Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with Ben Kiernan

An Interview with Ben Kiernan
By Khatchig Mouradian
Aztag Daily
10th of June 2004

In April 1998, Pol Pot departed from this world leaving behind a legacy of death and destruction matched only by a few other leaders in world history. His Khmer Rouge regime is responsible for the genocide of more than a million people in Cambodia. A year before his death, Pol Pot said in an interview, “I did not join the resistance movement to kill people, to kill the nation. Look at me now. Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.”

Like the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust before it, and the Rwandan genocide after it, the Cambodian tragedy reminded us once again, that the so-called “International Community” is an accomplice or, at best, a bystander when the “problem from hell” surfaces. However, most probably its conscience is clear as well. What lessons, if any, have we learned from “the Age of Genocide”? The current situation in Darfur does not help one to give an optimistic answer. This does not mean that the lessons aren’t there; just that the word is looking the other way over and over again.

In an email interview conducted in April 2004, I discussed with Ben Kiernan the Cambodian genocide, comparative studies of genocide and what change such studies can make.

Ben Kiernan is a Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. He gained his B.A. (1975) and his Ph.D. (1983) in Southeast Asian History from Monash University.

Arguably the most knowledgeable observer of Cambodia anywhere in the Western world, Kiernan is the author of a number of books and monographs including “How Pol Pot Came to Power” (London, 1985), “The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1999” (New Haven, 1996). He is the editor of “Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge, The United Nations, and the International Community” (New Haven, 1993) and the co-editor of “The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective” (Cambridge University Press, 2003). He founded the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University in 1994 and the Genocide Studies Program, also at Yale, in 1998.

Aztag- Why is the comparative study of genocides important?

Ben Kiernan- During 25 years of research on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodian genocide, it became clear to me that the Khmer people were victims of unusual historical circumstances, such as the expansion of the Vietnam War into their country, as well as unique elements of Khmer Rouge ideology. But I also came across many common features shared by the Cambodian genocide and other cases of mass murder. Sometimes the links were political lessons, such as when Pol Pot watched from Beijing in 1965 as the Suharto military regime in Indonesia massacred half a million communists in Java and Bali. Pol Pot later wrote that, “If our analysis had failed, we would have been in greater danger than the communists in Indonesia.” Pol Pot resolved to prevent such a disaster from happening to his own communist party, so he in turn massacred his opponents in Cambodia ten years later. Sometimes, the shared features were ideological, such as the warped lessons Pol Pot also learned from Mao’s disastrous "Great Leap Forward" in China. From these and other elements of the historical record, I concluded that if the essential common features of genocides and the links between them could be studied and identified, perhaps they could be detected in advance in future cases, giving opponents of genocide the prior knowledge, the time and thus the opportunity to intervene to prevent vast human tragedies from recurring.

Other links between disparate global tragedies also merit attention. The twentieth century opened with the genocide of the Hereros in the German colony of Southwest Africa. Participants in this brutalizing colonial experience included the father of Hermann Göring (until recently Göring Street was the name of a main thoroughfare in Namibia's capital, Windhoek). Immediately after the genocide, Eugen Fischer carried out his racialist research on miscegnation among the mixed Dutch/Hottentot ‘Rehoboth Bastards’ of Southwest Africa. In his 1913 study, Henry Friedlander has pointed out, Fischer advocated protecting “an inferior race…only for so long as they are of use to us; otherwise free competition, that is, in my opinion, destruction.” Fischer, who became head of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, also denounced "coloured, Jewish, and Gypsy hybrids," and provided Hitler with a copy of his book before the latter wrote Mein Kampf. In 1933, Hitler appointed Fischer as Rector of the University of Berlin, with the task of removing its Jewish professors.

Vahakn Dadrian's study, German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide, provides further illustration of the linkage between genocidal events of the early twentieth century. Later, while launching his attack on Poland, Hitler reportedly said in answer to a question on its international legality, "Who ever heard of the Armenians?” suggesting a calculation that genocide could conceivably be perpetrated with impunity. Regarding more recent events, there is evidence that the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 took the slow pace of the world's reaction to genocidal crimes in the former Yugoslavia as a sign that even worse ethnic cleansing in central Africa would not provoke rapid international intervention. While perpetrators of genocide seem to have benefited from their own comparative analysis of the potential and possibilities for genocide in the modern era, the rest of humanity has failed as yet to learn lessons from the past that could lead to meaningful intervention in such catastrophes.

Aztag- It is often said that creating awareness about past genocides will help prevent future ones. Is the international community learning the lessons that need to be learned?

Ben Kiernan- The recent attention given to the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide is overdue, but important. Lessons are being learned from past mistakes, in this case by the United Nations. The UN has now established a Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide who will report to the Secretary General on genocidal threats. It is now a responsibility of scholars of genocide to make sure this Special Adviser's office has the most accurate information possible. Even without attempting comparative research, just by analysing past cases and publishing the research results, it is possible to help upgrade the capacity and will of the international community to respond to future dangers. At least some genocides can be prevented by better information and more timely action. Comparative research offers an additional dimension of information.

Aztag- Can you tell us about the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University?

Ben Kiernan- The Genocide Studies Program (GSP) at Yale University ( aims to contribute to this awareness through its comparative, interdisciplinary research program. The GSP is developing and applying new approaches to the documentation and study of genocide and trauma, and evaluating policy-oriented solutions to detecting and preventing genocide as well as alleviation of its far-reaching sequelae. We assemble and display evidence of genocides in large publicly-accessible databases and satellite imagery of atrocity sites. The GSP is based on the belief that comparing and contrasting genocidal movements and regimes can help to detect and analyse the ideological preoccupations that drive political leaders to order extermination campaigns. We also hope to point to social and historical factors that foster the growth of such genocidal movements and enable them to come to power and implement their ideas.

Aztag- Can you please briefly describe the genocidal campaign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge?

Ben Kiernan- Five years after the Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces occupied the capital, Phnom Penh, in April 1975. They deported the city's two million residents into the countryside, and established the new state of Democratic Kampuchea (DK). Pol Pot became DK prime minister while remaining secretary-general of the secretive Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Other members of the CPK ‘Center’ (mocchim), including Nuon Chea, Son Sen, Mok, and Khieu Samphan, also moved into Phnom Penh.

The conquered urban populations were now labeled ‘new people.’ Driving them from the capital in all directions, the Khmer Rouge forcibly settled the urbanites among the rural ‘base people’ (neak moultanh) who had lived in the countryside during the 1970-75 war. They were all put to work in agricultural labour camps without wages, rights, or free time. Before the rice harvest in late 1975, the Khmer Rouge again rounded up 800,000 of the urban deportees in various regions and dispatched them to the Northwest Zone, doubling its population. Tens of thousands died of starvation there during 1976, while the new regime began exporting rice. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge hunted down and killed thousands of defeated Cambodian officials, army officers, and increasingly, soldiers, schoolteachers, and alleged ‘pacification agents’ (santec sampoan) who in most cases had merely protested the repression or just the rigorous living conditions imposed on them. In 1976-77, the CPK Center and its Security apparatus, the Santebal, headed by Son Sen and Kang Khek Iev (alias Deuch), also conducted massive internecine purges of the Northern and Northwest Zone CPK administrations, arresting and killing large numbers of peasant “base people” who were relatives of the purged local officials. Starvation and repression escalated in 1977 and especially in 1978. By early 1979, approximately 650,000 people or 25% of the Khmer ‘new people,’ and 675,000 Khmer ‘base people’ (15%), had perished from execution, starvation, overwork, disease, and denial of medical care.

This severe Khmer Rouge repression of the majority Khmer rural population was accompanied by intensified violence against ethnic minorities, even among the ‘base people’. Over half of the ethnic Chinese, a quarter of a million people, perished in the countryside in 1975-1979, the worst human disaster ever to befall the large ethnic Chinese community of Southeast Asia. The Khmer Rouge expelled 150,000 Vietnamese residents from Cambodia in 1975, and ferociously repressed a Cham Muslim rebellion along the Mekong River. Pol Pot then ordered the deportation of 150,000 Chams living on the east bank of the Mekong and their forced dispersal throughout the Northern and Northwest Zones. In November 1975, a Khmer Rouge official in the Eastern Zone complained to Pol Pot of his inability to implement “the dispersal strategy according to the decision that you, Brother, had discussed with us.” Officials in the Northern Zone, he complained, “absolutely refused to accept Islamic people,” preferring “only pure Khmer people.” In a message to Pol Pot two months later, Northern Zone CPK leader Ke Pauk listed “enemies” such as “Islamic people”. Deportations of Chams began again in 1976, and by early 1979, approximately 100,000 of the country’s Cham population of 250,000 in 1975 had been killed, starved or worked to death. The 10,000 or so Vietnamese residents remaining in the country were all hunted down and murdered in 1977 and 1978. Oral evidence suggests that other ethnic groups, including the Thai and Lao, were also subjected to genocidal persecution; even the relatively favoured upland minorities suffered enormous losses.

The 1975 Cham rebellion against the CPK regime was followed in 1978 by another serious uprising in the Eastern Zone, led by ethnic Khmer. From late 1976, the Pol Pot regime accelerated its violent internal purges of the CPK regional administrations. The Santebal and the CPK Center’s armed forces subjected all five regions of the Eastern Zone to concerted largescale arrests and massacres of local CPK officials and soldiers. In May 1978, these purges reached a crescendo, and provoked a mutiny by units of the Zone armed forces. The rebels, led by Heng Samrin and Chea Sim, held out for several months before retreating across the Vietnamese border and requesting assistance from Hanoi’s army.

Meanwhile, from early 1977, the Pol Pot regime also mounted cross-border attacks on Thailand, Laos and especially Vietnam. Hanoi was now ready to intervene. On 25 December 1978, 150,000 Vietnamese troops launched a multi-pronged assault and took Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979. They drove the retreating Khmer Rouge forces across the country and into the Cardamom Mountains along the Thai border. Cambodians welcomed the end of the genocide which had taken 1.7 million lives of a population of 7.9 million. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was established, headed by Heng Samrin and Chea Sim. Foreign Minister Hun Sen became prime minister in 1985. Vietnamese troops withdrew in 1989, and after UN-sponsored elections in 1993, the regime was re-named the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Aztag- What are some of the common features shared by the Armenian and Cambodian genocides?

Ben Kiernan- In 1919, an Istanbul court convicted Enver Pasha, the former Young Turk Minister of War, for "the crime of massacre" during the Armenian genocide. Following this in absentia conviction, Enver made his way to Central Asia. On 1 September 1920, Enver caused a sensation at the Conference of the Peoples of the East at Baku, in Soviet Azerbaijan. Enver expressed regret for having fought on the side of "the Imperialists of Germany whom I hate and I curse, precisely as I do those of Britain." But he carefully justified his First World War alliance: "We ranged ourselves with Germany, who had consented to let us live. The German Imperialists used us to obtain their own brigand ends; but our aim was solely to preserve our independence. The sentiments which drove us ... were not Imperial sentiments." He said he now "recognised" that Azerbaijan "should belong to its own people". But Enver didn't mention Armenia. He disguised his genocidal chauvinism as a desire to live and let live, cherishing national independence; and even as international solidarity, such as when he praised his Turkish army for helping to bring down the Tsar.

In this speech, Enver gave further interesting clues to his political philosophy. His famed Turkish army, he said, drew 'all its strength from the rural class." While denouncing imperialism, he noted: "To my mind, all who seek to enrich those who do not work should be destroyed." And he predicted that "the Oriental world," which he defined as "all oppressed peoples," would "annihilate" the imperialist and capitalist "monsters." Enver later led several thousand troops against the Soviet regime, with the professed aim of "driving the Europeans out and creating the great Central-Asian Muslim state."

Pol Pot would have recognised this amalgam of peasantism, 'class' violence, and Third World racism. Enver dismissed the notion of any fellow oppressed peoples in Europe, even outside that very European construction, "the Orient". Enver's ironic imprisonment in a Western ideology was quite comparable to that of Pol Pot. They both justified their racialist campaigns of destruction as class struggle, both portrayed their militaristic expansionism as national self-defence, and both romanticized the peasantry of their country while spectacularly failing to improve rural living conditions.

Enver was convicted in absentia, and was later killed in battle against Soviet forces. Pol Pot died in 1998 without facing any legal punishment. But Cambodia and the United Nations agreed last year to establish a special tribunal to judge the crimes of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Pol Pot's military commander, Mok, and his security chief Deuch, are both in jail in Phnom Penh awaiting trial.

Aztag- You have been instrumental in unveiling thousands of documents about the Khmer Rouge regime. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, detailed documentation is even harder for historians partly because of the inaccessibility of the Ottoman archives. What can you say about the difficulties you faced when trying to unearth the truth?

Ben Kiernan- ‘You are stupid,’ Pol Pot’s deputy Nuon Chea told Deuch, former commandant of the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng prison, after learning that Deuch had failed to destroy the prison’s archives before fleeing from Phnom Penh in 1979. Deuch had stayed behind for several hours after Vietnamese forces entered the city on January 9, but instead of burning the archives, he had preferred to ensure that his last prisoners were murdered. Over 100,000 pages of evidence fell into the hands of the Vietnamese and were soon made available to scholars. A ‘Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide’ was set up, with an archive of the Khmer Rouge ‘bureaucracy of death.’ British journalist Anthony Barnett visited Cambodia in early 1980 and brought back an extensive set of photocopies, which formed the basis for a cover story we wrote in London's New Statesman magazine (2 May 1980). When another journalist presented copies of these documents to Pol Pot’s brother-in-law Ieng Sary, he was caught off-guard and admitted that they were genuine. This admission was quickly denied by an anonymous Khmer Rouge aide, in an unsigned letter to the Far Eastern Economic Review. A decade later, another leading Khmer Rouge official, Son Sen, read through the Genocide Convention and underlined passages that might be used to prosecute him, including the definition of the crime, and sections asserting that, “whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, [genocide] is a crime under international law.” In 1996, Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program located another 100,000 pages of secret documents, the archive of the Santebal, run by Son Sen. A few months later, Ieng Sary defected to the Cambodian government and set up his own "Documentation Center" to defend his record. Pol Pot murdered Son Sen the next year, and Pol Pot himself died in 1998. But Ieng Sary could still be tried by the forthcoming UN tribunal.

The evidence against them is strong. A handwritten document dated April 17, 1978, includes a list of names of relatives and associates of a prisoner named San Eap. A Zone commander had sent the list to ‘Committee 870’, a title reminiscent of the royal plural, used by Pol Pot. Using a similar personal alias, Angkar (‘the Organization’), Pol Pot scribbled on the cover letter in thick red pencil: ‘A/k 19/4/78 Follow up’ (taam daan). This was an order to arrest those named in the list.

Khmer Rouge leaders became uncomfortable at the publication of such incriminating internal records. They had had absolutely no idea that one day their signed murder commands would be made available on the World Wide Web. Perhaps this possibility will serve as a small deterrent to future genocidists. Their inability to deny their genocide deprives the perpetrators of a powerful weapon against the memory of their victims.

Aztag- In recent years, you have written a number of papers related to the Armenian genocide. When did you start researching this genocide and comparing it to other cases of mass murder?

Ben Kiernan- I began researching the Armenian genocide in 1989, after fifteen years' research on Cambodia. I read work by Ronald Suny on the social history of the Armenian genocide, before reading other studies of Young Turk leaders and their ideology. At first, I saw a parallel between the destruction of the medieval Armenian kingdom in 1375, and that of the Southeast Asian kingdom of Champa in 1471. In the twentieth century, the stateless Cham Muslim population of Cambodia became major victims of the Khmer Rouge, just as the Armenians became victims of the Young Turks.

I also found intriguing comparisons between Pol Pot, Enver Pasha and some other genocidal leaders, including marginal connections to royalty. The Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler was the godson and namesake of a Bavarian prince. Enver Pasha married a daughter of the Ottoman Sultan. Pol Pot's sister and cousin were respectively a consort and second wife of the Khmer king. Many modern genocidists also shared marginal geographic origins. Hitler and other Nazi leaders were of Austrian background. Enver and other Young Turk leaders like Talaat and Dr. Nazim came from Turkish minority communities of Eastern Europe. Khmer Rouge leaders Son Sen and Ieng Sary were from the Cambodian minority in Vietnam.

Though the French revolution influenced both the Young Turks and the Khmer Rouge, and the latter were communist, both regimes were also racist and expansionist, like the Nazis.

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