Craig Etcheson, Acting Director,
Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
CRAIG ETCHESON: To our very great surprise, we discovered that there were several large,
previously unknown archives of documents from within the Khmer Rouge internal security apparatus.
Essentially these are the records of the Khmer Rouge secret police. They explain in excruciating
detail the operation of the Khmer Rouge’s nationwide network of extermination centers.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, gathering the evidence of genocide in
ETCHESON: Of the thousands of Cambodians I’ve talked to over the years, the most common
question I’ve been asked is, “Why?” “Why did they do this to us?”
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
The people of Cambodia have suffered through many tragedies. Among these of course are the crimes
against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. But you may not be aware that this
tragedy has been compounded by the systematic destruction of much of the evidence of genocide.
Evidence which could be used to prosecute alleged war criminals. But there is an ongoing effort
to recover evidence, document crimes, and archive the stories of victims and survivors. Much of
this effort is being coordinated and catalogued via the World Wide Web. One such Web site is
called “The Digital Archive of Cambodian Holocaust Survivors.” It includes stories such as this:
FEMALE VOICE: From the time they took my father out of our hut, he was kicked, dragged and
beaten, all the way to the killing site. Before he was executed he was cuffed in chains, along
with three other men, and was confined in a basement inside an abandoned temple. He went without
food for several days because Khmer Rouge cadres knew that he was going to be killed anyway,
before they finally decided to take him to the grave. His face was swollen with bruises from the
beating. His back and ribs were broken by the constant beating by the young Khmer Rouge cadres.
The beating was so severe that it paralyzed his speech and consciousness. By this time he was
just lying on the floor, unable to move or ask for mercy. According to his executioner, his last
words were calling for his wife, son and daughter.
PORTER: The Web site is located at CyberCambodia.com. Here is another excerpt.
MALE VOICE: We packed up as quickly as we could and headed toward the Thai border. After
running with my father for hours we heard gunfire. It was the Khmer Rouge. They were shooting at
us and other families that were fleeing. We all panicked and my mom grabbed me and the baby and
started running. After awhile we had lost my father, brothers and sisters. I remember being
really scared. I was probably six years old. Suddenly my mom was shaking my baby brother and she
put him down in the grass and went to hide in the bushes, because there was still gunfire. What I
didn’t know was my little brother was shot in the head while we were running.
PORTER: We are joined now by Craig Etcheson; he’s the Acting Director of Yale University’s
Cambodia Genocide Program. The Program has made great strides in documenting war crimes in
Cambodia and sharing that information via the Internet. Craig first tells us how he became
interested in Cambodia.
ETCHESON: Well I suppose my original interest in Cambodia dates back to the 1960s and the
television war. I was a child of the television war, growing up in that age. And it was, so to
speak, our favorite television program. Moreover, my older brother fought in Cambodia in the
1960s and brought back very many strange stories of life and events there. This piqued a certain
interest that led to a growing serious academic interest in the topic of Cambodia. I started
writing about Cambodia academically in the late 1970s. And subsequently for the last six years
I’ve been involved with Cambodia full-time.
PORTER: Most of us know something or recall something about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge
and their rule from ’75-’79. What’s the situation on the ground right now? I mean, have we, we’ve
heard from Pol Pot recently. What else can you tell us about what’s happening in Cambodia today?
ETCHESON: The situation in Cambodia today is very tragic and very unfortunate. As no doubt
many of your listeners will recall, between 1991 and 1993 the United Nations did a large-scale
peacekeeping operation in Cambodia. In fact at that time it was the largest peacekeeping
operation that had ever been mounted by the United Nations. Out of this peacekeeping operation
came a coalition government that attempted to democratize Cambodian politics after a 2,000-year
history of monarchy, authoritarianism, and dictatorship. To great extent the UN intervention
failed to deeply implant seeds of democracy in Cambodia. Subsequently, in, at the beginning of
July there was fighting among the two principal factions in Cambodian politics in the Cambodian
capital of Phnom Penh and this has led to a rather confused international response. And the
United Nations has decided to leave the Cambodian seat at the United Nations open this year
pending a resolution of this conflict between the two main factions in Cambodian politics.
PORTER: You must have paid particular attention when Pol Pot re-emerged from wherever he
was. What were your thoughts when you saw him for the first time on those, that video?
ETCHESON: We were particularly interested at the video that was taken in the Khmer Rouge
base areas out in the jungle on July 25th, to see that indeed here was confirmation that Pol Pot
in fact was still alive and looking relatively healthy. The People’s Tribunal, or show trial that
the Khmer Rouge mounted for their erstwhile leader, Pol Pot, was not particularly convincing
insofar as they convicted him on charges of rebelliousness and sentenced him to house arrest.
Some analysts are skeptical that Pol Pot indeed has fallen from the leadership of the Khmer
Rouge, but for my own personal view I think that what happened on July 25th amounted essentially
to his replacement as chairman of the board of the Khmer Rouge by his long-time military leader
known under the nom de guerre Mok. His real name is Chhit Chhoun.
PORTER: You used the term “show trial,” that this was, potentially at least, a farce by
the Khmer Rouge. Is that what you’re saying?
ETCHESON: It’s useful to bear in mind that the Khmer Rouge killed all of the lawyers in
Cambodia. All of the judges. Disregarded and abandoned all law and rules solely by the decree of
the Politburo of the Community Party. At this show trial there was no evidence, no law, no
judges. I can’t conclude anything else other than that this had nothing to do with law or
PORTER: Well, on this issue of law and justice, let’s talk about the Cambodian genocide
program that you run. Tell us about the program, the goals of the program.
ETCHESON: The Cambodian Genocide Program was started at Yale University in December of
1994. The U.S. State Department, operating under a new law passed in 1994 called the Cambodian
Genocide Justice Act, after competitive bidding, awarded a contract to Yale University to carry
out a, what was originally a two-year program of research, training, and documentation relating
to the war crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity which were perpetrated in Cambodia
between 1975 and 1979.
PORTER: The federal law Craig just mentioned, the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act, says
Consistent with international law, it is the policy of the United States to support efforts to
bring to justice members of the Khmer Rouge for their crimes against humanity committed in
Cambodia between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979. To that end, the Congress urges the
President to collect, or assist appropriate organizations and individuals to collect, relevant
data on crimes of genocide committed in Cambodia. In circumstances which the President deems
appropriate, to encourage the establishment of a national or international criminal tribunal for
the prosecution of those accused of genocide in Cambodia, and, as necessary, to provide such
national or international tribunal with information collected.
ETCHESON: As we proceeded in this work it became clear that this was a much longer series
of tasks than could be completed in two years. Subsequently we have attracted financial support
from a number of other countries including Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, and Australia, as
well as additional funding from the United State government, to continue these tasks of training
legal officials and police in the Cambodian government, in the technical and procedural knowledge
they would need to participate in some form of accountability exercise with respect to Khmer
Rouge crimes during the 1970s. By accountability exercise I mean truth commission, domestic
tribunal, or an international tribunal. In our research project we are commissioning original
research on a variety of topics that we think have been inadequately explored in the existing
scholarly literature. But the lion’s share of our work involved empirical documentation of
matters relating to war crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity during the Khmer
Rouge regime between ’75 and ’79.
To do this we’re assembling a variety of databases of information. We have a bibliographic
database that contains records on 4,000 documents pertaining to gross violations of human rights
during the Khmer Rouge regime. We’ve assembled a biographical database with dossiers on 18,000
members of Khmer Rouge political and military organizations. We have assembled a photographic
database of scanned images of, oh, so far some 12,000 photographs and documents pertaining to
this subject matter. And finally a geographical database where we have precisely surveyed the
location of 9,132 mass graves in Cambodia.
PORTER: Wow! What an awesome project. It’s incredible in scope. Before we talk more about
the data I want to ask you about, you mentioned the idea of the tribunal. Do you think there will
be a Yugoslavia-Rwanda-type tribunal set up by the Security Council to deal with Cambodia?
ETCHESON: Frankly, I’d be surprised if the Security Council would decide to implement the
same type of operation they’ve done for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, because the Chinese
government has made very clear that they think this would be a bad idea. Of course the Chinese
were the closest allies of the Khmer Rouge and I think they have concerns that their reputation
might be damaged in such a proceeding. But there are a number of other approaches to setting up
an ad hoc tribunal for the Khmer Rouge similar to the ones that are currently going on in The
Hague, such as a resolution by the General Assembly, some action by the United Nations Human
Rights Commission, or indeed, just cooperative action by a group of like-minded, justice-loving
PORTER: Now, you mentioned earlier when we were talking about Pol Pot, about the lack of
evidence. All of this data in your database, the data gathering side of the Cambodia Genocide
Program, where does the data come from? We talked about bibliographic data, photos. Who’s giving
you this information?
ETCHESON: This data has come from a wide variety of sources. First we incorporated into
our databases all of the previously known existing information. Early on, in fact in January
1995, I traveled to Phnom Penh and set up a non-governmental organization there called the
Documentation Center of Cambodia. Through the Documentation Center for the last now nearly three
years, we have been scouring Cambodia; the various government ministries, private warehouses, and
the countryside. Everywhere we can think to look to see what evidence might still be remaining in
nearly 20 years now after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown early in 1979. To our very great
surprise, we discovered that there were several large, previously unknown archives of documents
from within the Khmer Rouge internal security apparatus. Essentially these are the records of the
Khmer Rouge secret police. They explain in excruciating detail the operation of the Khmer Rouge’s
nationwide network of extermination centers.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Craig Etcheson. He’s
Acting Director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University. Printed transcripts and
audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs that provoke thought and encourage dialogue
on world affairs.
PORTER: Another Web site attempting to chronicle stories from the Khmer Rouge period in
the late ’70s, is called “Beauty and Darkness.” It’s located at members.aol.com/Cambodia. It includes
this story from a woman separated from her husband, listening to explanations from the Khmer
FEMALE VOICE: They said in their lingo, “Don’t fret. We will all meet each other at that
other plane.” We’d all be reunited in hell was what they really meant. When they ordered us to
leave the temple to go back to our hometowns, I realized my husband had been killed. Me and all
the wives cried at the announcement. We used to see truckloads of men dressed in black being
driven away, but we could barely make out the faces and could not recognize that their faces were
the faces of our husbands. Until then, I hadn’t realized I was being held prisoner. They had a
twenty-four surveillance on us and when we left to do work in the fields they kept tabs.
PORTER: The same Web site includes this brutal account.
MALE VOICE: Executions were carried out in a number of different ways. Often victims were
taken to killing fields where they were forced to kneel down in front of trenches before being
killed by a blow to the head with a pickax or a shovel. At times large groups of people were shot
together. Other individuals were suffocated by a plastic bag tied over their heads. Executions
were also sometimes performed publicly. Some victims were beaten to death. Others were
disemboweled and their livers were cooked and eaten by their killers. Whole families were often
killed for the minor infractions of a single person. The Khmer Rouge did not want to leave
surviving relatives who might harbor a grudge against Ankar. Infants were smashed against trees
or thrown into the air and impaled on bayonets or bamboo sticks.
ETCHESON: One of the innovative aspects of the way we’re approaching this is our intention
to publish the vast majority of this information, in its raw state, on the Internet, so that
anyone can look at it.
PORTER: Again, this is Craig Etcheson, Acting Director of the Cambodian Genocide Program
at Yale University.
ETCHESON: We released our preliminary version of these databases, the bibliographic,
biographic, photographic and geographic databases, on a Web site that is mounted at Yale
University; also in cooperation with the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The
Internet address of that Web site is “http://www.yale.edu/cgp,” as in Cambodian Genocide Program.
ETCHESON: The intended audiences for these databases are really several. First of all,
this huge amount of new information that we’ve uncovered will in some respects revolutionize the
study of modern Cambodian history. And there is such a huge volume of new material, more than
500,000 pages of documents, that it will require all of the Cambodia scholars in the world many
years to thoroughly and properly digest all of this stuff. I like to say there are the raw
materials for 100 Ph.D. dissertations here. So the scholarly community is certainly a primary
audience. A secondary, and also a very key audience, is the international legal community and the
governments of the world that are interested in achieving accountability for the gross human
rights violations of the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. This is integral to our original mandate
under the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act, to assemble a database of information which could be
useful to prosecutors in assembling cases against the leadership of the Khmer Rouge and the
lower-level members of the Khmer Rouge who were deeply involved in very serious violations of
In addition to these scholarly and legal audiences, we’re also very keen to make this information
available to the Cambodian people themselves so that they can have a better understanding of
their own history and what happened to their country during the Khmer Rouge regime. Of the
thousands of Cambodians I’ve talked to over the years, the most common question I’ve been asked
is, “Why?” “Why did they do this to us?” This is our attempt to help them gain some understanding
of why this horrible event happened to their country. Perhaps one of the most telling examples of
that is our photographic database. On the Internet we have photographs of more than 5,000 victims
of the Khmer Rouge who were executed at secret police headquarters in Phnom Penh. Most of these
victims are unidentified. We have posted their pictures on the Internet and in various places
Cambodians are going through this database of photographs attempting to identify people that they
may recognize from the past. And already in a number of cases we have received replies from the
automatic form that’s included on the database suggesting people they believe they recognize.
PORTER: Wow. That’s very interesting. Lest we forget. I mean, that’s the motto of so many
things in the past and this is probably the first time I’ve heard of one that’s so detailed using
new technology to make sure people don’t forget.
ETCHESON: Indeed, and to preserve the historical record is very important. One of the
aspects of genocidal regimes that we’ve noticed all over the world is that invariably they deny
that these crimes have ever taken place. And this is tantamount denying the very existence of
their victims. This is the same thing as insulting the dignity of these people the second time.
PORTER: The second death. Yes.
ETCHESON: First you kill them, next you deny that they ever even existed. Interestingly,
for the first time ever really, the leadership of the Khmer Rouge regime has made public
pronouncements admitting that they carried out large-scale crimes against humanity. They dispute
the magnitude of the crimes saying it was only hundreds of thousands of people they killed, when
we believe the number is more likely on the order of 1.7 million to 2 million. But this certainly
is progress when the Khmer Rouge leadership admits that they carried out crimes against humanity.
PORTER: It certainly changes the argument away from “Yes, you did—No, you didn’t” or “No,
we didn’t,” to numbers.
ETCHESON: This is an unprecedented development in the history of Cambodia’s great tragedy.
PORTER: What do you expect to happen now in Cambodia? I mean I’m not asking you to be a
prophet, but is there a, will the international community respond? Will Cambodia slip off the
front page again? Or what do you think will happen?
ETCHESON: Cambodia always comes and goes from the front pages. Right now there is a
concerted effort by the international community to attempt to resolve what has become a military
conflict between the two principal factions in Cambodian politics. We’re hopeful that progress
will be made on that so we can get back to the question of accountability for the really horrible
human rights abuses of Cambodia’s past. We have a strong belief that until the issue of Khmer
Rouge war crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity is addressed in an effective and
public way, that stability and national reconciliation in Cambodian politics and society can
never come about. So we’re very hopeful that the current political problems can be resolved so
Cambodians and interested members of the international community can get back to the task of
long-term healing of Cambodia’s great tragedy.
PORTER: We’ve had so many issues like this, or events like this around the world, where
we’ve needed that kind of post-conflict justice. And there have been different mechanisms
applied, whether they’re truth commissions or tribunals—El Salvador, Yugoslavia—you could go
down the list. What mechanisms would you think would work best in Cambodia?
ETCHESON: As it happens, my own personal views on this are really not relevant because
there is a very strong consensus among the elite in Cambodian politics from across the entire
political spectrum that what is needed to begin the healing of Cambodia after the genocide is an
international criminal tribunal, to bring to justice the key members of the Khmer Rouge
leadership who were the intellectual authors of the mass killings in Cambodia. Just before the
fighting broke out in Cambodia at the beginning of July, the co-Prime Ministers, Prince Norodom
Ranariddh and Hun Sen, together signed a letter and sent it to the UN Secretary General, Kofi
Annan, asking for the United Nations and interested members of the international community to
cooperate in establishing an international criminal tribunal to deal with those accused of
genocide in Cambodia. This was very nearly the first thing the co-Prime Ministers had been able
to agree on in the last year-and-a-half. So it really was very tragic that scarcely two weeks
later their respective military factions fell into fighting.
PORTER: That is tragic, isn’t it? And it seems like, it’s just, it’s a tragic history. I
mean, it’s one tragic event after another.
ETCHESON: Cambodia’s history over the last more than 25 years has been one of the most
terrible stories of the 20th Century.
PORTER: I’m glad we have people like you, Craig, who are following the story for one
thing, but also, attempting to do something for the better.
ETCHESON: Oh, I would hasten to point out that it’s not just me. We have a very large and
dedicated team of people in Europe, the United States, Australia, and particularly, in Cambodia,
who have been working on this very hard for three years.
PORTER: That is Craig Etcheson, Acting Director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale
University. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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