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CHINA: Khmer Rouge Trials Raise Ghosts of the Past

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Feb 20 2009 (IPS) - The skeletons are tumbling out of China’s cupboard of buried memories. The 30th anniversary of China’s brief but bloody war with Vietnam may have gone unmarked but for the fact that Feb.17 also saw the start of the trial of the chief torturer of Cambodia’s grisly Khmer Rouge.

China’s role in Cambodia’s bloody past is now little spoken of and this is how Beijing, Hanoi and Phnom Penh – all intent on trade and development – prefer it.

When in 1979 Vietnam ousted Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, Beijing was so incensed by what it saw as defiance in its backyard by a political party it had helped create that it ordered an attack to "teach Vietnam a lesson" and keep Pol Pot in power.

During his 1975-1979 rule Pol Pot had sought to replicate Mao Zedong’s agrarian utopia, but the experiment left Cambodia deeply scarred and a quarter of its population – some 1.7 million people – dead.

Although aware of the atrocities committed by the regime, Beijing sided with the Khmer Rouge over the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and launched a massive offensive against Vietnam along the two countries’ border.

The month-long border conflict claimed anywhere between 20,000 to 60,000 lives, and yet no commemorations were held on the 30th anniversary either in Beijing or Hanoi.

As the trial of Khmer Rouge’s chief investigator Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, opened in Phnom Penh, China sought to downplay its role in supporting Pol Pot’s regime.

"As everyone knows, the government of Democratic Kampuchea had a legal seat at the United Nations, and had established broad foreign relations with more than 70 countries," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular press briefing, referring to the former Khmer Rouge government.

Duch is being tried on charges of crimes against humanity. Under his watch, as commandant of the notorious S-21 prison, some 14,000 people were tortured and sent to their deaths in the killing fields outside the capital Phnom Penh.

According to Pol Pot’s biographer, Philip Short, after the Vietnamese invasion, Duch found shelter in China, working for Radio China International in Beijing.

"China owes Cambodian people an apology," says Lao Monghay, former director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh and now a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. "It supported the Khmer Rouge before coming to power and continued to lend its support even after Pol Pot assumed power regardless of what was happening to Cambodian people."

According to Lao Monghay, China had donated one billion US dollars to Democratic Kampuchea before 1979 and another billion dollars after 1979 in order to fight the Vietnamese invasion.

China often admonishes Japan to "face up" to history, insisting that Tokyo’s unapologetic attitude regarding its invasionist politics of the past impedes relations with its neighbours. But when applied to China’s own past, reckoning of history’s fallacies is discarded as irrelevant to current and future developments.

"China and Vietnam have had a period of unhappiness in their past,’’ Jiang Yu told reporters. "But what’s important is that the leaders and people of both countries have a broad wish and consensus to create a bright future together. History has already reached its conclusions," she added.

The Khmer Rouge regime was a replica of Maoist regime, says Lao Monghay, and any probe into its record could throw unfavourable light on China’s own historical blunders. "The Chinese communist regime hasn’t accounted yet for the sufferings caused to its own people during years of political campaigns and persecutions," he adds.

During Mao’s rule China armed and trained rebel groups in almost every South-east Asian country, including Indonesia, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, even as it fostered warm relations with their official governments.

Beijing’s generous support for revolutionary armies all over Asia rose during the Cultural Revolution when China’s rivalry with the Soviet Union intensified and they competed for influence in the region as Western colonial powers retreated.

"In the end it was realpolitik, far more than ideological affinity, which brought China and Cambodia together," wrote Short in his biography of Pol Pot, ‘The History of a Nightmare.’ "There was near-perfect symmetry to the three countries’ relations. China was to Vietnam as Vietnam was to Cambodia – a vast and powerful neighbour, which threatened hegemony."

While Beijing saw Vietnam as a Soviet bridgehead in Asia, it also saw "Cambodia as the one country on Vietnam’s western flank which might be expected to resist the expansion of Vietnamese, and hence of Soviet power," Short wrote.

Now, as then, imperatives of ideology have given way to realpolitik. Economy and trade form the basis for Beijing’s policies towards its neighbouring countries these days. China is patiently rebuilding traditional ties with all of its Southeast Asian neighbours, using foreign investment, development aid and "soft power" to draw them back into its economic orbit.

The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) intra-regional trade programme, launched by the Asia Development Bank (AsDB) in 1992, has provided Beijing with the framework for expanding economic ties without arousing fears among its neighbours still wary of Chinese power.

"China actively participates in the development of the GMS because it sees it as the building of a passage to all of South-east Asia," says He Shengda, researcher with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.

In Cambodia these days, Chinese firms are engaged in mining and logging, and have built roads, bridges, garment factories, power plants, casinos and resorts, investing about 1.5 billion dollars in 2007.

A Cambodian investment group and a Chinese textile firm have committed three billion dollars to a joint venture, in Sihanoukville, modelled along the lines of China’s tax-free special economic zones.

In Vietnam, the old theatres of war are now bustling with Chinese traders, facilitated by new highways, such as the one linking Nanning in Guangxi province with Hanoi. Within three years, another AsDB-financed highway will shorten the drive between Yunnan capital Kunming and Hanoi to less than 24 hours.

Similar accelerated economic integration can be seen elsewhere in South-east Asia where Chinese companies are providing capital and expertise in exchange for markets and valuable resources.

"The economies of the GMS and China are highly complementary," says Zhang Guotu, an expert on South-east Asia with Xiamen University. "The sub-region has great potential in terms of resources and labour but its economies are lagging behind. This presents opportunities for Chinese state and private companies looking both for markets and investment."

Within the greater scope of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), China is pushing for enlarged economic interdependence too. In a sign of its growing ambitions, last year Beijing appointed a special ambassador to the 10-member association.

In 2010 China and ASEAN are due to launch the first stage of a trade agreement, reducing tariffs on trade between China and the five founding countries of the bloc – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. In 2015, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma will also join the trade bloc. The exception is Brunei.

Nevertheless, China’s relations with South-east Asian nations remain prickly as history and politics often get in the way of economic integration.

"History should not be easily discarded," says Lao Monghay. "It only takes a look at Cambodia and China relations for example, to see that they have been like a yo-yo in the past – swinging from good to bad and back."

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