War crimes defendant Khieu Samphan was an obedient intellectual who was in no position to question Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot over policy because he would have become a target, British author Philip Short said Monday in court.
Mr. Short, who wrote “Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare,” had taken the stand at the Khmer Rouge tribunal as an expert witness, two months after his testimony was delayed by the health problems and eventual death of co-defendant Ieng Sary, who was foreign minister under the Khmer Rouge.
Questioned by Trial Chamber judges, Mr. Short told the court he had interviewed former head of state Khieu Samphan about six times. While the defendant spoke openly about his time in Paris, his experiences during the 1960s after his return to Cambodia, his school days with Pol Pot in Kompong Cham and the left-wing journal he put out called l’Observateur, he was “reticent” to divulge details about the regime itself.
The picture painted of Khieu Samphan and his role in the regime developed over the morning, resulting in the image of a man who was extremely obedient and would toe the party line, but who was not involved in the decision to empty Phnom Penh in 1975 and drive its residents out iinto the countryside.
“Khieu Samphan has been very consistent in the version of events he’s given to me and what he’s written, which was that he was not involved in the evacuation of Phnom Penh,” and that he took his position after the fact, Mr. Short said.
“Whether one should take that as the version Khieu Samphan wishes to have remembered or whether one should take it as strict historical fact is a different issue,” he added.
But one thing that Mr. Short sought to make clear was that the regime’s absolute leader, Pol Pot, was not a man to be questioned—even by those who were seemingly high-ranking and privy to the ideological path being set out for the country and its people.
“I don’t think Khieu Samphan or anyone else was in position to remonstrate with Pol Pot,” he said.
“You could not object to the policies the leadership laid down without exposing yourself to very serious trouble or putting your life on the line…. So when it comes to things like the evacuation, this is not to justify silence.
“The court needs to be aware we are not talking about a democratic system. It was an extremely rigid regime, and if Khieu Samphan or anyone objected, their neck would be on the line,” he said.
According to Mr. Short, who could not enter Cambodia during the regime because he was unable to get a visa, his research showed him that what Pol Pot managed to achieve, in terms of evacuating Cambodia’s cities, was something that even Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong conceded he could not have pulled off.
This feeling of pride carried over to the approach the regime ultimately took with regard to food.
While the likes of Khieu Samphan noted that millions of people were already starving prior to the takeover of the Khmer Rouge, it was not an option to extend a begging bowl to other countries, Mr. Short said, and despite a small quantity of rice arriving from China, the aim was to make the country completely self-sufficient. But the resulting isolation devastated people’s livelihoods and, Mr. Short said, was one of the regime’s greatest tragedies.
“They wished to make a very different kind of country, which, in their view, would be egalitarian, pure, ‘wonderful’—the intentions were good. But there was no concern for the suffering along the way,” Mr. Short said. “They didn’t set out to kill everybody, they set out to change the country.”
Unfortunately, the author said, the result was “hell on earth and very literally a slave state.”
Attention was also paid Monday to Khieu Samphan’s position among the high-ranking members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
Mr. Short testified that while Khieu Samphan’s presence at Standing Committee meetings was “absolutely certain,” he had “never seen any documents or interviewed anyone who affirmed that Khieu Samphan was a member of the Standing Committee.”
The committee, of which Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary were members, was essentially the nerve center of the regime.
While Pol Pot has commonly been referred to as Brother Number One and Nuon Chea as Brother Number Two, Mr. Short told the court that the connotations were wrong because they gave an “Orwellian” feel.
“It was in no sense menacing,” he said.
In terms of the relationship between the two, “it was closer to an alter-ego,” he said. “Both took an interest in and responsibility for the same things. It is difficult to know where the influence of one or the other started and ended.”
Mr. Short returns to court today and is to be questioned by prosecutors and civil party lawyers.