Update: Cambodia in ASEAN

March 7, 2018

 Update: Cambodia in ASEAN

The article below below should be read in conjunction with:



Image result for cambodia kingdom of wonderOne of Cambodia’s star golf courses is Angkor Golf Resort. Here, its the heritage and unique traditions that make is stand out from the crowd …


Cambodia  is allergic to foreign interference in its internal affairs. The leadership opts for Stability and Development First.  20 years of Peace, Stability and Development bear testimony to the success  of Hun Sen’s Win-Win Policy.  It should not be forgotten that Cambodia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty was violated with impunity during the period of the Cold War.

“The 1970 coup was the genesis of the worst suffering of the Cambodian People” Cambodia has, therefore, learned many lessons from its recent past and will resist any attempt by self-righteous power to impose their values on its people.”

The document from The Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Affairs  states:

“The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which was blamed for the failure to bring (total) peace in Cambodia due to the imposition of the (genocidal) Pol Pot regime in the equation,sought to transplant in one swoop a perfect model liberal democracy in a country that never knew this kind. Their Western authors uncompromisingly disregarded the aftermath effect (s) of a lost generation almost entirely deprived of a huge majority of its qualified human resources…They snubbed out the consequences of 12 years of economic and political  embargo and worse they inflicted mercilessly sanctions on the  survivors (the genocide), hindering them  from rebuilding their devastated country. It was up against all these odds that the Cambodian government did their utmost to rebuild the people, and introduced the fundamentals of a liberal democracy system…

“History has proved  that foreign-imposed agenda has never been favorable to Cambodia and on the contrary, it has led to bloodshed and senseless destruction.That cruel reality notwithstanding, some those countries are bent on repeating their past mistakes as they push to provoke regime change albiet in more sophisticated and covert forms.”


Image result for us bombing of cambodia

Richard Nixon and Kissinger violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cambodia by massively bombing  the countryside. CIA orchestrated a coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Read My War with The CIA by Norodom Sihanouk.

The article by Abiodun Owolegbon-Raji (below) is but one of many designed to paint a negative image of Cambodia and its people. Over the last two decades, Cambodia has made considerable socio-economic strides in an environment of peace and stability. That is Fact, not Fiction. And the outlook in the years ahead is good.–Din Merican

Cambodia Crackdown Casts a Shadow on ASEAN

By   Abiodun Owolegbon-Raji

Image result for Cambodia --The Miracle on The Mekong

In what has become a conventional trait among ruling parties in nascent democracies, the Cambodian government dissolved the country’s main opposition party on November 16, 2017, for “plotting a coup.” This was the nadir of a systematically coordinated state-sponsored crackdown on the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) by the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Hen Sen has also orchestrated the closure of independent media outlets and restricted NGO activities, moves analysts have described as attempts to consolidate power in the wake of national elections billed for July 2018. To recall, the CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested for treason in a midnight raid in September 2017, and many of the party’s leadership have since fled into exile.

Expectedly, the dissolution was ordered by the Supreme Court of Cambodia in order to lend some tone of legal validity to the sham process. For someone who has been accused of repression, corruption and political violence in his three-decade rule, Hun’s actions come as no surprise.

Needless to say that Dith Munty, the Supreme Court’s President, is one of Hun’s long-term political allies and occupies a seat on the CPP’s highest decision-making body. “It makes a mockery of fair justice to have someone in a leadership position within one political party sit in judgment on the conduct of that party’s main opposition. … There can be no starker example of an inherent conflict of interest,” says Kingsley Abbot, senior international legal advisor for the International Commission of Jurists, a rights group.

To many, this comes as no surprise. The Cambodian government has a notorious history of rights abuses and stifling press freedom. In 2015, it took extensive negotiations by unions and pressure from buyers such as H&M to increase the minimum wage of workers in the garment sector to a paltry $140/month (now set to increase to $170 in 2018), despite the sector being the country’s key export earner; most workers hardly earn decent remuneration for their work. Likewise, 2017 saw a consistent crackdown on the media, the culmination of which 19 radio stations were knocked off-air for “violating contracts” they had with the government. By September, Radio Free Asia had to discontinue its operations in Cambodia when the atmosphere became unbearable.

The opposition leader, Kem Sokha, is still in prison and has faced series of interrogations, despite the fact that he has recently refused to respond to questions, citing the illegality of his detention.

Consequently, the crackdown on the opposition has had a ripple effect both regionally and internationally. The US, which Sen has accused of working with the CNRP to coordinate the alleged coup, has promised “concrete steps” against Cambodia. The EU has also said that “the European Union’s development cooperation and trade preferences are reliant on [Cambodia’s] respect for fundamental human rights and democratic principles,” in a statement by its foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

The Chinese, on the other hand, appear to be backing the Cambodian authorities, with China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, stating that his government supports Cambodia’s efforts to “protect political stability.” However, nothing appears to be forthcoming from Cambodia’s immediate regional body, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

Image result for ASEAN Leaders


ASEAN is an intergovernmental organization of 10 Southeast Asian nations, including Cambodia. Some may argue that ASEAN, a regional bloc with a mandate to promote economic, political, security, military, educational and socio-cultural integration among its members, should not interfere in the crisis. However, a union with a charter built upon principles such as “upholding international law with respect to human rights, social justice and multilateral trade” and “development of friendly external relations and a position with the UN” cannot ignore gross human rights abuses and political repression in its own backyard.

Article 9 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” and article 10 that “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” Not only has the Cambodian government trampled upon these tenets, but almost the entire declaration is being violated, including the right of citizens to elect their leaders. The moral ground upon which ASEAN stands to claim that it upholds human rights, therefore, comes into question.

Worthy of note is the fact that in November 2012, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was unanimously adopted by all members at a meeting in Phnom Penh. The declaration is supposed to assert ASEAN nations’ commitment to human rights protection. Though widely criticized, it was a positive development, but ASEAN must show further commitment.

First, the ASEAN declaration should be revised to reflect a full commitment to protecting human rights. Fundamental freedoms such as the right to freedom of association and the right to be free from enforced disappearance should be included. Also, ambiguous clauses that could be used to undermine human rights, such as “The realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context” (Article 7) and that human rights might be limited to preserve national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, etc., (Article 8) should be removed. This can be made an incontestable condition for continuous membership of ASEAN by member nations.

While some may suggest that the poor living standards and economy in some ASEAN countries should be given top priority, this will simply amount to misconstruing human processes. Guaranteeing the fundamental human rights of citizens is the very basis of economic prosperity. Therefore, the decision not to prioritize human rights protection will not only keep millions of people under repression but also exacerbate these economic problems.

If there is any good time for ASEAN to take constructive steps in the full protection of human rights and democracy, the recent Cambodian crackdown provides a good platform.

*[Updated: January 22, 2018.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

The Guardian view on the Rohingya in Myanmar

September 9, 2017


The Guardian view on the Rohingya in Myanmar: the Lady’s failings, the military’s crimes

The Guardian view on the Rohingya in Myanmar: the Lady’s failings, the military’s crimes


“When the safety of one’s country is at  stake,there must be no scruple of justice or mercy or blame;on the contrary, one should wholly pursue that policy that saves the life of the state and preserves its liberty,regardless of any other consideration.”–Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9. Does this apply to Aung Sun Suu Kyi re The Rohingyas?

Image result for The Rohingya's of Myanmar

The killing and abuse of civilians is a crime against humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi must speak out – but this violence is the army’s

Aung San Suu Kyi’s long silence over the desperate plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been shameful. With tens of thousands now fleeing atrocities in Rakhine state, the Nobel peace prize winner’s aura of moral sanctity lies in tatters. The Muslim minority are denied citizenship by a government which claims, against the evidence, that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. After decades of discrimination, matters got much worse. Since 2012 the Rohingya have endured not just immiseration and the denial of basic rights and services – many live in internment camps – but three major waves of violence by government forces and Buddhist Burman nationalists. Myanmar’s de facto leader has turned a blind eye.

Speak up, people have urged her. Do something. So far her words and actions have been as bad as her reticence. The government has blocked access to United Nations human rights investigators and aid workers. A post on her Facebook page blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about the current violence. Whether she shares the widespread prejudice towards the Rohingya is a moot question: she does not challenge it. Perhaps the populist Islamophobic forces thriving elsewhere encourage such indifference. On Wednesday, shortly after she met Narendra Modi – no stranger to condoning and exploiting vicious Islamophobia – India’s Prime Minister said his country shared Myanmar’s concerns about “extremist violence” in Rakhine state.

Image result for Aung San suu kyi quotes

Elegantly said, Madam, but meaningless. Your long silence over the desperate plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been shameful. 

The Rohingya were already described as the most persecuted people in the world and hundreds of thousands had escaped to Bangladesh, where their conditions are dire. Many have warned of the dangers of radicalisation and attacks on police by a new militant group late last month sparked a wave of violence by government forces. In less than a fortnight, more than 160,000 – from a population of something over 1 million – have fled. Officials say the hundreds who have died in this “clearance operation” are mostly insurgents who have torched Rohingya villages themselves. But there is widespread evidence that the death toll is far higher and most are civilians. Survivors of one massacre told the Guardian of infants and the elderly shot or thrown into the water to drown. Others have spoken of entire families burned alive in their homes. A UN report earlier this year accused security forces of similar crimes. But this violence is on an immense, unprecedented scale.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, is pushing hard for concerted action and warns of the risk of ethnic cleansing (several Nobel peace prize laureates say that point has already been reached). But Myanmar has said openly that it is working with China and Russia to prevent a security council rebuke.

Image result for The Plight of the Rohingyas

Aung San Suu Kyi cannot halt the atrocities at a command. Despite her landslide electoral victory, the military controls key government functions and apparatus on paper as well as in reality – notably security. But a leader who rose to power armed with only her words and moral authority can and should use them in a cause – human rights – which she purported to champion. She is able to shape Burmese public opinion, and to channel it towards curbing the military. A leader who embraced and exploited the support of the international community cannot dismiss its concerns so casually. She is able to press foreign backers to exert more pressure on the armed forces.

Her cloak of virtue has helped to shield them from scrutiny and accountability. The danger is that now her shortcomings will divert attention. The military’s head, Min Aung Hlaing, has no pedestal to topple from. Few even know his name. But they should; he is the man who calls the shots. Finding ways to exert pressure on the military is essential. Suspending the UK’s training of Myanmar’s army would be a good start.

Aung San Suu Kyi has a moral duty to protect the Rohingya. She has ducked it. But she is only a small part of the problem, and of a solution that remains all too distant.


Book Review: Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer

June 27, 2017


Man or Monster?: The Trial of a Khmer Rouge  Torturer

by Sharon Wu

Image result for Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer

Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, during trial proceedings at ECCC in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on 20 July 2009

In Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, Alexander Laban Hinton examines the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, more commonly known as Duch, who oversaw the torture and execution of prisoners during the Khmer Rouge’s rule of Cambodia in the 1970s. Bringing together creative ethnography, fieldwork and interviews and drawing on personal experience, this elegantly written and nuanced appraisal tackles the challenge of assessing the complexity of its central figure’s crimes, life and character, while addressing larger questions of transitional justice. writes Sharon Wu

Image result for Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer

Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer. Alexander Laban Hinton. Duke University Press. 2016.

Perpetrators of mass crimes are easy to condemn, but harder to understand. Although their crimes may be evident, the degree of guilt and level of responsibility can be difficult to establish. This becomes all the more complex when the perpetrator is put on the stand. In his latest book Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, Alexander Laban Hinton, a professor at Rutgers University and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, dives deep into the tribunal of Kaing Guek Eav, more commonly known as Duch, and elegantly tackles this exact challenge of sifting through the many shades of one mass criminal’s life and character.

From 1975 to 1979, Duch served as the Deputy and then the Chairman of S-21 (also known as Tuol Sleng), the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime’s most notorious political prison and security complex. As many as 20,000 prisoners passed through Tuol Sleng’s doors to be tortured and executed on Duch’s instruction. In July 2007, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) arrested him on charges of crimes against humanity, breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the murder and torture of over 12,000 prisoners. His eventual guilty verdict was delivered almost five years later in February 2012.

Image result for Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer

Khmer Rouge Brutality on Cambodians will never be forgotten

But what Hinton exposes is a man more nuanced than the sum of his crimes. Born in Kompong Thom, Cambodia, Duch began his career as a school teacher. He excelled in his studies, and was observed to be incredibly meticulous and hard-working in his professional and academic pursuits. Even at Tuol Sleng, prisoners and guards alike found him to be equally scrupulous and diligent in record-keeping, experimentation in torture methods and political education sessions. He memorised French poetry, had a wife and four children, acknowledged the severity of his crimes and publicly apologised before the courtroom. The duality demonstrated by these details muddled the public’s perception of Duch and had a clear impact on his trial. Hinton captures all of these intricacies.

Image result for Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer

Only Cowards like Khmer Rouge  executioners dare take on innocent and helpless children

Like any other criminal of mass atrocities appearing before an international tribunal, Duch was presented with a range of dilemmas during his time as a murderous leader and again during his trial. Was he taking orders from the elite to save his own life or was he instrumental in ordering executions at S-21? Was he also a victim of the Khmer Rouge regime or was he complicit in carrying out its atrocities? Was he truly remorseful or did he publicly apologise in the hope of going free? In a shocking and bizarre  turn at the end of the trial, Duch ultimately redacted his public apology and insisted that he was not guilty for his crimes. This manoeuvre led victims and courtroom witnesses to ponder his actions as a former chairman and as a defendant. His involvement at S-21 was indisputable, but his degree of guilt and responsibility less so.

In focusing on this one particular case and this one peculiar man, Hinton further expands on the ECCC and the intricate process of bringing justice, truth and reconciliation to post-conflict Cambodia through legal mechanisms. He includes the trial’s extensive witness testimony and spoke directly with many victims, illustrating the spectrum of emotions they endured in watching the trial unfold. Unlike the ad hoc tribunals of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge tribunal was a hybrid court that combined both Cambodian and international law, and incorporated legal practitioners from Cambodia and abroad. But like the ad hoc tribunals, the ECCC also witnessed its own share of politicisation, controversy and criticism. Hinton discusses the ECCC’s decision to try only five top Khmer Rouge officials, choosing to focus only on a handful of big fish and thereby limiting the reach of the court. He also mentions the ECCC’s failure to introduce certain evidence from the years before the Khmer Rouge’s regime. Many believe this information to be crucial to understanding the defendants, but it would also implicate the United States and other Western powers for their more controversial involvement in Southeast Asia.

Man or Monster? is more than a microhistory of one specific case. Not only does it offer a detailed overview of the Khmer Rouge as a rebel group or government, but Hinton also uses Duch’s earlier life to briefly walk us through postcolonial Cambodian history, from gaining independence to the strengthening of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot to US military involvement in the region. He then draws on Duch’s time at Tuol Sleng to elaborate on the Khmer Rouge’s operations, goals and ideology as well as the various crimes and atrocities committed under their direction.

Hinton trades traditional textbook jargon for a more literary and theatrical approach in examining these court proceedings. He inserts himself into the narrative, speaking directly about his interviews, his relationships with various actors of the tribunal and his memories of visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. He succeeds in casting off dry academic and legal language, rendering this book easily readable and oftentimes thrilling. He tastefully describes the drama and intricacies of the courtroom and gives vivid personality to its many characters.

However, he falls short when discussing the actual decision to write in a more literary style. He addresses his own experimental approach three separate times — in the foreword, the final chapter and the epilogue — in each instance repeating what was already previously stated. In the last chapter, titled ‘Background: Redactic (Final Decision)’, he even writes, ‘I have tried to bear in mind the creative writing imperative “Show, don’t tell”’, and acknowledges his struggle to follow ‘this imperative’, which is at times evident. Nevertheless, these multiple explanations do not take away from the true success of the book.

Hinton does the reader a tremendous service by not reducing Duch to a single identity. The book is certainly not a sympathetic take on Duch’s character, but it is a concerted effort to create a multidimensional understanding of a complicated man acting in complicated circumstances. Duch was defined not only by his murderous actions, but also by his life before and after the Khmer Rouge. Hinton invites us to contemplate the notion that what one person, or even one nation, may think of Duch may not be an unequivocal truth, but rather one of many frames through which to examine him. Simply calling him a ‘monster’ is reductive and unhelpful: the label overlooks his agency, his actions and those of the individuals around him as well as the many dilemmas he faced in this perilous time period.

By using Duch’s trial as a case study, Hinton also addresses the many larger questions of transitional justice. How is a former war criminal reintegrated into a peaceful post-conflict society? How does a court best avoid politicisation? Do legal mechanisms truly deliver justice and foster reconciliation? These questions may never have definitive answers, but Hinton asks us to consider them regardless.

Sharon Wu is an MSc candidate in the Conflict Studies program at the London School of Economics. She received her undergraduate degree from New York University and previously worked for an independent publisher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on Twitter at @sharonlxwu.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.


The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide

May 21, 2017

Book Review:

Image result for The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide

Newborn babies crushed under the weight of a soldier’s heavy boot. Children having their throats slit as they try to protect their mothers from rape by security forces. Women and girls facing rape or sexual assault and humiliation. The elderly and infirm burnt alive in their homes. 1,000 killed and another 75,000 displaced to Bangladesh. These atrocities were documented in a disturbing February 2017 United Nations report which concluded that they are ‘very likely to amount to crimes against humanity. More recently, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee has named them ‘definite crimes against humanity’.

Image result for The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide

The most recent reports have not emerged in a vacuum. In 2015, the Yale Law School found ‘strong evidence of genocide against the Rohingya’. The same year, the International State Crime Initiative from the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London concluded that genocide was taking place in Myanmar. In 2013, Human Rights Watch identified crimes against the Rohingya which it argued amounted to ethnic cleansing.

Image result for U Win Htein

Sheer  hypocrisy of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto Foreign Minister: ASEAN’s Non-Intervention Policy VS Responsibility to Protect(R2P)

National League for Democracy chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, right, and central committee member Win Htein, center. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing / The Irrawaddy)

The government of Myanmar has denied this charge. U Win Htein, a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s now more than one year old National League for Democracy (NLD) government, rejects claims of crimes against humanity, and says this is an internal affair that has been exaggerated. This rhetoric is eerily close to that of the previous governments that the NLD vowed departure from.

Certainly, this is not a popular concern domestically. The Rohingya are not recognised in Myanmar, and are instead called Bengali. Their history in Rakhine State and rights to citizenship are heated issues of contention. While the NLD has appointed several commissions to investigate the situation in Rakhine State, they are lacking either the mandate or capacity to deal with the situation that has arisen since October 2016.

Given this, there is a need for an accessible publication which brings together the complex history and discussion of the increasingly brutal persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar today. Unfortunately, Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide is not that book. Instead it is hastily written and poorly considered, offering an inaccurate rehashing of history, no new arguments and a failure to engage with current debates.

A large section of the book summarises convenient arguments from the contentious debate over the origins of the Muslim community in Rakhine State and the Rohingya ethnic label, despite recognising that the discussion is peripheral. There are numerous factual errors throughout not just this section but the whole book, such as the claim that most rulers of the Arakanese Mrauk U dynasty were Muslim (p. 24). There are other claims which would be significant if any evidence was provided. Rather, unreferenced passages assert that the 1784 Burmese invasion of Arakan was ‘in part as there were so many Muslims in Arakan’ (p. 65); and that the British never used the term ‘Rohingya’ in their records because the administration was in the habit of categorising the population by religion, not ethnicity (p. 31) — the latter simply an untenable statement. Errors such as these are surprising, given the author’s extensive academic qualifications.

Image result for James T Davies is a PhD candidate researching Myanmar at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

There is little discussion of genocide before the reader arrives at the chapter devoted to the topic. Here, we find that the book is not actually arguing that there is genocide underway, but that the Rohingya are ‘on the brink of genocide’ (p. 99).

While invoking the term genocide is sure to attract interest, the discussion is lacking in depth. The 2015 Yale Law School report noted, significantly, that it was difficult to establish intent for genocide on the part of the Myanmar state. However, this book does not engage with this report or the question of intent, despite it being crucial to any allegation of genocide. Instead, outcome appears to be equated with intent. The overwhelming focus on the crime of genocide could perhaps have been substituted with a discussion of other crimes against humanity in relation to the Rohingya, as noted by the UN and others.


One of the most striking flaws of the book is its failure to consider Rakhine perspectives. This is reflected not only in the considerable confusion and misinformation about contemporary Rakhine political parties (p. 121). The author appears to have spent very little time in either Rakhine State or Yangon, and not to have consulted the Rakhine communities who have long lived alongside the Rohingya. In a chapter devoted to solutions there is little mention of the Rakhine, despite the fact that any resolution must include both communities. Instead, solutions offered refer primarily to international pressure, reflecting the publication’s target audience.

In this respect, the book makes an important point about the failure of the international community to address this issue. Western governments’ vision of what is occurring in Myanmar has been blurred by their ‘indulgence’ of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, the book argues (p. 133). There is a reluctance to pressure her government, which was hailed in the US as a foreign policy success of the Obama administration. Ibrahim pushes back both against the argument that Aung San Suu Kyi is doing her best as well as claims that the plight of the Rohingya is a hiccup to be expected during a difficult transition from military rule to democracy. The book rightly notes that such a perspective flies in the face of evidence that Aung San Suu Kyi has proved herself unwilling to show leadership and to prioritise the Rohingya issue — and that ultimately she must hold responsibility.

Therefore, the book argues, international pressure is going to be crucial for the Rohingya. We are told via a ‘Media Pack’ on Ibrahim’s website that he has an address book to rival a Prime Minister’s. If the book serves to bring attention to this desperate situation, then it may redeem itself somewhat.

Image result for James T Davies is a PhD candidate researching Myanmar at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

James T Davies (pic above) is a PhD candidate researching Myanmar at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He should write a book on the Rohingyas since he is very critical of Azeem’s attempt to expose the plight of the people of the Rakhine State.–Din Merican

Also READ:


Nate Thayer recalls Pol Pot

April 19, 2017

Nate Thayer recalls Pol Pot

April  17, 2015


Why a Free Press is a vital institution to Free People

By Nate Thayer

April 17, 2015

Today marks a tragic day in the modern history of political mass murder by government.


Forty-two years ago today six separate armies, under the titular leadership of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, converged on the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and assumed control of the country. They were welcomed by most Cambodians. They were actively supported and encouraged by many, many leading figures from across the political spectrum.

Very few like to talk about that now. During the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days after April 17, 1975 that the Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia, 1.8 million Cambodians died through execution, starvation, forced labour, disease and other reasons that were a direct consequence of the appalling failures of central government policies. None of them deserved to die.

There is not a Cambodian I have ever met who did not suffer unspeakably as a result of the central policies of the Khmer Rouge while they were in power. I have wept many times for all those, many of whom are my friends, who did not deserve what happened to them.

In 1998, I was honored with the award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting of the Year by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for my work in tracking down Pol Pot and reporting on what he did. I had, and in many ways still have, essentially three questions for Pol Pot and his comrades: Did you kill 2 million people?; Are you sorry?; And what the hell were you thinking?


Here is my acceptance speech at Harvard University for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists “Outstanding Investigative Reporting of the Year” award:



Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review received the Center for Public Integrity’s first ICIJ Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting at Harvard University on November 7, 1998. Here are excerpts from his acceptance speech:

Quote: I am very proud to be a journalist, and there is really no greater honor than to be recognized by your colleagues, and I thank you for that, particularly given the nature of the people in this room. I am really humbled by it, by the award. Thank you again.

It is actually ironic because I am actually from this town. I graduated from high school about 200 meters from here at the end of this road, and I left 15 years ago to become a journalist, quite late in life actually–not until I was 28, 29.


I was a bureaucrat for the state government here in Boston. I was engaged to be married, which was a really goofy idea. I got fired. I was a really bad bureaucrat. And so I told the fiancée, “Forget it”, and I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok.

I had no journalism experience. I had no money. I had the indignity of having my mother co-sign a $15,000 loan so that I could survive, trying to get a job as a journalist. I thought I would go cover the wars of Southeast Asia. So I got to Bangkok, and I had forgotten to take the ex-fiancee’s name off the bank account. I rented a house, and I went to take my money out to pay my rent. She had fled to Mexico with her new boyfriend, with my $15,000 loan.

I was in Bangkok with no job, no money, a $300-a-month bank payment, no experience, no contacts, and really no fucking idea what I was doing. It was not an auspicious beginning to a new career.

So I went and did what I thought would be the way to do it. You go out and do stories and try to flog them around.

After a couple of months, the Soldier of Fortune Southeast Asia correspondent got blown up in Burma, and the publisher came to pick up his body. He needed a replacement, so he hired me at $400 a month. It was my first job as a journalist.

He said to go up to Burma, and there were a lot of wars up there at the time. I had no idea what I was doing, and I went up to Burma, went up to the Karen guerrilla areas. The front lines between the warring factions were about 50 meters away. A lot of you will know what a DK-75 recoilless rifle is–it is very loud and it moves. I thought, ‘well, I will get a picture of them, a rifle going off and hitting the enemy bunker.’ I positioned myself about a meter behind the rifle. Of course, I was blown back about two meters, my camera was blown up, and I still have permanent hearing loss.

Then I went over to the Cambodian border the next month. I am in the guerrilla zones and the guerrilla troops I was with had just captured a town, and I am coming back in a captured truck and we ran over two anti-tank mines. This killed everybody that was sitting in the front of the truck except me. That was my first few months as a journalist. As we all know, often the stories behind the stories–how you get a story–is as interesting as the story itself.

We at The Far Eastern Economic Review were recognized for exclusively covering the trial of Pol Pot and then, a few months later, the first ever interview of Pol Pot in 20 years since he orchestrated the atrocities he did. Also, a few months later, I was the only person there when Pol Pot died.

And, in fact, I killed Pol Pot. No, no I am not joking. It is a true story. I will tell you exactly what happened.

The Khmer Rouge did not have contact with anybody. They were probably the last Maoist guerrillas on the planet, living in the jungle. I had wasted most of my youth trying to develop contacts with them, and so they knew me. And so I got this call in early April of 1998, saying ‘we need to see you in the jungles.’ And so I left my home in Bangkok and I went up to northeastern Thailand, crossed over the border, and met the Khmer Rouge leadership, and they said, ‘We’re ready to turn Pol Pot over to the Americans.’ And I said, ‘Well, that is a good fucking story.’
I was the only American they knew, so they wanted to give me Pol Pot! What the fuck am I going to do with Pol Pot? Put him in the back of my pickup truck and take him back to the Far Eastern Economic Review office in Bangkok? I told them, ‘Look, there is this organization called the International Committee of the Red Cross, and I will get you in contact with them.’

So, I am up there in the jungle–we went to print on Wednesday–and I wrote the story saying that the Khmer Rouge were prepared to turn over Pol Pot. The story came out Wednesday night–at exactly 5:00 PM Hong Kong time. The Voice of America picked it up. It ran on VOA (Voice of America) Khmer language service at 8:00 o’clock Cambodia time that night. Pol Pot listened to VOA Khmer language service every night, and two hours and 15 minutes later he was dead. He committed suicide.


It was not the world community or the major powerful governments who brought Pol Pot to justice.

It was the Free Press that brought Pol Pot to justice. We tried him, we interrogated him, and then we killed him. The Far Eastern Economic Review was a full-service news organization. But it doesn’t actually stop there, because I was supposed to interview Pol Pot the morning after he died. And I got a call at 10:15 that night and–from Chinese hand cranked telephones from the jungle–saying Pol Pot’s dead, and my first reaction was ‘Oh Shit. My interview! I’m supposed to interview him tomorrow morning.’

Now, the Thais had always claimed they did not have contact with the Khmer Rouge, which was not true, but they had to maintain that fiction for political reasons. And the Americans had no contact with the Khmer Rouge for 30 years. So about 5 minutes after I hung up with the Khmer Rouge, I get this call from a certain western intelligence agency and then a few minutes later from the Thai army commander-in-chief saying ‘we understand Pol Pot might be dead.’ And I say ‘Yeah, I understand Pol Pot is dead, too.’ And the American and the Thai’s said ‘You can go in, you can cross the border, but we want you to bring back his body.’


The Far Eastern Economic Review took its mandate to provide quality journalism without fear or favour without compromise

And so I am driving in with my good friend, the cameraman David McKaige through some very unpleasant area with lots of very unpleasant people with guns. One of our missions was to pick up Pol Pot’s body, but my only real mission was to report what I saw and knew to the readers of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

I forgot to mention that the other thing was that–in a kind of shy way–this particular Western intelligence official said ‘Look, if you can’t get the body, you think you could’–they were looking for forensics because they needed proof that, one, it was Pol Pot, and two, he was dead, and three, how he died, right?–‘Could you cut off one of his fingers or cut off a piece of his hair.’

I said ‘Well, I will try my best’ and suggested that I would at least try to take his teeth. Pol Pot had two front false teeth.

Rumors would surely be rampant if this was really Pol Pot.So, I get in there, and sure enough it was Pol Pot and he was dead. His wife was there.

I reached into Pol Pot’s mouth and removed his false teeth and said, ‘Uh, excuse me, Mrs Pot. Do you think I could have your husband’s teeth?’ She gave me a look I will never forget which said pretty much ‘My husband warned me that you people were very, very bad people.’ I took that for a no, and put Pol Pot’s teeth back into the mouth of his dead corpse.

I regret to this day I didn’t insist on just taking Pol Pot’s teeth. Anyways, so that is part of the story behind the story.

I am very much honored by this award. And I thank you very, very much. Unquote

Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

March 30, 2017

Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

by Mathew Davies

ASEAN here is not the problem; ASEAN is being used by Malaysia as a justification for solving the issue. Regional understandings about the value of ASEAN here are evolving — ASEAN is not becoming an actor that enforces its standards, but is becoming a tool for others to do that enforcing.– Davies


Image result for Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

The democratisation of Myanmar, culminating in the National League for Democracy’s assumption of power in early 2016, was meant to mark a step forward for the Rohingya. The hopes of the international community, Myanmar’s partners in ASEAN and the Rohingya themselves have been bitterly disappointed.

The March 2017 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar notes that the Muslims of Rakhine state had not benefited from ‘any improvements’ over the last year. October 2016 had seen a serious crackdown on the Rohingya following an attack on members of Myanmar’s police force. In her report, Yanghee Lee states that 150,000 people saw the humanitarian aid that supported them interrupted during the crackdown, 3000 Rohingya were displaced from their homes and 69,000 fled across the border to Bangladesh between the start of the crackdown and February 2017.

We should not expect any swift response from ASEAN itself. December 2016 saw an informal foreign ministers retreat organised in Yangon which resulted in nothing but platitudes about the need for long term solutions. ASEAN knows this does not work. The crisis that unfolded after October 2016 was just the latest in a series of crises over the last decade which have seen ASEAN powerless to respond — the most recent coming in 2015 where thousands of Rohingya found themselves trapped at sea after the traditional land routes through Thailand were closed. Each crisis has been accompanied by ASEAN inactivity, even as scholars and activists call on it to live up to its commitments to human rights and ‘people-centred’ regionalism.

What is new, however, is the extent to which the disquiet of Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN members is being expressed both openly and stridently.

In the vanguard of this new dissatisfaction has been Malaysia. Prime Minister Najib Razak in December 2016 stood in front of a banner that decried the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya and declared ‘I don’t care’ about ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention, ‘do you expect me … to close my eyes? To stay silent? I will not’.

Image result for Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Anifah Aman

In March 2017, talking at the International Conference on Rohingya hosted in Putrajaya, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called on Myanmar to address the Rohingya issue and noted both the regional consequences of the crisis and the role of ASEAN as a potential solution to it. At the same conference, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi called the situation ‘disappointing and unacceptable’.<

What does this newfound voice on the Rohingya mean for ASEAN? ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention, in the sense of the regional organisation itself taking action, is not changing any time soon. It is unlikely ASEAN will release a substantive statement on the Rohingya and it is unimaginable that they will take actions to punish Myanmar.

But we are seeing a willingness from certain member states to talk openly and critically about the domestic situation within other member-states. Here ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention has always been more an ideal than a rigid practice. But we are now seeing an escalation in the intensity of language that ASEAN has not experienced before.

Image result for Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya IssueMyanmar’s Foreign Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi

The image of Najib standing publicly in front of a poster about ethnic cleansing is outside of established practice when it comes to the usually staid practices of regional diplomacy. Zahid openly stating that Myanmar is ‘committing genocide through its ethnic cleansing’ is even more inflammatory. This shift in rhetoric changes a precedent for the norms that outline legitimate practice among ASEAN members. A more open, robust and even critical engagement between members could well have consequences for their willingness to work together on other issues, and in doing so effect ASEAN’s ability to dampen down regional tensions through its veneer of decorum.

Image result for Najib in protest for the Rohingyas

Lost in the public argument, however, is something both more subtle but also more telling about how Malaysia views ASEAN. The ‘disregard’ for practices of non-intervention just discussed is not a disregard of ASEAN itself so much as it is a desire to use ASEAN to promote action. This is a dangerous precedent.

In the run-up to the December 2016 informal Foreign Ministers retreat, the Malaysian Foreign Minister noted that he believed ‘that the ASEAN Member States are bound by international principles on the promotion and protection of human rights, which are also enshrined in the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration’.

ASEAN here is not the problem; ASEAN is being used by Malaysia as a justification for solving the issue. Regional understandings about the value of ASEAN here are evolving — ASEAN is not becoming an actor that enforces its standards, but is becoming a tool for others to do that enforcing.

This is very significant for the future of ASEAN. Non-intervention, through blunting the potential for regional tension, allowed ASEAN to be viewed as a way to enhance the security and freedoms of its members. In the Rohingya case, Malaysia is using ASEAN to promote regional tensions. What this means for how other members view and use ASEAN over time is going to be something to keep a close eye on. A greater willingness to politicise ASEAN to chastise members will strike at key tenets of regional diplomacy and in turn at the sources of stability of ASEAN itself.

Myanmar has long valued ASEAN for the protection it provides not only from the wider international community but also its fellow members. But the unwillingness of Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue has pushed ASEAN members towards new forms of protest. This failure is already a tragedy, but for ASEAN it might become a disaster.

Mathew Davies is Head of the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University. You can follow him on Twitter at @drmattdavies.