"Genocide is only obvious in hindsight" #10

Can we extrapolate lessons from the Khmer Rouge period to find real-time evidence of atrocities in Xinjiang?

It has been a while, but for the 10th edition of this newsletter, I wanted to have something special to say. I want to introduce you to a project of mine that has taken up a lot of my time recently, the Khmer Rouge History Project. Examining one of history’s darkest moments permits critical lessons still valid for our lives today.

Ever since I saw this tree at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh in 2015, I got obsessed to learn everything about the Khmer Rouge, a hard-line communist regime that came to power in Cambodia in 1975. The Khmer Rouge’s pursuit of a classless agrarian society - all cities were forcefully evacuated- resulted in at least 1.7 million people dying in labor camps, prisons, and killing fields due to torture, disease, and starvation.

Trying to understand, what drives people to commit such horrible acts, led me to read tons of books on the Khmer Rouge and its leaders, and in 2017, I interned for four months at the public relation section of the UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh, which had started in 2006 to prosecute the Khmer Rouge’s senior leaders.

When the five-year-long Cambodian civil war ended with the Fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, all foreign correspondents were expelled and very little information came out of Cambodia, which had closed its borders. Reports were based on refugee accounts, radio broadcasts by the Khmer Rouge government, and the interactions of Khmer Rouge leaders with foreign officials. Diplomats were rarely allowed to enter Cambodia and if so, only for orchestrated visits. Furthermore, they came mostly from friendly countries like China and North Korea.

The difficulty of establishing the truth

In August 1978, Gunnar Bergström, who was then president of the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association and an ardent Khmer Rouge supporter was allowed to visit Cambodia as the first Westerner, together with three other Swedes. They saw "smiling peasants", a society on its way to become "an ideal society, ...with no oppressors" and back in Sweden they wrote articles in support of the Khmer Rouge. Bergström was shocked by the evidence that emerged after the fall of the regime and in later interviews, he acknowledged that it was a "propaganda tour" and that his Maoist based prejudiced assumptions made him see what he wanted to see. He channeled his remorse into a book, where he published the photos he took during the two-week-long trip with comments on what he thought then, and what he thinks now.

Journalists covering the Khmer Rouge: one visit, two different stories

The only western journalists to visit Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period were Richard Dudman of the St Lous Post-Dispatch and Elisabeth Becker of the Washington Post. The schedule of the two-week trip they undertook in December 1978 with British LSE Professor Malcolm Caldwell, who was murdered on their last night in Cambodia, was tightly arranged by the Khmer Rouge. Spending nearly all their time together, Dudman and Becker should have come to pretty similar conclusions. However, while Dudman wrote that he had seen “a generally healthy population”, that the people were “clearly not being worked to death and starved to death”, that the “information received in advance [from refugees] was mostly misleading”, and that he had found a “healthy demographic mix of men, women and babies”, Becker wrote, that she believed the regime was guilty of committing gross human rights abuses in a series for The Washington Post. Looking back on the time for the Columbia Journalism Review, she explains:

“I kept thinking I’d turn a corner and I’d see real life. I’d run into some kids playing a game, or some women talking….Cambodians are lively people, but there was nothing. What was missing was almost profoundly more upsetting to me than what was there.”

Becker also was in a unique position: having lived in Cambodia before, she had many local contacts, which she used to give the Khmer Rouge a chance to disprove the stories of wholesale slaughter and deprivation. Her request to interview anybody she might have known from her time in Phnom Penh, someone who could have told her that he or she was doing OK, was refused by her guide who said to Becker: “You will never understand Cambodia.”

Becker’s and Dudman’s differing accounts didn’t converge immediately after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. In an 1990 opinion piece in the New York Times, Dudman wrote:

“We should take another look at the man we love to hate, at the conventional wisdom that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are irrational fanatics who practiced deliberate genocide, slaughtered more than one million Cambodians and wrecked the Cambodian society and economy.

The evidence for these fixed beliefs consists mainly of poignant though statistically inconclusive anecdotes and extrapolation from accounts of mass executions in a few villages. It comes mostly from those with an interest in blackening the name of the Khmer Rouge: from Cambodian refugees, largely the middle- and upper-class victims of the Pol Pot revolution, and from the Vietnamese, who long ago annexed much of Cambodia (Saigon was once a Cambodian city) and now covet the rest.”

Dudman concludes that Pol Pot was not an irrational fanatic but a revolutionary leader and the Khmer Rouge a brutal, secretive, possibly a bit paranoid guerilla movement. He blames killings on “poor, ignorant, downtrodden country people” who deeply resented urbanites. Testifying in 2015 at 96, in front of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Dudman said he stood by his reporting and that he wrote what he’d seen and experienced. He said that when he wrote the articles, he believed he was telling the truth. But he conceded that in hindsight his reporting was too positive and too uncritical and that from everything that he had read since then, he thinks that there was genocide under the Pol Pot regime.

Becker said that as soon as she arrived in Phnom Penh, it was clear to her that she would not have freedom of movement and that the visit was the equivalent of a guided tour under armed guard, where she would only see what the Khmer Rouge wanted her to see. Therefore, for Becker it is not enough to report on what you saw: 

“You must consider what you were not seeing, what the country was like before, and keep asking questions. Genocide is a story few people want to hear, and that those in power often don’t want told.”

Genocide is only obvious in hindsight

This tactic using choreographed visits for PR efforts was also employed by the Nazis when they allowed the International and Danish Red Cross to visit the Theresienstadt camp ghetto in 1944. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit to alleviate overcrowding, and the ghetto itself was "beautified”: they painted and renovated the barracks and planted gardens. Even a soccer game and a children’s opera were staged for the visiting dignitaries. The Red Cross delegation reported positively about their visit to Theresienstadt. Maurice Rossel of the IRC wrote that people were “fashionably dressed”, that their health was "carefully looked after" and that life in the "town" was "almost normal". In an interview in 1979, Rossel said that he would sign the report again because making a different report would only be possible in hindsight.

When Elisabeth Becker reflects, about Dudman’s and her testimony to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal she writes:

“Genocide is only obvious in hindsight. When a regime is murdering its people, it is close to impossible to find real-time evidence of atrocities. Instead, reporters must navigate strong-arm propaganda and outright lies to uncover the truth behind charges of gross human rights violations.”

Back in the late 1970s, the character of the Khmer Rouge was debated because of politics. Many western academics, most prominently, Noam Chomsky- who also dismissed Becker’s work and said Dudman was the more reliable reporter-, initially denied or minimized the human rights abuses of the Khmer Rouge. Contrary reports were characterized as "tales told by refugees" and U.S. propaganda. Donald W. Beachler writes:

“Many of those who had been opponents of U.S. military actions in Vietnam and Cambodia feared that the tales of murder and deprivation under the Khmer Rouge regime would validate the claims of those who had supported U.S. government actions aimed at halting the spread of communism. Conservatives pointed to the actions of the Khmer Rouge as proof of the inherent evils of communism and evidence that the U.S. had been right to fight its long war against communists in Southeast Asia.”

The Khmer Rouge History Project

Working for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, I noticed that there is very little photo material available from the time that could serve as evidence. I spent countless hours tracking down photos from that period- I was especially interested in how Phnom Penh looked like after the Khmer Rouge forcefully evacuated its more than two million inhabitants- and for the 45th anniversary of their rise to power, I decided to start the Khmer Rouge History Project, where I live-tweeted the events that led to the Fall of Phnom Penh and the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Thanks to many excellent scholars, the Khmer Rouge period has been relatively well studied. Changing the historical perspective by breaking the events down day by day, illustrates in my opinion how difficult it was at the time to get an accurate understanding of living conditions inside Cambodia. This led to very different interpretations of what was happening in Cambodia:

10 May 1975

Foreign journalists who had taken refugee in the French embassy in Phnom Penh after the Fall of the Cambodian capital to the Khmer Rouge and who two weeks later were evacuated to Thailand reported killings by Khmer Rouge cadres. Hu Nim, Khmer Rouge Information minister, dismissed the accusations in a radio broadcast as "sabotage of the new Cambodia through adverse propaganda”.

30 May 1975

82 officers of the Khmer Republic Air Force return voluntarily to Cambodia after six weeks of exile in Thailand. "We're not afraid to go back to be ruled by the Khmer Rouge, even if we are forced to work in the jungles," said Kong Lach, who had left his family behind in Cambodia.

4 June 1975

Jack Anderson asks what has happened to the three million Cambodians who were driven out of the cities and for which there is not enough food. He writes (probably one of the first):"It appears that the Khmer Rouge, may be guilty of genocide against their own people."

14 June 1975

An unnamed author of a “The Nation” editorial urges for skepticism that a bloodbath has taken place in Cambodia after the Fall of Phnom Penh and accuses the US government of seeking to stimulate “racist and ideological fears” by using "alarmist reports from intelligence officials that conveniently could never be proven"

24 June 1975

Freedom House board member Leo Cherne calls the UN to conduct an investigation into the plight of more than three million Cambodians forced by the Khmer Rouge to flee from the cities into the countryside. “It is one of the greatest tragedies of modern time,” he declared.

9 July 1975

A New York Times editorial calls the UN to break its silence as "The picture begins to emerge that Cambodia resembles a giant prison camp with the urban supporters of the former regime being worked to death on thin gruel and hard labor and with medical care virtually nonexistent."

14 July 1975

William Goodfellow, founder of CIPolicy  writes in New York Times: "The evacuation of Cambodia's cities was sensationalized as a 'death march'. It was rather a journey away from certain death by starvation- common in Phnom Penh- as the countryside had a sizable food surplus."

20 July 1975

Cambodian refugees cross into Thailand at Krong Yai. Survivors interviewed at this border town told of three incidents in which men, women and children fleeing toward the border were shot by Khmer Rouge soldiers. “They didn't give us any warning,” recalled Ky Teng.

26 July 1975

Margaret Thatcher speaks to the Chelsea Conservative Association: "Those who protested against US involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia have since overlooked and even managed to ignore the open savagery of the KhmerRouge. Where are the protesters now?"

12 August 1975

In an interview with Kampuchea News Agency, Khmer Rouge Deputy Prime Minister Khieu Samphan acknowledges hunger in Cambodia, a problem of "unprecedented gravity". "We mobilized our people and our army deal with the new, extremely serious situation while at the same time manifesting deep patriotism"

30 August 1975

The communiqué issued at the UN conference of Ministers for Foreign Affairs of Non-aligned countries in Lima states that "The success of the revolutionary forces in Kampuchea (Cambodia) [...] constitutes a favorable feature of present international developments".

Can we learn lessons for our present time?

It is tempting to think that a repetition of such horrible events like those happening under the Khmer Rouge is not possible nowadays. Consequently one has to ask if there is a genocide happening in our time, where “we – the people not directly affected” – are equally looking away?

Looking back once again, to 1 October 1975, which marked both China’s national day and the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the daily newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party published an editorial that accused the Soviet Union (which Xinjiang bordered) of

“sending agents into Xinjiang to try to subvert a handful of traitors with money to try to incite the region to rebel” and of “having perpetrated armed aggression and military provocation against Xinjiang.”

Today, when China is confronted with accusations of mass internment and mass-sterilization of Uighurs, that meets the United Nations’ definition of genocide, the Chinese government responds pretty much like this and justifies the oppression in Xinjiang as an attempt to clamp down on terrorism and extremism.

With regard to China, I want to extrapolate some lessons that I think we can learn from history and that can guide our actions:

  • There should be an international body that is respected and trusted and that can independently verify accusations. In theory, this is the job of the UN Human Rights Council, which can decide by an absolute majority to send observers to monitor the human rights situation in a Member State. However, in contrast to the Council's claim that its members must meet the highest human rights standards, states that violate human rights such as China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Nigeria have gained a vote in the human rights council, since every UN member state can apply for the council without selection criteria and the members are elected by a simple majority the UN General Assembly in which democracies with separation of powers are in a minority.

    This problem is exemplified pretty well by two letters sent to the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding China’s conduct in Xinjiang:

    one is signed by more than fifty, mostly autocratic, nations and applauds China for its openness and transparency:

    “We appreciate China’s commitment to openness and transparency. China has invited a number of diplomats, international organizations officials and journalist to Xinjiang to witness the progress of the human rights cause and the outcomes of counter-terrorism and deradicalization there. What they saw and heard in Xinjiang completely contradicted what was reported in the media. We call on relevant countries to refrain from employing unfounded charges against China based on unconfirmed information before they visit Xinjiang.”

  • the other is signed by 22 countries including Austria, Germany, Japan, Canada, and New Zealand, and urges China to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang for independent international observers.

  • Diplomatic pressure should be exercised to bring countries to sign and ratify the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. Neither the US nor China has done so. Even worse, the US has imposed sanctions on senior officials of the court, including the chief prosecutor. The ICC is currently investigating whether US forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

  • Given the severity of the suffering, it is in the duty of everybody in a position to help to do so. Obviously one cannot demand from afar that people risk their lives, but historically a few people were willing to do so for the greater good, for example, those sheltering Jews during the Nazi regime. Compared with the 1970ies, documents can now be more easily leaked, and a few leaks could have an outsize impact. While there have been some leaks from Xinjiang, given that most people in China have a smartphone and with much of the security personal being recently hired, more evidence should get into the hands of people willing to leak it to Western newspapers. To enable this, one could imagine the launch of Project Loon style balloons into China, to temporarily bring censorship-free Internet access to the people. Furthermore, research on how to circumvent the Great Firewall of China should be supported.

  • Sophisticated means should be employed to find evidence: Shawn Zhang, a law student at the University of British Columbia in Canada, used public tenders and satellite images to find internment camps. Buzzfeed News discovered that Baidu maps blanks out its maps in the vicinity of known internment camps and then cross-referenced other blanked out spots with up-to-date imagery from Google Earth, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel Hub, and Planet Labs to find hitherto unknown internment camps.

  • Journalists and newspapers need to be extraordinarily careful in managing their reputation, report objectively, and do everything to not raise doubts on their independence. A lot of scoops on Xinjiang are based on stories by Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded broadcasting cooperation, and by researcher Adrian Zenz. His claims of being “on a mission led by god” unnecessarily tarnish his credibility, as does his employment by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was established by the US government in 1983.

  • “Don’t forget that in China we don’t have Human Rights,” said an expat Chinese, who lived in Xinjiang, and whose father taught in a “reeducation camp” to me when pressed him on what was happening in the camp. While the plight of the Uighurs deserves our utmost attention, journalists should remind readers periodically that China has a long history limiting the freedom of all its citizens. For example, controlling the number of children one can have is a violation of the right to self-determination and reproductive autonomy, which was done with the one-child policy, which led to millions of sterilizations of Chinese.

While China claims to already have invited more than 1,000 diplomats, officials of international organizations, journalists, and religious personages to visit Xinjiang, these were almost always from non-democratic countries and China has rejected several German human rights delegation’s requests to visit Xinjiang. Also, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has not yet visited Xinjiang.

History shows how hard it is to find real-time evidence of atrocities and that genocide is only obvious in hindsight. Therefore, the international community should carefully investigate every hint of human rights abuses, using refugee accounts, leaks, public documents, information from defectors, satellite images, or other sources to compile a catalog of demands of which areas and “reeducation camps” it wants to have investigated by independent observers without interference, and name people these observers should be allowed to talk to. Until this is granted, maximum diplomatic and economic pressure should be exercised.

Thank you for reading.


p.s. We extended the deadline to enter our essay competition on “The First Time”, which I run together with “alexandria” magazine, to the 1st of October!