dangerous. I want to see the lowest levels tried because they were certainly the worst’[xi].

This kind of statement and sentiment is not uncommon. Unfortunately, for these people, the international justice juggernaut that is the International Criminal Court will not pursue these individuals. Furthermore, the domestic legal system and the current government are not pushing any kind of widespread, lower level recognition of events. For many, a gesture as simple as an apology would go a long way to vindicate their grievances.   

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide awareness and commemoration. It explores the huge legacy left by genocide, issues surrounding contemporary acts of hatred and discrimination, and how we can address these by applying lessons of the past to the present day. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who will provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.



[i] Stephen Heder during his expert testimony at Case file 002 of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, ECCC. 23rd July 2012. Heder is referring to those members of society who had the freedom to decide who was an enemy and who was not in Khmer Rouge era Cambodia.

[ii] Kiernan(1996); Sliwinski (1995).

[iii] A co-founder of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, often referred to as ‘Brother number three’. Ieng died in March 2013 during the time that he was on trial for crimes against humanity at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

[iv] Author’s interview with Michael Karnavas. 26th April 2013

[v] Author’s interview with a Khmer Rouge survivor. 25th November, 2012

[vi] Author’s interview with a former prison guard. 29th July, 2012

[vii] Also known as ‘Duch’. He was the former chief prison officer of the highest ranking prison site of Khmer Rouge era Cambodia, S-21

[viii] ‘Brother number two’ of the Communist Party of Kampuchea

[ix] Former President of the state presidium of the Communist Party of Kampuchea

[x] Heder, Stephen. Reassessing the roles of Senior leaders and Local officials in Democratic Kampuchea. 2005

[xi] Author’s interview with the brother of a murdered victim. 4th November, 2012