The clouds of black smoke rose up in columns for as far as he could see. As he looked out across the southeastern plains of Cambodia, then 31-year-old Kenneth Quinn realized these were no ordinary fires.
From his vantage point on the top of a mountain just across the Vietnamese border, Quinn could see every single village in a 20 km radius engulfed in flames. The Khmer Rouge, he later learned, had set the tranquil villages ablaze so “nobody would have any place to go back to—so their moves would be irreversible.’’
That day in 1973, the US Ambassador to Cambodia recalled recently, the Khmer Rouge “changed’’ from “boy scouts’’ into one of the most murderous armies of the century. He cited reports obtained later that showed the fires were set in several other zones that day as well.
Having consolidated their power, the Khmer Rouge began to enact the now notorious and ruthless policies aimed at building an agrarian utopia.
“Seeing clouds of black smoke on a sunny Saturday afternoon was a startling, staggering, mystifying sight,’’ he recalled.
More than most foreigners living here, Quinn has been in a position to witness Cambodia’s recent history—and help shape world policy toward the country. As the 57-year-old diplomat’s three-year tour of duty in Cambodia wound down this month, he reflected on the devastation he saw, the back room deals he helped engineer, and the crises he encountered as the US Ambassador here.
Then he went home, not knowing if he will return to Cambodia again, but concluded: “Today Cambodia has a second chance.”
As the war in Vietnam raged in 1968, Quinn arrived in Southeast Asia, a young staffer at the US Embassy in Saigon. Although other issues—such as the return of POW/MIAs—have taken his attention since, the crimes of the Khmer Rouge would come to preoccupy him.
In 1973, Quinn was posted to a small town in Vietnam called Chaudok, bordering Takeo province. His view of the fires was only the beginning. Soon thousands of refugees began to flood across the border. They told stories of “young ruthless cadres, about a willingness to use harsh punishment, and execution to enforce their rules.’’
“I also picked up a mention of a young energetic regional leader named Ta Mok, he was in the scene even then,’’ Quinn said. “I didn’t know he would be important, but I heard he was traveling with bodyguards.’’
Quinn put all his information into a series of reports in 1974 to the US government. The reports disappeared into a bureaucratic void, and Quinn, a young diplomat, didn’t push.
“I was a young guy out in Vietnam, about as far from a flagpole as you could get,’’ he said. “I limited my judgments to what I could see. But it suggested a radical organization, and as it turned out it was happening in at least four different zones at the same time.’’
The misery and suffering wrought by war, and the failed policies of Democratic Kampuchea took hold.
The borders closed. Hundreds of thousands died.
Quinn returned home to work in the US State Department’s East Asia bureau. When he finally returned to the region as an aide to a US governor in 1979, he saw the end result of the policies he had witnessed beginning. What he saw led him to search for answers. He wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1982 on the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power and brutal methods.
In 1979, Quinn visited a Thai border camp to see the source of the thousands of refugees arriving in the US.
“And what we saw was like a scene from Dante’s 7th level of hell,’’ Quinn said.
About 30,000 skeletal Cambodians were spread out across a rice field. A light rain was falling. Some sat in puddles. Those who had the energy feebly held little blue tarps over their heads to keep the rain off.
Most didn’t have the energy.
Every day 100 died.
Quinn visited a hospital, where the dead seemed to be continually carried out the back and dumped in a burial pit.
“I’d never seen anything like it and I haven’t since,’’ he said.
During the years that followed, the US supported a Khmer Rouge-allied faction attempting to oust the Vietnamese-aligned Cambodian government from power. Quinn stresses that the US supported “non-communist’’ components of the front, not the Khmer Rouge itself.
Yet most agree that US support motivated by Cold War suspicion of communist influences in the region played a key role in allowing the Khmer Rouge to hold on to a seat in the UN, and survive as a fighting force.
When pressed for his view on US policy during that time, Quinn did not critique or defend it. He responded simply that he was not involved. During that time, he was stationed in Vienna, then as a diplomat in the Philippines, he said.
For a brief period at least, however, from 1985 to 1987, Quinn served on the staff of then-US Secretary of State George Shultz, as a deputy executive secretary of the State Department.
One longtime Indochina observer who was in Washington at the time disputed Quinn’s contention that he was not involved.
“He’s a diplomat, he did what he was told. If the policy was to support the Khmer Rouge, he supports the Khmer Rouge.
After his stint in the Philippines, Quinn returned to regional politics in 1990 as deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for coordinating US policy toward Southeast Asia, shortly after the Vietnamese withdrew most of its troops from Cambodia.
As the Cold War wound down, Quinn worked to lobby members of the government against the Khmer Rouge, sharing what he had seen and his “his abhorrence at their policies.”
Quinn arrived in Cambodia in 1996 during what was supposed to be a period of relative peace.
The US helped fund and build roads and Quinn distributed humanitarian supplies to Khmer Rouge defectors, helped promote trade, boost anti-narcotic trafficking efforts and support rural development.
Then one night in June 1997—just hours after his wife and three children arrived from the US for a visit—an explosion rocked his house: A shell had landed in his back yard. Outside his home on Norodom Boulevard, bodyguards from rival Funcinpec and CPP factions were fighting.
Weeks later, the factional fighting shattered the coalition government.
“In a certain sense I have a feeling that this is where I came in,’’ Quinn said. “Two years ago, the whole political opposition was in exile. Today Cambodia has a second chance. The past six months set a trend going that if the country continues to move in will be very favorable….I hope as I leave that the trend toward openness and a more free and pluralistic society will continue to expand.
“Things are not exactly the same as when I came. But certain things are better. The Khmer Rouge appears finished.’’