Sunday, August 26, 2007

Vickery v Heder: Apportioning the Blame

Phnom Penh Post ,11-24 August 1995

The debate to apportion blame
Michael Vickery takes issue with academics who, he says, take every opportunity to discredit the former PRK regime.

A REVIEW of an academic book is expected to focus on the major theme of the bookat least if the review is destined for a scholarly publication.

Of course in journalism things are different; and this has permitted Stephen Heder, in the frame of a review of Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia to unload a get-Ben-Kiernan-at-any-price attack (Phnom Penh Post, 16-29 June 1995).

It is not surprising that Heder shied away from "Genocide", the theme both of the book and of the conference from which it emerged, and the dominant concern of the conference organizer and book editor Ben Kiernan, who has insistently argued that DK was genocidal and that an international trial for genocide should be organized.

Everything Heder has written, at least until the 1990s, as well as conversations with me in Aranyaprathet in 1980 when we were both interviewing refugees, indicate that he doubts the historical accuracy of "genocide" in Democratic Kampuchea (DK).

This is not a trendy position to take, but I for one would be in agreement, as I explained in a letter to Z Magazine (July/Aug 1994).

Not only do I doubt the accuracy of ''genocide", but I maintain that a trial organized by foreign organizations is further unjustified intervention in Cambodian affairs, and that most of those, although not Kiernan, who campaigned in western countries for a trial were as interested in getting the PRK leaders as those of DK.

To his credit, Herder, who was the Cambodia specialist most in favor with those who sought to undermine the PRK via a genocide trial of DK leaders, put a stop to that in 1990, saying "I have seen no evidence that any of the ex-Khmer Rouge in positions of high political authority in today's Cambodia were involved in large scale or systematic killing of Cambodian civilians."("Recent Developments in Cambodia", a talk by Stephen Heder, Australian National University, 5 Sept 1990, pg2, printed and distributed by Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge, Washington, D.C., a group led by Ben Kiernan and Craig Etcheson, with the collaboration of William Colby).

Whatever the weaknesses of Kiernan's treatment of human rights, Heder is hardly the one to deal with them.

Heder's own record as a writer of special reports for the Lawyers' Committee (1984, 1985), and then Amnesty International (1986, 1987,1988) shows thoroughly biased misrepresentation of the human rights situation in Cambodia in order to discredit the side he most disliked, the PRK and their Vietnamese supporters.

Disregarding the circumstance that the very existence of the PRK in place of DK was an enormous improvement of human rights, and that with exiguous resources in terms of qualified personnel and funds, in a war situation cranked up year after year with the assistance of the world's largest and richest states, the new Cambodian government was making efforts to effect further improvements, Heder jumped on every defect, real or rumored, and blackened the PRK beyond all justification.

His special reports, released conveniently to coincide with important UN debates or, in 1987, with an international NGO conference in Brussels, were in startling contrast to Amnesty's Annual Reports, and contrary to Amnesty policy on countries more favored by the US regime and to the practices of American legal affairs teachers in the US-backed FUNCINPEC and KPNLF camps on the border.

Heder and other human rights advocates refused to countenance any special credit for mere improvement. Human rights violations were human rights violations, and standards were absolute. Contrast this with an article on China by William F Schulz, executive director of Amnesty lnternational USA. (Christian Science Monitor Weekly , 15-21 April, 1994, "The Problem with Most Favored Nations".)

He made some conciliatory and reasonable suggestions concerning pressures on China about human rights, insisting that consideration should be given for what progress the Chinese were making on their own, quite contrary to the Lawyers' Committee and Heder's Amnesty work on Cambodia.

"Our approach to China", he said, "must recognize that the Chinese themselves are divided over human rights." The "US must show the Chinese government that its concerns are identical with many of those expressed by respected `mainlines' figures within China itself. He cited two Chinese law journals articles condemning torture and detention contrary to laws in force.

Building on critiques such as these the US government should press the Chinese to abolish torture because torture is prohibited in Chinese law, and "no government can lose face by enforcing its own laws and international obligations Indeed the Chinese government would receive universal acclaim if it were to end this malicious abuse of power by local often corrupt police and prison officials [sic, emphasis MV]."

This is precisely the type of reasoning Amnesty rejected in its work on Cambodia. Had Mr Schulz been active then, and consistent with his views on China, he would have taken the new PRK law on criminal procedure promulgated in 1986 as evidence for internal Cambodian pressure to improve human rights which deserved encouragement, not petty carping and contempt. He would also have praised an article in Kampuchea, no 462 of 28 July 1988, listing 61 lawsuits reported as "stuck" in the courts, as both confirmation that courts were functioning and in its implied criticism of the judicial system's efficacy as evidence of a degree of openness in Cambodian society.

Contrast also the remarks by legal affairs educators Ken Bingham and company, assigned by UNBRO (United Nations Border Relief Operations) and the Catholic COERR to teach basic law in the camps of the Coalition Government on the Thai border.

They explicitly recognized that considerable leeway had to be allowed. As one of the lawyers said, "Many of these things [police practices in the camps] fly in the face of what we believe about the law But we came here as a 'liaison'. Who are we to challenge basic Khmer concepts of justice and fair play?'' Those 'liaison' lawyers were attempting to introduce a new code, "`the backbone" of which is "an allowance for Khmer tradition accordance with Khmer practice", for "We don't want to force anything on the population here", certainly not, at least, the standards which Heder and AI thought they were entitled to impose on Phnom Penh." v(Tom Nagorski, "Wanted at Site 2: Law and Order," The Nation, 9 June 1989, pg25. After the formation of the post-election government in 1993 at least one of the lawyers quoted by Nagorski, Ken Bingham, moved to Phnom Penh).

Heder objects to Kiernan placing blame for Cambodia's predicament on American policy, even though in the end he admits that Kiernan's assignment of blame is largely correct. And to say that "it is questionable whether any political solution could have been reached that was not agreeable to the great powers", is not only to agree implicitly with Kiernan, but to cop out.

Kiernan, and I, and others concerned with foreign intervention and aggression in Indochina since the 1970s, as Heder once upon a time also appeared to be, have felt that one should oppose great power aggression and interference where one could, if only in fringe publications, not just give in as an act of personal realpolitik.

With respect to the Thai role, where Heder mainly agrees with Kiernan's view of Thai complicity in support of DK, Heder slides over a "might-have-been", which at the time showed real promise for "diminution of the PDK's leverage".

In 1988, for the first time, a capitalist political party led by practising capitalists won a democratic election in Thailand, and except for the short period of democracy in 1973-76 it was the first time since the 1940s that the leader of a winning party, Chatichai Choonhavan, could assume, as an elected civilian, the post of Prime Minister, long reserved to nonelected generals.

Chatichai then announced a reversal of policy on Cambodia and even invited Hun Sen to Bangkok .

No matter the upsurge of democracy and capitalism, Chatichai's efforts on Cambodia were damned by the US, and in 1991 he was conveniently overthrown by the military, who returned Thai-Cambodia policy to the old China-US line (let all journalistic hip-shooters take noteI am not trying to say the US, instigated the 1991 military coup; it certainly made their day in Cambodia, though).

Heder, in defending the Paris Agreements, also slides over the drafts and negotiations leading up to it.

If in the end "both the Chinese and the US were quite prepared to accommodate a continued political role for SOC leaders", it was only in the end, and because the latter had been able to defend themselves against efforts all through the 1980s to remove them through various internationally brokered scenarios.

There can be no doubt, from the record, that Kiernan's argument that the US desired "not merely an independent Cambodian government, but an antiVietnamese one" is correct.

Heder's final section on an allegedly "scurrilous" review by Kiernan of David Chandler's biography of Pol Pot is entirely inappropriate in the given context, and it shows what he is up to. The review in question is neither scurrilous nor "thinly disguised". (It appeared in Journal of Asian Studies 52/4, November 1993).

It is a straightforward critique of Chandler's book.

It is harsh, and controversial, in part because some of the facts are themselves controversial and the evidence anything but clear, and on some points I am more in agreement with Chandler, and perhaps with Heder (if only he would say what his views are), than with Kiernan.

Heder could legitimately take up the defense of Chandler, but the place would be a reasoned argument against Kiernan's treatment sent to The Journal of Asian Studies.

On one point, however, Kiernan is quite right. Chandler's and Heder's work shows an uncritical bias against Vietnam and against the PRK in relation to Vietnam which invited criticism.

Perhaps Chandler and Heder honestly deny the bias because they have emotionally internalized the Cambodian chauvinist view of Vietnam, but subjective sincerity cannot give them immunity to criticism.

Heder has moreover misrepresented Kiernan's remark on this point. Kiernan did not say that those "who have disagreed with him have done so because... they are biased against Vietnamese". He said that an "anti-Vietnamese bias is commonplace" in Cambodia studies, which is factually true.

I agree that Kiernan went too far in linking this to US government employment, if only because such linkage cannot be firmly enough established for the requirements of an academic publication.

But in answer to Heder's extreme sensitivity on this point I would say, if you want to play the game, you have to take the name.


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