After five-and-a-half days of at times heated questioning, historian David Chandler bowed out of the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday after opining on the estimates of the regime’s death toll, and the conduct of party cadres at meetings.
Under cross-examination from Khieu Samphan’s co-counsel Arthur Vercken, Mr. Chandler told the court that he felt uneasy about estimations that 3 million people died during the regime. Some estimates hover around the 1.5 million mark. “There are estimates that half a million died in the civil war bombardment and 1.3 million under the Khmer Rouge,” Mr. Chandler said, adding that consensus then drifted.
“The figure of 3 million was bounced around by the Vietnamese and picked up by defendants in court who said that if 3 million were killed, they were killed by the Vietnamese.
“That number is [posted] at Choeung Ek,” Mr. Chandler said. “But 3 million is much higher than ever estimated…. It is impossible to decide which figure is accurate.”
Mr. Chandler also spoke about the inner workings of the Khmer Rouge and painted a picture of camaraderie, but said the movement was ultimately held together by stoicism and acceptance.
“Open debate was not characteristic of Democratic Kampuchea,” he said. When asked whether or not party members could express themselves openly at meetings, Mr. Chandler stated: “Of course not.”
“These people gave each other confidence, like in a set of ideas and objectives. They accepted the leadership of the Standing Committee, of Pol Pot.” But as for open discussion, “we’re not talking about French Cabinet meeting or an Australian congress,” Mr. Chandler said. “This is a different world.”
Describing how the country was perceived from abroad at the time, Mr. Chandler said that “Cambodia was low on the list of foreign powers, and this was something the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t accept. There was constant distrust of Vietnam,” he said.
Asked by Mr. Vercken if zone and district heads behaved like “petty warlords who didn’t necessarily report” what they should have, Mr. Chandler put the defense lawyer in his place.
“How do we know what they didn’t report?” he asked back. “There was certainly a great variety of reputations of people in zones. So Phim, the Eastern Zone commander…was as good as you could expect from the Khmer Rouge. Others like [Southwest Zone military commander] Ta Mok were quite severe…. We’re talking about a country that was under more centralized political control than ever in its history,” he said. After questioning ended and he was excused from the court, Mr. Chandler said it had been “an intriguing and interesting experience.”
Questioning of yesterday’s second witness, 65-year-old Rochoem Ton, an ethnic Jarai man who had been Pol Pot’s bodyguard and ferried letters between the leader and Ieng Sary, continues today.