U.S. Policy Punishes ‘Killing Fields’ Survivors : Lingering Anti-Vietnamese Bias Pushes America to Open Door to Khmer Rouge

<i> Jeremy J. Stone is president of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). </i>

U.S. policy toward Cambodia is immoral, impractical and, above all, undesirable; our nation has probably never had a policy so unfortunate.

As our government and the Chinese government know full well--but prefer not to dwell upon--the Vietnamese were brutally and repeatedly attacked by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from at least September, 1977, and tried for more than a year to get the Chinese to mediate and the United Nations to support a demilitarized zone. (On May 10, 1978, Phnom Penh radio was actually calling on the people to exterminate the Vietnamese race: “In terms of numbers, one of us must kill 30 Vietnamese . . . .”). When Vietnamese efforts to negotiate failed, Vietnam dealt with these attacks as the United States dealt with Japan after World War II--overthrowing the Pol Pot regime in 1979 and constructing a new and less hostile government. In the process, the Vietnamese saved the Cambodian people from extermination by the Khmer Rouge.

Under these circumstances, it is an extraordinary tribute to the anti-Vietnamese feeling in Beijing and Washington, and the influence of these two superpowers, that the international community continues to call this Vietnamese action “illegal” when so many analogous cases are called “self-defense” and promptly recognized.

This policy is intensely immoral since it has led us, under Chinese pressure, to permit the Khmer Rouge--who have committed the most genocidal actions of this century--to hold the U.N. seat as the legitimate government of Cambodia. This denied the survivors of the Cambodian holocaust access to U.N. agencies such as WHO, UNESCO and the U.N. Development Programme. And it kept the Khmer Rouge in business killing civilians from its base camps in Thailand and committing the same atrocities its had before on all who came under its control. The Western effort to give this policy a face-lift some years ago by pressuring Prince Sihanouk into a coalition with the Khmer Rouge cost still more lives as innocent peasants were misled into volunteering for what they thought was a Sihanouk movement only to find themselves under Khmer Rouge control.


During a recent visit to Hanoi and Phnom Penh, it also became clear how impractical and undesirable our policy has been.

Premier Hun Sen’s government is not about to “dismantle” its 10-year-old government in return for the “dismantling” of the Khmer Rouge governmment, which does not control an inch of Cambodian territory but is simply a U.N. fiction.

The ASEAN governments, to whose policy the U.S. position has been blindly hitched, are reversing themselves rapidly. The Hun Sen government is being received in the “front-line” state of Thailand and is receiving Thai generals in return.

Predictably, the less anti-Vietnamese ASEAN states are scrambling to open some kind of relations with Hanoi and Phnom Penh now that the political dam has broken. Even Prince Sihanouk has given up on the negotiations that are so often pressed by us in his name. He did not attend the Jakarta talks last year and called them a “cynical comedy acted out shamelessly by the Vietnamese colonialists and their valets in Phnom Penh.” In return, the ASEAN participants simply make no reference to this presumed leader.

But, above all, U.S. policy is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.

No Khmer government will ever want less than independence from the Vietnamese. The perpetual triumph of nationalist feelings over ideology in that part of the world has been proven definitively by the tensions and fighting that broke out immediately upon the end of the Vietnamese war--with communists fighting communists. And as Hun Sen told me in February, his government wants its own “hat” and is not acting like other socialist governments. Free enterprise is fully accepted as is freedom of religion. There is as much freedom of speech and action, I believe, as there was under Prince Sihanouk’s regime.

Furthermore, according to foreign observers with whom I spoke in Phnom Penh, the Hun Sen government is as disciplined and devoted to the public needs as can be expected and more so than the Lon Nol and Sihanouk governments. It has brought the country from ground zero, with few educated persons left from the Pol Pot genocide, to the point where the government is running. And progress continues apace.

The horse we are backing, Prince Sihanouk, as mercurial as ever, consults with no one and never abides criticism. There is not the slightest sign that he would run a democratic government--he has always believed he was the father of his people, not their elected leader.


In Indochina last month, I met with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach and Deputy Premier Gen. Vo Nyugen Giap, as well as many observers in Phnom Penh. They all see that the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces will leave the West with nothing to complain about while it continues to support the Khmer Rouge coalition. They are right to think that this leaves the West and the Chinese in an intensely embarrassing blind alley.

I believe that our government would find Hun Sen much more palatable than Prince Sihanouk, infinitely more reliable and more likely to last. He wants, obviously, to have relations with us and has offered through a representative to discuss, in particular, the the remains of Americans that his government has found.

Spooked by communism as our country has been, and by the loss of the Vietnamese war, it is, perhaps, understandable that we did not recognize the People’s Republic of Kampuchea at the outset. But there is little choice now. And the PRK is running the best government that tortured Cambodia has ever had.

How long are we going to continue punishing the poor, punishing the victims of this holocaust, in the name of a patently distorted application of international law?