Youk Chhang finished his stint in court this week to which he was called following the abysmal fiasco which the testimony of his deputy ended up being. The official purpose of Chhang’s testimony was to clear up the purpose and protocol of the collection of materials his institute, Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) has done since its establishment as a Yale University project in 1995. The defense, however, had a more far-reaching strategy which was to put DC-Cam and its agendas on trial (the prosecution was correct about that but, of course, the prosecution's contention that it is irrelevant to the scope of inquiry is absolute nonsense) to show that DC-Cam de facto had operated as an arm of the prosecution since its creation.
While shielded from having to answer a number of thorny questions by the prosecution’s objections and the Trial Chamber’s sustaining them, a number of things managed to beam through that shield.
Among many other things, Chhang reiterated his organization's well-established position that it is “independent”. Independence is a slippery concept and Chhang was correct if by that he meant DC-Cam’s independence from being managed by Yale or from being managed directly by any other institution. If independence is meant to be combined with DC-Cam’s “we are just researchers” and “we just collect documents”, Chhang is as far off base on this as NASA is from a manned mission to Uranus. Let’s unpack this, shall we? From the very day of its establishment DC-Cam took a position on what happened during the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) period: 1.7 million people died and the DK government was responsible for it. Every shred of paper produced by DC-Cam has reflected this position since. The number of 1.7 million was arrived at my Ben Kiernan, one of the founders of the Yale Genocide Project, which has been accepted by DC-Cam as orthodoxy. There have been other estimates of the number of those who perished during the DK period through the years (these numbers ranged from half a million to 3.3 million) but DC-Cam has paid no heed to these numbers and religiously continued attaching 1.7 million to every single piece of paper they produced without acknowledging any of the other numbers (even the number arrived by those researchers whom DC-Cam considers friends (there is no question that DC-Cam never acknowledged the work of DK-period researchers, like Michael Vickery, who fly outside the orbit of ‘friends of DC-Cam’ and who inconveniently arrived at a much smaller number of deaths which DC-Cam is worried would take much of the pith out of its message) who have done much of their research from within the auspices of DC-Cam (Craig Etcheson arrived at 2.5 million as that number which is not reflected as an alternative number anywhere on DC-Cam materials). Being a self-proclaimed ‘independent’ institute, one would think that DC-Cam would either publicize all of these numbers or none of them (to show that while it is aware of all the research on the issue, they do not take a position on the accuracy through which these numbers were arrived at). DC-Cam’s purported independence, however, allowed it to pick one number and declare it DC-Cam’s orthodoxy. Just when we thought that the purpose of DC-Cam was to create a venue for all DK researchers to come together, not only the ones who are willing to pledge allegiance to the infallibility of Kiernan’s number (this is not to disparage Kiernan who is a highly skilled researcher and one of the most technical writers on Cambodia but to point out that the other researchers who arrived at a different number aren’t exactly US interns visiting Cambodia for a couple of summer months either). DC-Cam’s claim of independence in the context of its religious adherence to the views of a single scholar – no matter how well-regarded – whose views on the subject are not unopposed makes this claim ludicrous (but then DC-Cam is in good company here as I do not believe that the Holocaust Museum has revised the 6 million figure which has been discredited by all respectable research). Thus, the position DC-Cam would take on the question of the number and many other core questions of the DK period had been shaped before Chhang became its ‘national’ (one would wonder to what extent a US citizen running a Cambodian NGO can be referred to as ‘national director’) director. The issue of these core questions becomes particularly poignant when one considers Chhang’s statement during his testimony to the effect that he is “neither a historian, nor a researcher”. While I have no intention of passing judgment on whether Chhang is a historian and/or a researcher, his self-assessment poses multiple questions, some of which are: (1) if Chhang regards himself as neither, how did he consider himself sufficiently qualified to agree with Kiernan’s number and disagree with the numbers of all the other researchers who disagreed with Kiernan? and (2) if Chhang regards himself as neither, how does he know what it means to be ‘an independent research institute’ (intuitively, one would think that he would have to be at least a researcher of any stature to be able to answer the question of what is 'independent research' and an 'independent research institute')? Now, if by ‘independent’ Chhang meant that DC-Cam will open its doors to any scholar regardless of his or her affiliation and position on DK, this is complete nonsense and couldn’t be further from what actually happens.
This segues us into DC-Cam’s claim of accessibility (which on their website is worded into a lofty “we aim to help Cambodians heal the wounds of the past by documenting, researching and sharing the history the Khmer Rouge period”). First, if neither DC-Cam’s director, nor its staff consider themselves historians, what history are they sharing with Cambodians? Defined and written by whom? Second, the “sharing” part would be a great public service, were it not as laughable in the context of CPK-like secrecy of DC-Cam (those familiar with DC-Cam do not need Chhang showing up in court wearing a Mao shirt and a krama to see which way the wind is blowing (Like Prince Harry, Chhang does not seem to grasp that some costumes aren't good even for Halloween). If the Court were interested in this particular aspect of DC-Cam’s work, it would have no trouble finding Cambodian students and aspiring Cambodian scholars who were denied access to all other documents in possession of DC-Cam besides the ones DC-Cam has decided the public was entitled to see (this adds a level to an already laughable situation as “documents” DC-Cam makes available to the public are their own publications (I would like to look at a telegram sent by Chea Sim regarding execution in his district; no, we think it would be better if you looked at Meng Trea's book which depicts S-21 guards as victims), not DK-era documents; the denial of access to the text of the originals (not necessarily the originals of documents themselves but copies of these documents) but allowing access to materials purportedly produced on the basis of these documents is known by a specific word in the English language and this word is propaganda (its essence does not change on the basis of whether it is produced by a totalitarian government or an NGO funded by the Americans and the Swedes). Third, how does DC-Cam manage to “heal the wounds” by publicizing accounts of alleged mass atrocities or extreme hardship? It is a complete oxymoron. To me and many other Jews, a visit to any collection of materials about the Nazi concentration camps does not have the effect of developing a warm and fuzzy feeling about the Germans (oh, now I understand that they wanted to wipe us off of the face of this earth because they really hated us; I feel better already and if I see a German passing by in the next couple of hours, I will sure buy him a conciliatory beer) or for that matter those Jews who were in the Germans' employ; what magic formula of “healing the wounds” by exposing people to this type of material has Chhang come up with that the rest of the world is not aware of?
During Chhang’s testimony the defense managed to begin probing into DC-Cam’s relationship with the single party of the Cambodian purported multiparty system. This relationship appears to have been that of cooperation for a very obvious reason: DC-Cam’s position on DK has been very similar to that of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP): many people died during the DK regime and the DK government is responsible for it. It is important to remember that the Cambodian civil war was still simmering on the backburner when the Yale Genocide Project kicked off and there wasn’t much of a buy-in into CPP’s position that genocide had been committed by DK. By calling it a ‘genocide’ project, Yale affixed the stamp of its approval to the CPP’s position (from this point onwards the CPP could say to the unconverted, well, you have always been accusing us of making things up about DK to legitimate our own government, but, look, now Yale is saying the same thing; how do you like them apples?). The DK remnants' violent response to the creation of DC-Cam as an idea made the founders believe that they might have struck gold there. Therefore, during the last days of the Cambodian civil war DC-Cam was an institution which collected evidence against the enemy and to the remnants of DK it was part of the enemy’s propaganda machine. Following the end of the war, the CPP’s perception of DC-Cam was that it was an institution which collected evidence for the trials of the enemy and the further whitewashing of the CPP. One would wonder what the CPP’s position might be now that the cat of Steve Heder’s paper is out of the bag and CPP might have noticed that along with the evidence of the enemy’s guilt the tide dragged in what Heder believes to be evidence suggesting that the executions reached national record during Chea Sim’s tenure in the leadership of a certain district of DK. Will Heder become a political liability to DC-Cam with the Cambodian government, implicitly or explicitly, telling DC-Cam to sever its connection with him or else? Will Heder be removed as advisor to DC-Cam? Time will tell but this will be a great test of DC-Cam’s independence and impartiality. When the essence of Heder’s contention reached President Nil Nonn, he appeared rattled and the bench immediately lost interest in the defense further pursuing this line of questioning (many might not have known the defense had this paper; the fact that they do puts many things in perspective; among these things is the Noun Chea defense’s persistent demands for the TC to call a number of the highest-ranking CPP officials, including Chea Sim, to testify; I commented on this exercise of the defense’s as a mere attempt to suggest an appearance interference of the CPP and partiality of the Court; now that we know they have this paper (and may or may not have the rest of what is available on the subject and which is of ‘delicate’ nature to the Cambodian leadership), I see that they have more than mere grandstanding in mind for which reason I would like to retract my earlier comment).
Among many other things, the Court never explored the subject of why an NGO was the natural place to own (not keep but own) DK-era document access to which it manipulates at will while the National Archive, an institution with decades of history and which is public in the commonly accepted definition of this word (not Chhang’s definition of public), was not considered for this role? By what authority does DC-Cam usurp the entire nation's right to freely access these documents which belong to its history and its people? The Court understandably did not go into this area because it is of no concern to the Court.
What is and should be of concern to the Court is the fact that Chhang directed the collection of the documents his Center currently possesses with a presumption of guilt of the persons now in the dock and for the purpose of prosecution of these very persons. Chhang is not comfortable with the position of a humble archive director. Oh, no. Just like DK before him, he wants to control what the public knows on the subject and he wants to be the one writing the official Cambodian history of the period and has succeeded in doing so by putting out a school history book on the period written by his staff who he claims are neither historians, nor researchers (DC-Cam publications are often produced by staff members just like Dara whom we saw in court and approved by Youk in his capacity as “neither a historian, nor a researcher”; this book met with the CPP’s approval which rarely approves anything not written by their own which creates interesting repercussions for DC-Cam's purported independence). It is clear that everything Chhang has said and written about this Court revolves around his expectation that the Court will find these accused – whom Chhang has declared guilty before the proceedings ended or even began – guilty with the help of his Center.
Defense Counsel Karnavas gave away his time to cross-examine Chhang because he felt that in the face of the TC having ruled all DC-Cam documentary evidence prima facie reliable his cross-examination of Chhang would be “unprofitable”. Maybe so. But, exposing DC-Cam for what it really is, might have been worth the trouble in and of its own right. As such, we were robbed of a cross-examination by a very skilled trial lawyer who has shown himself as a ruthless cross-examiner and ended up with a much more milquetoast and far less confident one. Having not been squeezed nearly as hard as Dara, Youk’s testimony came off as the cleanup after Dara it was meant to be (to the extent it is possible to hide the true nature of DC-Cam’s institutional culture) except for one critical thing and the entire reason Chhang was called to testify: Youk referred us to Dara on all the technical questions of process; it would have been fine, had Dara not shown utter incompetence on the subject in court a mere few days prior. If all his testimony ended in a reference to the person who testified right before him and whose testimony the Court found inadequate, what was Chhang's testimony about? As Karnavas said, each document will be challenged separately in court and DC-Cam's testimonies did not do anything other than showing the Court that DC-Cam has been biased towards the prosecution from the start and that its staff are not the most competent archive workers on this planet. The former could have been gauged from any DC-Cam or Chhang publication and the latter is of no real consequence to the Court (the defense placed great value on provenance but it is a fair minor issue and will be largely judged on a contextual basis) but should be of consequence to DC-Cam's donors.