Cambodian history vs. zombie facts

[Published by the Khmer Times on 4 July 2017.]

Over the years, I have almost grown accustomed to the distortions and misrepresentations of recent Cambodian history that appear in some of the English-language press.

Some of these falsities, I think of as “zombie facts”. No matter how many times they are shot down, they are soon revived by another writer, who assumes that their earlier appearance in print means they must be true (especially if they appeared in the paper she or he is working for). Many of these zombie facts revolve around Cambodia’s elections, but the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the UNTAC period and various episodes of the civil war also contribute a fair share.

A week before the 20th anniversary of the 1997 fighting between CPP and Funcinpec, the Cambodia Daily decided to get in early with its anniversary article, in its June 30 issue. If the Daily had stopped at merely re-inspiring the zombies, I would not have opened my computer. But the article adds new “information” that requires at least one attempt to bury it before it’s too late.

But first, two brief examples of long-lived zombies. The first is the idea that the 1991 Paris Agreement and UNTAC “put an end to the war” between the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge and its allies. Zombie facts can stagger on even when contradicted in the same article in which they appear. “[P]ut an end to the war” occurs on the first page of the Daily’s five-page article, while the third page acknowledges that the KR “had broken the treaty, regained their camps along the Thai border and resumed war”.

The second example from the same article tells us that Funcinpec was “overwhelmingly elected” in the 1993 UNTAC-run election. Funcinpec came first, with 45.5% of the total vote and 58 out of 120 seats, but that gives new meaning to “overwhelmingly” (especially when numerous CPP complaints, including that hundreds of ballot boxes had arrived for counting with their seals broken, were never addressed).

The article then says that “the CPP refused to step down”, and so Prince Sihanouk arranged a coalition between Funcinpec and the CPP. Anyone who questions that bit of accepted journalism will be accused of refusing to believe in the walking dead. But Ranariddh and Hun Sen had already agreed before the election that they would form a coalition if neither of their parties won a majority.* Furthermore, the rules for adopting the new constitution virtually guaranteed a coalition, since a two-thirds majority was required to approve the constitution.

The new element in the Daily article is the claim by Peter Bartu, an academic at the University of California, Berkeley, that one of “three key issues that really upset Hun Sen” immediately prior to the CPP -Funcinpec fighting was that Ranariddh had “unilaterally”, without consulting him, written to the UN secretary-general “ask[ing] for a Khmer Rouge tribunal”.

If true, this would be news to most people who have any familiarity with the history of the tribunal. Yet Bartu is quoted as saying there is “general agreement” about it.

The Swedish diplomat Thomas Hammarberg was directly involved in the Cambodian request for UN assistance in a court, which was signed jointly by Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Hammarberg later wrote in the magazine of the Documentation Center of Cambodia ( that, following an April 1997 resolution of the UN Commission on Human Rights that indicated possible UN support for a KR tribunal, he first approached Ranariddh, who “appeared to be hesitant about the effects of the tribunal discussion on his possibilities to attract defectors” from the KR, but who agreed to sign a letter that Hammarberg then drafted. Hammarberg next “reported these developments to Hun Sen during our subsequent meeting. He said that he of course would sign, that to defeat the Khmer Rouge had for him been a lifelong battle.”

The article includes many other assertions from Bartu about what Hun Sen and other CPP leaders were upset or thinking about in 1997, none of which include any citations of a source. Unfortunately, for most of these, there is no equivalent of Thomas Hammarberg to counter the “facts” of unnamed informants. I already hear the tramping feet of more zombies.

*Kevin Cooney, “Leading Cambodian Parties Talk of Coalition”, Reuters, 25 May 1993, cited by Professor Michael Haas of the University of Hawaii, in Back to Square One? The Cambodia Tangle, Selected Papers in Asian Studies, New Series No. 49, Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies, 1994.