Western Couple Mixes Marxism With CPP Ties

In 1967, Helen Jarvis packed her bags for Mao Zedong’s China.

Ms. Jarvis, who would decades later become a top foreign adviser to the ruling CPP, had joined an Asian tour as a representative of a leftist campus group and was among the first such students to see the People’s Republic, she later told The Australian newspaper.

Helen Jarvis, far right, stands with DC-Cam director Youk Chang, far left, and others during a 1996 trip to visit mass graves in Takeo province. (DC-Cam)
Helen Jarvis, far right, stands with DC-Cam director Youk Chhang, far left, and others during a 1996 trip to visit mass graves in Takeo province. (DC-Cam)

After a sweep through China just a year after Mao initiated the bloody, decadeslong Cultural Revolution, Ms. Jarvis departed with an armband and souvenir copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, and continued on the group’s tour through Vietnam and Cambodia.

On the way to Siem Reap, soldiers stormed the group’s bus and searched passengers’ belongings, she told the newspaper.

“I thought, ‘Oh no,’ but when they found the book and armband they all cheered,” Ms. Jarvis said in the 2003 article. “In retrospect, they must have been Khmer Rouge soldiers.”

Ms. Jarvis has since spent decades advocating justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge. More controversially, she represented them at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and has long served as an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, whom a 2009 report by Global Witness likened to “a many-armed Hindu god, due to his tendency to have a hand in everything.”

Alongside her husband, Allen Myers, who edits government news releases and writes regular letters to the editors of the English-language press and commentaries on government-run news sites rebuking the ruling party’s critics, the couple has been accused of being apologists—or, as opposition leader Sam Rainsy put it in a recent email, “mercenaries”—for a government that has few Western sympathizers.

Ms. Jarvis did not respond to requests for comment, and Mr. Myers directed most questions to his past writing, also taking issue with The Cambodia Daily’s reporting practices and the premise of this article.

“Your procedure reminds me of a criticism of an American poet that I read many years ago: that he didn’t understand the difference between having to write a poem and having a poem to write,” he wrote in an email.

Mr. Myers later published his correspondence with this newspaper’s journalists on his blog, “assuming that readers can see for themselves the axe that the Daily was grinding,” he wrote, under the headline: “‘Journalism’ as she is abused at the Cambodia Daily.”

At a time when the CPP is losing some of its most prominent foreign fans, such as former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, a longtime defender of Prime Minister Hun Sen who in 2014 wrote that he had lost faith in a ruling party that was “getting away with murder” after military police fatally shot five garment workers at a protest, Ms. Jarvis and Mr. Myers are notable for their continuing loyalty.

A close look at their writings and statements suggest that years after CPP leaders traded Leninism for Land Rovers, the couple have staked out common ground with the party in their abiding distrust of Western meddling.

Eyes on Asia

Ms. Jarvis and Mr. Myers continue to see a small, defiant Cambodia bullied by the U.S., the U.N. and other Goliaths of the West alongside their local proxy agents working in NGOs, the media and the opposition party.

Their beliefs seem to be shaped by experiences during the Second Indochina War.

Around the time that Ms. Jarvis was touring Asia, Mr. Myers was organizing resistance to sending U.S. soldiers there. Press accounts of the era describe a draftee living a double life on the Fort Dix army base in New Jersey during the late 1960s.

At work as a surgical clerk at an army hospital, “Myers performed his duties well and was scrupulously careful about his personal conduct,” according to a May 1969 article in The Bryan Times, a local newspaper in Ohio.

In his free time, he edited and distributed the anti-war newspaper The Ultimate Weapon, an activity that earned him a court-martial with the charge of “distribution of leaflets and other materials in bad taste.”

Mr. Myers was acquitted in October 1968, and quickly went back to work.

In the the spring of 1969, he stuck a sticker to a traffic sign inviting soldiers to an Easter Sunday anti-war rally in New York City, according to The Bryan Times.

A May 1969 spread in Life magazine showed the bespectacled Mr. Myers listening attentively at his second trial in a case that it described as “systematic of a widespread new phenomenon in the military: open dissent.”

Mr. Myers was acquitted of the charges, clearing the way for the kind of internal dissent within the ranks that Life feared “could seriously damage morale and discipline” as the U.S. military plunged ever-deeper into the Second Indochina War.

Ms. Jarvis met Mr. Myers that same year after hearing him speak at a Sydney anti-war rally. The couple were married three weeks later, according to The Australian.

Allen Myers, with glasses, with his lawyers at a court martial hearing in a May 1969 spread in Life magazine.

The newlyweds moved to the U.S., then back to Australia. Mr. Myers wrote a book—1974’s “Watergate and the Myth of American Democracy”—as well as articles that focused on socialist causes, always with an eye on Southeast Asia.

When Vietnamese forces surged across the Cambodian border in January 1979 on their way to dislodging the Khmer Rouge from power, Mr. Myers condemned the action in that month’s issue of the Trotskyist publication Intercontinental Press/Inprecor.

“The sudden escalation of the Kampuchea-Vietnam border war is a major setback for both countries and for the cause of socialism on a global scale,” he wrote.

Mr. Myers later amended his opinion of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which he had previously judged to be Stalinist, becoming a champion of both the CPV and the government they installed in Phnom Penh.

Ms. Jarvis also kept up a keen interest in the region as she rose through the ranks of academia to become the head of the school of information library and archive studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“For 20 years during the bombing, the American bombing, the Vietnam War, through the Khmer Rouge period, through the civil war, I was outside but I followed events,” she said in a 2005 interview in the U.N.-affiliated World Chronicle.

Shunned by the West at the moment when the country was still reeling from war and genocide, Mr. Hun Sen’s Vietnamese-backed government appeared to first win the sympathies of both Ms. Jarvis and Mr. Myers during its early communist years.

“Before 1993, the CPP government had done an exemplary job of restoring Cambodian society despite a continuing civil war and international isolation,” Mr. Myers wrote in a 1998 article in the Green Left Weekly.

“Certainly not many people have done more than [Mr. Hun Sen] has in bringing an end to the Khmer Rouge regime,” Ms. Jarvis told the World Chronicle.

Cambodia Bound

The 1980s was also the decade during which the couple began deepening their connections to Cambodia.

Ms. Jarvis returned in 1987 to help rebuild the collections of the National Library, then was invited back in the mid-1990s to consult on Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program, which established the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in 1995.

DC-Cam director Youk Chhang befriended Ms. Jarvis and her family, even staying at their house in Sydney. “She can be a great friend and a lovely mother, but she is difficult to work with as she appears to be strongly indoctrinated by a political view,” he wrote in an email.

“At her house in Sydney, she has a huge library and almost every book is about Lenin!”

“We do not need Lenin in Cambodia,” Mr. Chhang said, adding that the intensity of her beliefs interfered with the impartiality of her scholarship.

Ms. Jarvis also struck up a relationship with Mr. Sok An, the deputy prime minister, who invited her in 1999 to help establish a court that would try Khmer Rouge leaders. The scholar accepted and moved with Mr. Myers to Phnom Penh, eventually becoming the tribunal’s head of public affairs.

The experience of setting up the court involved painstaking political maneuvering between competing factions of the government as well as with international actors. Mr. Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, had just struck a political deal that dissolved the ranks of the guerrilla army and was unwilling to give the court too broad a mandate to prosecute, or the U.N. too much influence.

In her 2004 book, “Getting Away With Genocide? Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,” Ms. Jarvis and co-author Tom Fawthrop laid the blame for the tribunal’s limitations squarely at the feet of Western governments.

“Many observers would agree that the U.N. had compromised its moral authority over Cambodia by its dismal record of complicity with the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s and even beyond,” the authors concluded.

Mr. Myers has routinely taken up a similar tact, painting a picture of a government whose flaws can be traced back to the duplicity and bullying of the West.

“While not excusing the behaviour of any CPP officials who engage in corrupt or undemocratic/ repressive activity, the blame for the deterioration in the Cambodian political situation lies overwhelmingly with western imperialism and its local agents [Prince] Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy,” he wrote in the 1998 Green Left Weekly article.

However, Ms. Jarvis herself was accused of wading too deeply in Cambodian affairs after she accepted a 2009 appointment from Mr. Sok An as head of the Victims Support Section at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Critics said that the job should have gone to someone with deeper ties to Cambodia and fewer to the government and communism.

“Her background as an avowed Trotskyist was an affront to the victims she represented, victims of communism,” said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles who is himself a civil party in the trials. Moreover, “she and her husband, Allen Myers, are also well known to be exceedingly close to senior members of the ruling party, particularly Sok An.”

Deputy Prime Minister Sok An places a garland of jasmine around the Balarama statue in 2014. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy to Washington published by WikiLeaks reveal that the embassy, too, found Ms. Jarvis to be “not an acceptable candidate” for the victims support unit on the grounds that she reports “directly to Sok An.”

Mr. Myers has justified his own regular forays into Cambodian political commentary by suggesting that the opposition CNRP regularly encourages foreign intervention.

“It’s mainly because of their continual appeals for foreign intervention that I feel it’s okay for me, as a non-citizen (although a longtime resident), to comment on such matters,” he wrote in a 2014 commentary published on his blog and on the website of the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit (PQRU), a government public relations office.

Ms. Jarvis was further hit by controversy after tribunal defense attorneys surfaced a letter she co-signed with Mr. Myers and others in the Australian Leninist Party Faction, which appeared to advocate violent revolution.

“In time of revolution and civil war, the most extreme measures will sometimes become necessary and justified,” the letter said. “Against the bourgeoisie and their state agencies we don’t respect their laws and their fake moral principles.”

The tract had far more to say about the internecine bickering of an Australian socialist party than violent overthrow. Still, it drew the attention of Ieng Sary’s defense attorney Michael Karnavas, who wrote in an email that he had previously found Ms. Jarvis to be “fine, professional, and measured” as the court spokeswoman.

In a June 2009 letter co-signed by Ang Udom and Mr. Karnavas to Knut Rosandhaug, the court’s deputy director of administration, the pair questioned Ms. Jarvis’ impartiality and called for her statements to be “investigated fully and expeditiously.”

Enduring Support

Ms. Jarvis retained her leadership position at the Khmer Rouge tribunal until her June 2010 retirement, and she continues to advise Mr. Sok An and is often present at top-level meetings between the government and U.N. about the tribunal.

Mr. Myers has continued to write letters to the English-language press and publish commentary pieces on his blog, dozens of which also appear in the opinion sections of the state news service Agence Kampuchea Presse and in Khmer on the PQRU’s website.

The translated pieces also have appeared across at least a dozen Khmer-language media outlets. Mr. Myers’ six-page takedown of a recent Global Witness report appeared on Fresh News, Dap News, Cambodia Express News and other local news websites.

He also has “helped people in the Press and Quick Reaction Unit from time to time by correcting the English of various releases,” work he characterized in an email as “voluntary, unpaid, assistance.”

“My letters and comments on my blog are my own, not the product of a committee,” Mr. Myers wrote in an email earlier this month, adding later that he has been “working as a journalist for several decades longer than you have been alive.”

Both Mr. Myers and Ms. Jarvis continue to be involved in leftist politics; the website for the Marxism Conference lists them as speakers last year.

They have also voiced occasional criticism of the government.

Ms. Jarvis conceded to the World Chronicle that “a lot of people feel that they don’t have much confidence in the legal system,” a fact she hoped the tribunal would help change.

And in his 1998 Green Left Weekly article, Mr. Myers admitted that the government at the time was “less favourable to the interests of ordinary Cambodians than was the government which was established after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and which ruled until the UN-run elections of 1993,” specifically spotlighting growing corruption.

Still, Mr. Myers’ letters suggest that he continues to view the region through the lens of a uniformed activist, watching from afar as American bombs bludgeoned the region.

“The military forces maintained by imperialist countries like Australia are an ever present threat to the peoples of the underdeveloped countries,” he wrote in a 2009 issue of the socialist magazine Direct Action—perhaps, in his view, a greater threat to the people than a government that appears to have strayed far from his political ideals.


Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named the University of New South Wales.

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