Benny Widyono, a former UN official in Cambodia during its transition period in the 1990s, says the country’s mass killings were in part a result of the Cold War.
Cambodia was caught between the superpowers of communism and the free world, Widyono, who is now an economic professor at the University of Connecticut, told a group of students at Rutgers University-Newark, in New Jersey, recently.
Something similar happened in his home country, Indonesia, he said.
“[US presidents] [Dwight] Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, they wanted to get rid of [Indonesian President] Sukarno in Indonesia because they wanted to get rid of the communists, period,” he said in a later interview with VOA Khmer. “And for Cambodia, also, there was a Cold War element, because the Khmer Rouge was supported by China.”
Widyono, who served in Cambodia as a UN-appointed governor in Siem Reap, under Untac, and as the UN secretary-general’s special representative to the country, said people often questioned him on whether China or the US should be held responsible.
“I gave many lectures in Phnom Penh,” he said. “They asked: Should we punish China also? And someone today said maybe the US should be punished. But, you know we are such a small country, Cambodia, you cannot say, ‘You must be put on trial.’ It just doesn’t work in this world, you know. Big guys can say that, but small guys cannot say that.”
Sok Monika, one of a few Cambodian-Americans attending the talk, said it is important to learn about the causes and players involved in the Cambodian atrocities.
“It’s so interesting how in the middle of these world powers—all these world hegemons who are fighting in the Cold War, these hegemons who are fighting today—there are going to be countries that want to stay neutral,” she said. “And they get jumped over by these countries…and they have no say in what happened to their country.”
The US has culpability in the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, she said. It was “very responsible for the escalation of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.”
Martha Stroud, an independent genocide scholar who also attended Widyono’s talk, said her sympathy for the Cambodian people increases, “every time I hear talks on the Cambodian genocide.”
“The suffering that people dealt with and what they had to endure, but also their strength and their pursuit toward justice: I think it’s inspiring,” she said. “And his talk really brought that home.”
Sreyneath Poole, a representative of the Documentation Center of Cambodia at Rutgers-Newark, who organized the talk, said she was hoping it would help explain a part of history.
“What I’d like to see is that a Cambodian who comes to the talk takes this: ‘Oh, we were part of the tragedy that played out within the Cold War system, but we’ve moved on and we’re rebuilding,” she told VOA Khmer.
Peuo Tuy, another Cambodian-American attending the talk, said she still feels that there are many “hidden stories and feelings” around the subject.
“It’s a lot of pain for a lot of people involved,” she said. “And those who aren’t—who are second generation, who see their moms and dads go through that—they don’t talk about it. However I definitely see a way of moving forward. You can never forget something that happened. But you have to forgive yourself and let yourself be part of that healing process.”