On Wednesday, Nuon Chea emerged from his holding cell, as Marie Guiraud underlined, not to express his sympathy and apologies for the suffering victims of the barbarous policies he defined, but to lead the court to endorse the quite inaccurate fact that the U.S. government was a major architect of atrocities inflicted on the Cambodian people throughout the early 1970s.
His second question was exactly this: “Was [Elizabeth Becker] of opinion that the U.S. government was solely responsible for the tragedy that it inflicted on the Cambodian people?” The Cambodia Daily wrote instead, giving Becker’s version of the question when she repeated it before answering: “…solely responsible for the tragedy its bombings inflicted…” In other words, are we talking of sufferings inflicted specifically by American bombings (Ms. Becker’s and The Cambodia Daily’s version) or the atrocities inflicted on the Cambodian people throughout the civil war of 1970 to 1975—Nuon Chea’s question? By answering the unequivocal “of course,” Nuon Chea might have been led to believe Ms. Becker endorsed his version of the tragedy: that the U.S. was “solely responsible” for all the crimes committed during those fateful five years.
All the more so, since the expert endorsed on two occasions the Khmer Rouge version of tragic recent Cambodian history. The first is that Prince Norodom Sihanouk was the victim of a “coup d’etat” in 1970, while the National Assembly that had first elected him head of state in 1960 withdrew its confidence by an overwhelming vote. There is no such thing as a head of state for life, as Prince Sihanouk understood, except for dictators, communist leaders and kings—which he no longer was. And he had lost the confidence of a significant majority of the National Assembly (and the country) after the 1966 legislative elections—to such an extent that he formed a so-called “counter-government.” He had lost the support of his right, symbolized by Nhiek Tioulong and Son Sann, who emigrated to Paris in 1969, and of his left, symbolized by Chau Seng, who also took refuge in France, in 1968. The public objected to his de-facto abandonment of his neutralist policy vis-a-vis North Vietnam and China and his economic policy, after the nationalization of major sectors of the economy.
The second point concerns the invasion of a small country by a major world power that Ms. Becker condemned along with Nuon Chea. This is again being trapped by the Khmer Rouge propaganda machine that claimed, until April 17, 1975, that they were fighting against the imperialism—and even new colonialism—of a U.S. that wanted to establish military bases in Cambodia. Its black-clad warriors believed so much in this fable that those adolescent soldiers asked Francois Ponchaud, on April 17, to take them around the capital in his car in order to track down American soldiers. “Where are the Americans?” they kept asking him. In reality, the Americans had been present for just a few weeks in 1970 to overrun sanctuaries the Vietnamese had in fact already fled from, to soon swoop over the entire Cambodian territory, as far as the Angkor park they controlled until 1973. Besides, the American troops from South Vietnam had gone over the border on the invitation of the legal republican government for a very specific mission.
After this, the American “advisers” were never numbered more than a couple hundred. It was very easy for the Khmer Rouge to defeat an enemy that was not present in the country, contrary to the lies they spread among all their fighters. “A vaincre sans peril, on triomphe sans gloire,” as Le Cid pertinently proclaimed.
In last week’s verbal jousting, the old man won the day.
Henri Locard is a historian and the author of “Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar.”