By Luke Hunt
ASIAWATCH — Almost four decades after the Khmer Rouge marched Into Phnom Penh the work of journalists and photographers from that tragic era is finally being laid bare before a war crimes tribunal which prosecutors hope will put away Pol Pot’s remaining henchmen.
Importantly, the scope of their evidence and who can testify is limited by the court’s mandate which is consigned to judging crimes and hearing evidence from events that occurred strictly under the Khmer Rouge rule, from April 17, 1975 to January 9, 1979.
Among the most prominent was the New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg who spoke of the forced evacuations ordered after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and how one Khmer woman begged him to take her baby away.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it’,” Schanberg said. “At that point, a French woman said, ‘I’ll do it, and I know all these people in relief organizations, and I’ll make sure he finds a family.’”
The baby was handed over by its weeping mother.
Schanberg told the court that food shortages emerged with the Khmer Rouge annexation of the country while defence lawyers for former Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan noted Schanberg had been criticized for holding too much of an American view.
“Some might call it an imperialist view,” said Nuon Chea’s lawyer Victor Koppe.
With Schanberg was the American photojournalist Al Rockoff who gave a poignant testimony, much of it in regards to the work of another photographer, Frenchman Roland Neveau.
As a former US Army photographer, Rockoff was also the first US military veteran who served in Indochina during what he refers to as the “American War” to testify before the court.
“A cadre with a bullhorn was saying: ‘The war is over. The war is over.’ Everything was OK at that point. They weren’t panicking, they were happy, the soldiers, the civilians,” he told the court.
But then the order to evacuate came. Pol Pot wanted the people of Phnom Penh out of the city immediately and Rockoff added: “About an hour later, the mood changed.”
Rockoff, Schanberg and Neveau were with the Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran and British journalist John Swain of the Sunday Times who stayed behind after April 17, finding shelter in the French Embassy.
Rockoff, 64, told the court how thousands of people, desperate for refuge, were wandering the city, how a swimming pool in a five-star hotel was turned into a giant septic tank, which he described as gross, and how patients were marched out of hospital wards, leaving bloodied floors behind them.
After scouting the city on an assignment, Rockoff and Schanberg encountered Khmer Rouge soldiers, some quite young, and were forced into an armored personnel carrier where they tried to pass themselves off as French.
“Sydney got very upset when I started speaking English in the APC, and he said, ‘Don’t speak English. You’re French,’” Rockoff said. Their bags were then searched.
“One Khmer Rouge held up a big wad of hundred dollar bills in one hand and Sydney’s underwear in the other. He put the money back in the blue hand bag and kept the underwear,” Rockoff said. “I guess the money had no value at that time to him.”
Schanberg, who testified via Skype, left no doubt about what happened in the first day of Khmer Rouge rule.
“Almost the entire population of almost two million were taken out of the city on that first day,” he said
“We saw people being pushed on beds . . . with bottles of serum hanging from the bed. They were all being forced out of the city. And the avenue that we came out on was scattered with the shoes and sandals that people had lost as they were forced to walk quickly in those huge crowds.”
The Khmer Rouge were swept from power by invading Vietnamese forces in late 1978. Hanoi’s occupation continued until the Cold War ended a decade later. Civil conflict continued until 1998 and it was only then that any form tribunal could only be considered.
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, known locally as the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC), has endured mixed fortunes since case 001 was launched with the indictment of the death camp commander Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who was eventually jailed for life.
A chronic lack of funds amid allegations of nepotism and cronyism among the Khmer staff and an uneasy relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has indicated he does not want to see the tribunal expanded, have also cast a shadow over proceedings.
Nevertheless, the ECCC has shed some light on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
Former BBC journalist and author Philip Short offered a rare glimpse into Chinese thought at the time. China was the only country to have backed the Khmer Rouge after Pol Pot fell out of favour with the Vietnamese and the rest of the Communist world.
Short, who wrote biographies of Pol Pot and Chinese leader Mao Zedong, said the decision to evacuate and put people into labour camps – which would result in the deaths of about two million people over the next three years-and-a-half years — had worried the Chinese Communist Party.
“I think Lenin would have said it was an infantile form of communism. It was very extreme,” he said. “In China, they stopped [killing] and instituted thought reform. Mao said, ‘Heads are not like chives; they don’t grow back again if you cut them off.’ Well, in Cambodia, they cut them off.”
Short later added the make-up of the regime had prevented Pol Pot and his henchmen from heeding China’s urging for restraint. It was an important point. Beijing has always declined to comment on its support for the maniacal regime and Short’s comments added some much needed political perspective to the era and relations between Kampuchea and China.
“Zhou Enlai was worried about what was going to happen in Cambodia, and warned Khieu Samphan to avoid imitating the Great Leap Forward . . . and argued in favour of moderation – unsuccessfully, of course,” he said. “Mao was impressed by what the Khmer Rouge had done, but he too was worried.”
Another former New York Times journalist and author Elizabeth Becker, has been called to testify but her appearance has also been constantly delayed amid legal wrangles. Her book When the War was Over is being used by prosecutors as basic background material at the tribunal.
“It turns out I was in the unusual category of being both an expert witness (there are about eight of us) and a fact witness,” she said.
However, her initial reaction to testifying was mixed.
“As an American journalist I immediately thought ‘no, I can’t testify.’ I didn’t want to do anything that might compromise journalistic freedoms protected under the Constitution.
“But after consultation with a lawyer I realized that was not the case. I had retired from the New York Times so I was no longer a member of the press with responsibilities as a daily journalist. I had donated most of my papers and copies of my photographs of the Khmer Rouge to my alma mater the University of Washington and its Southeast Asia Library special collections.
“Everything was in the public record. So I was not breaking any confidentiality. With those assurances, I accepted the invitation,” she said.
In 1978 Becker was one of three people who went to Democratic Kampuchea, allowed in under the tight control of the Khmer Rouge. On their last night, Khmer Rouge gunmen attacked and killed Malcolm Caldwell, an academic, which was one reason behind her decision to testify.
“In today’s wars journalists are being targeted to keep them away,” Becker said.
“Look at Syria. The government does not want witnesses to the warfare and atrocities, especially not journalists who create permanent records and spread the news immediately. If journalists testifying at trials increase the likelihood of more targeting of journalists, that is a problem.
“I thought long and hard about that issue. In the end, I decided to testify because I was a witness to just that sort of targeting,” she said referring to Caldwell’s death.
Parts of this article have appeared in The Edge Review.