Attempting to draw parallels between King Norodom Sihanouk’s attitude toward the Vietnamese and that of the Khmer Rouge, lawyers for Nuon Chea have put forward letters penned by the late monarch denouncing Cambodia’s eastern neighbor.
In a request to the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Trial Chamber, submitted on April 8 and released on Thursday, lawyers for the regime’s second-in-command ask to admit into evidence letters sent by King Sihanouk to then-Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, decrying the “colonization” of Cambodia.
The submission, which is accompanied by video and audio recordings, relates to a debate at the tribunal in March over the use of the word “Yuon” to describe Vietnamese people. Testifying as an expert witness at the time, researcher Alex Hinton argued that “in the context of D.K. [Democratic Kampuchea], it was an incitement to genocide.”
Victor Koppe, a lawyer for Nuon Chea—who is on trial for crimes including genocide alongside Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan—then asked Mr. Hinton if he believed that King Sihanouk also held a racist view of the Vietnamese. Mr. Koppe cited a speech the king made to the U.N. Security Council in January 1979 during which he claimed Vietnam was “land swallowing” Cambodia, thereby employing rhetoric similar to that used by the Pol Pot regime.
Mr. Hinton replied that it would be inappropriate to draw comparisons between Khmer Rouge statements about the Vietnamese and King Sihanouk’s speech in New York because the king was “under the coercive pressure of the Khmer Rouge,” which had been overthrown only a week earlier.
In response, Nuon Chea’s defense team submitted letters that King Sihanouk sent to Pham Van Dong in an attempt to prove that the king’s view of the Vietnamese was consistent throughout late 1979 and the 1980s.
In his first letter to the Vietnamese premier, dated October 7, 1979, King Sihanouk slams what he calls the “occupation of the entire Khmer territory” after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.
“In reality, this is colonization, with the confiscation of land in favour of your compatriots, the annexation of the strategically important coastal islands, and the appropriation of the natural resources as well as the artistic and cultural wealth of my country,” he writes.
“Vietnam preferred to install, in Phnom Penh, a small team of Khmer Communists who had changed sides to serve you and were, in an authoritative manner, made into the ‘Government of People’s Kampuchea’ by you.”
Two weeks later, after receiving no reply, King Sihanouk sent a second letter to Pham Van Dong, accusing the Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government of being a puppet of Hanoi.
“Mr. Heng Samrin’s crew only exists through you and has no opinion other than your own,” he writes, referring to current National Assembly President Heng Samrin, then the leader of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
After a second snub, the monarch sent a third missive stating that “the Vietnamese government cannot any longer pretend that their only aim was to ‘punish’ the Red Khmers for their provocations against the Vietnamese people and to rid Cambodia of their cruel domination.”
The request submitted by Nuon Chea’s lawyers argues that “despite the absence of the precise expression of ‘land-swallowing,’ the three letters clearly demonstrate that the late King Father held exactly the same position in this regard as he did before the [U.N. Security Council] in January 1979.”
Along with the letters, the defense team also submitted a video clip of a speech delivered by King Sihanouk sometime in the 1980s during which he argues that although the “Yuon” did not kill any of his children or grandchildren, he feared them more than he feared Pol Pot.
Finally, they submitted an audio clip in which the king can be heard explaining how he told current Prime Minister Hun Sen of his contempt for the Vietnamese.
“I used to remind His Excellency Hun Sen that I helped Yuon until I lost my throne…. Yuon is a crocodile, they are ungrateful, blasphemous and they mock me every day,” he says, according to a transcript of the recording.
Mr. Koppe said in an email on Friday that the documents helped illustrate the real threat that Vietnam posed to Cambodia during the period, and that the Khmer Rouge’s suspicion of its neighbor was more than paranoia.
“The letters, video and audio show that the ‘Khmer Rouge’ were not alone or paranoid in perceiving the “land-swallowing Yuon” as Cambodia’s biggest threat—Prince Sihanouk did too,” he said.
“This bolsters our argument that Vietnam was indeed an existential threat to Cambodia, which in turn casts a totally different light on the ‘Khmer Rouge’s’ treatment of issues related to Vietnam.”
The Dutch lawyer argued that the submissions also demonstrated that use of the word “Yuon” did not imply genocidal intent, as the term was widely employed in propaganda discourse at the time.
“We say that using the word in propaganda statements is a normal political response to a genuine threat, and that jumping from the use of the word “Yuon” straight to genocidal intent is too far of a leap.”
The prosecution’s response to the request, dated April 26, refutes the claims and says the documents are of no probative value.
“Due to the different context, purpose and time in which the late King Father’s speeches were given, they have no probative value in determining whether the Accused and other CPK [Communist Party of Kampuchea] leaders used the word ‘Yuon’ in conjunction with other language and policies during the DK period to incite racial hatred and violence against the Vietnamese,” it reads
David Chandler, a prominent historian of Cambodia, said he was not impressed by the attempt to draw parallels between King Sihanouk’s rhetoric and that of the Khmer Rouge.
“The KR were closely allied to the Vietnamese, while perhaps disliking them, until 1973, when Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia as part of a cease fire the KR refused to take part in. China supported DK in the anti-Vietnam war that broke out in 1976 and 1977,” he said in an email.
“By provoking these attacks, the KR drew Vietnam into a war which made [them] a genuine menace to Cambodia and intensified the generally latent racism of DK.”
Julio Jeldres, King Sihanouk’s official biographer and former private secretary, said—like Mr. Hinton—that the monarch was under pressure from the Khmer Rouge leadership when he addressed the Security Council.
“When on 5 January 1979 Pol Pot summoned him to Government House [it] was to ask him to go to the United Nations to plead the case of Cambodia because Sihanouk was the only Cambodian well known and highly respected in international circles, at the UN and the Non-Aligned Movement,” Mr. Jeldres said in an email.
He noted that three senior Khmer Rouge officials accompanied the king to New York for the speech. “There was no other person that could plead Cambodia’s case against Vietnam’s invasion.”
Mr. Jeldres also dismissed the arguments laid out in the request by Nuon Chea’s lawyers.
“I think the Nuon Chea defence team needs to get a good lesson in Cambodian contemporary history. They keep raising issues without studying the background of events and the historical record,” he said.
“Sihanouk was critical of Vietnam’s actions in Cambodia after January 1979 but never racist.”