A Rare Call for China to Talk Candidly About Khmer Rouge

It remains a matter for which China has long observed an official silence, but Beijing’s relationship with the Khmer Rouge regime needs to be discussed, a senior editor at the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, says.

In an opinion article for the Global Times last week, Ding Gang wrote that China’s historical relationship with the Pol Pot regime could not be tucked away in the annals of history, and it was time for China to ask itself how it should deal with the issue.

Mr. Ding wrote that Beijing might look to Washington’s way of putting distance between itself and the Khmer Rouge, whose fighters received funding from the U.S. through the 1980s.

“When people mention the Khmer Rouge, many might be reminded of the support China once gave it. This is a problem that cannot be avoided,” Mr. Ding wrote for the English-language Global Times, which is also under the auspices of the People’s Daily but often deviates from the party line.

“No matter whether China wants it or not, as China’s relationships with Cambodia and Southeast Asia grow closer, people will allude to that history,” he wrote.

“It’s probably time for us to seriously consider how we should deal with the historical issue of the Khmer Rouge.”

The U.S.’ dealings with the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s fall in 1979 were worth considering, Mr. Ding added.

“An interesting phenomenon is that the Americans, who also provided support to the Khmer Rouge due to their own needs in the Cold War, have now become the third largest donor of the tribunal putting the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial,” he wrote.

“In comparison, in China, this tribunal is even barely mentioned by the media yet.”

Relations between Cambodia and China are at their warmest since the 1970s, with Beijing providing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and investments, and Cambodia hewing closely to Beijing’s position on the fractious South China Sea dispute and throwing open the country’s doors to private investors and state-owned Chinese firms.

“I think it’s long overdue that China should address the issue and look into its own responsibility, especially for the atrocities in Cambodia,” said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay, describing Mr. Ding’s article as a positive sign.

“It’s a good idea, and especially coming from an influential editor in China,” he said.

China has been quick to dismiss allegations that its relations with the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s were anything more than diplomatic, and the Chinese have stayed out of the Khmer Rouge tribunal discussion, insisting that it was Cambodia’s internal matter, Mr. Mong Hay added.

There is “no doubt” that China supported the Khmer Rouge, but it was less about ideological affinity than taking on the Vietnamese, said Professor Richard Rigby, director of the China Institute at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Prof. Rigby said it was “very unusual, indeed almost unheard of, for China at an official level to admit that any of its foreign policies were mistaken.”

However, the Global Times has of late been used as a platform to impart softer, more liberal points of view from inside the party machine.

The intention of the article may be to promote the softer side, Mr. Rigby said, of “a more concerned and humane China—which China certainly does need to promote in Asean following the last couple of years of alarums and excursions.”

“I think the official position now is to try whenever possible to advance the view that ‘mistakes’ were, regrettably, made in the past…. But we now need to look to the future,” he said.

“Hence the great lack of enthusiasm on China’s part for the trials —which always ran the risk of exposing, or reminding people of, China’s complicity in the crimes of the KR regime.”

Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, said the article indicates that China has taken note of the U.S.’ own approach to Cambodia and the region.

“This fits a narrative of at least partially standing up to the U.S., who are now weaning their way back into the affections of people in the region and stoking Chinese fears of containment,” Mr. Brown said in an email.

“For China to have any kind of moral sway in Cambodia, or the region generally, it needs to admit to some of the unfortunate positions it took in the past, support for Pol Pot being one of them,” he said.

Whether China can acknowledge its past role in Pol Pot’s Cambodia remains to be seen. After all, China has not been averse to burying other inconvenient aspects of history. Mention of the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, for instance, remains widely suppressed. That contrasts with its demands on Japan to acknowledge the massacres of Chinese civilians during World War 2-something that, along with maritime dispute, is a source of increasing friction between Beijing and Tokyo.

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