Solo crusade to bring justice to generals of the killing fields

November 30, 2001

Academic Stephen Heder intends to force former Khmer Rouge leaders to face trial for their roles in the deaths of millions of Cambodians. Chris Bunting reports.

The dour corridor of filing cabinets that Stephen Heder uses as an office at London's School of Oriental and African Studies might, on second thoughts, have been a better choice of venue for the interview. Instead, we had opted for a bright yellow-walled cafe nestled in one of the British Museum's side streets. While fellow customers picked uneasily at lemon cakes and cappuccinos, Heder's flat American drawl described "smashings" - the Khmer Rouge's brutally uneuphemistic euphemism for political murder - and the death of 2 million people in the Cambodian killing fields.

Heder does not look like a hunter of mass murderers; more like a youngish Groucho Marx with lowered suspension, loping around Bloomsbury in a black leather jacket, blue jeans and motorcycle boots. But this unlikely figure - the son of a dissident US army colonel who opposed the Vietnam war - knows the crimes of the Khmer Rouge in more nauseating forensic detail than anyone in the world.

If the old men responsible for killing a quarter of Cambodia's population between April 1975 and January 1979 are ever brought to justice, the case against them will rest largely on the hours Heder has spent in hot Cambodian reading rooms working through the paper trails left behind by their crimes. Now working as a political scientist and lecturer on Cambodia at Soas, Heder has long outstayed his original assignment to the country as a budding war journalist in 1973. Fresh from an undergraduate degree at Cornell University in New York state, he pitched up in Phnom Penh in time to experience the terrifying last days of the pre-Khmer Rouge republic and the desperate hopes and fears of ordinary Cambodians about the kind of rule the Communists would bring when they came to power.

He left the US embassy on a helicopter as Pol Pot's men swept into town in 1975. Days later, he was attempting to sneak back into the country in a friend's plane (a ploy foiled when the DC-3 was grounded by the authorities at Bangkok airport). Ever since, as former colleagues in Phnom Penh's press pack have left their old stomping ground behind for more prestigious appointments and newer stories, Heder has kept returning to the country and the questions raised in those first dangerous steps of his career.

"Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Son Sen, Ieng Sary, Khieu Sary," he announces loudly to the cafe. "These names were a mystery to us before 1975. Bear in mind that the Communist Party denied its own existence until 1977, until two years after they took power. There were screens within screens, mirrors within mirrors. Even now, they have a slightly unreal ring to many people. The crimes have been well publicised, but it is difficult to imagine real people were responsible for them."

It is indeed hard not to doubt the reality of people responsible for death on so vast a scale. Hundreds of thousands were executed - probably half a million. More died because of starvation and disease directly caused by Khmer Rouge policies. Of the 17,000 people who passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng, the former secondary school used as the regime's main torture centre, seven survived. The official museum that now occupies the site describes newly born babies being smashed against trees to save the expense of a bullet, old men carried to torture because they could not walk, naked women shackled to beds and stung to death by specially reared scorpions.

According to Heder, the sense of unreality surrounding these horrors reaches into the minds of their perpetrators. "You must understand that these men are operating according to a script," he says. "They feel no individual responsibility themselves."

They became communists in the early 1950s and spent years in Paris, Vietnam and, Beijing reading Stalin and Mao, Heder says. What they found, in a somewhat rarefied form, was the message that at some stage in the revolution, it was necessary to go after the traitors within. They combined this with the idea, fed to them from Mao, that when problems occur in communism, the solution was more communism.

"When things start to go wrong, as they inevitably do, with their attempt to jump straight to full-blown communism, they go back to the script," Heder says. "The economy is not producing enough food for the people, which they are not prepared to admit because they have done everything theoretically right, so the policies must be being sabotaged by spies. They purge and they further weaken the party, and there are more problems, so they purge again."

He says it is an eerie experience meeting these people now. "They still sort of reimagine modern Cambodia as if it is mid-1940s Indo-China, with the Vietnamese substituted for the Japanese and the Americans as the French. I was totally persuaded that, although it is sheer fantasy, they are sincere. This is a world of imagination."

For most surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership, life since the disintegration of their guerrilla forces between 1996 and 1998 has been rather pleasant. Today, Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, the man primarily responsible for devising the killing machine, lives undisturbed in Cambodia. Khieu Samphan, a leading figure in the regime, is his neighbour. Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's brother in law who encouraged executions within his foreign ministry, was given an amnesty in 1996. Only Ta Mok, the brutal regional commander nicknamed "The Butcher", and Kaing Khek Iev, the warden of Tuol Sleng, are in custody.

Despite recent moves towards an international tribunal, Cambodia's government, led by the strongman Hun Sen, has a declared policy of ignoring the pasts of former Khmer Rouge leaders. While paying lip service to the idea of an internationally supervised trial, Hun Sen, a former junior Khmer Rouge cadre himself, has consistently obstructed progress on the grounds that his government must have control of the process.

The government must wish Heder had not returned to Cambodia in 1992. After his evacuation from Phnom Penh in 1975, he shelved journalism's shifting news agendas in favour of research on Cambodia at Cornell. Four years later, he was conducting interviews of thousands of refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border, trying to assess the human rights situation in the country after its invasion by Vietnam (this earned him his favourite boast:

"I am in John Pilger's HeroesI as a villain."). He was appointed an area specialist by Amnesty International, and he returned to Cambodia in 1992 to work as the UN peacekeeping mission's Khmer Rouge expert.

A stubbornly intellectual man, he has, when necessary, shown the same capacity for action that led him to Cambodia as a young graduate. In June 1997, he was the chief organiser of a daring attempt to smuggle out Pol Pot, who had just been detained by Ta Mok for the killing of Son Sen. Heder tried to work out an arrangement with Cambodian military officers to fly Pol Pot out of Cambodia and transfer him to a venue of universal jurisdiction. But Ta Mok could not be convinced to hand him over.

Pol Pot's death the following year put an end to hopes of a trial. But, if the lunge for Pol Pot was Heder's most dramatic move, his most significant has come in its aftermath, in three quiet years spent deciphering bureaucratic Khmer in the reading rooms of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

The product of that research, a 129-page report titled Seven Candidates for Prosecution : Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge , co-authored by the human rights lawyer Brian Tittemore, was published in June. For the first time, it exposed Khmer Rouge leaders' individual guilt. It traced hundreds of individual communications between the leadership and subordinates and proved direct involvement of people at the highest level of the regime.

It reads as a legal case waiting to be put. After 20 years of obfuscation, fiction and evasion, Cambodia has the opportunity to confront its past and the reality of the old men who killed a quarter of a nation. Nearly half a year after its publication, however, a UN-Cambodian government agreement on where this evidence could be heard has not appeared.

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