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Covering a trial that is taking place some 8,000 miles away is not the easiest thing to do--especially when it is getting such scant coverage in the United States.
However, the trial of three former Communist Khmer Rouge leaders who helped rule Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 when an estimated 3 million Cambodians (about one-fourth of the total population) perished because of an internecine program of political and cultural "cleansing," simply cannot be ignored.
After all, had the United States not decided to widen the war in Vietnam in 1970 by invading Cambodia in an effort to interdict the safe havens Communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops were retreating to, the Khmer Rouge might never have gained power.
So, it can be argued that Washington's policies during the Vietnam War were partially responsible for providing the momentum for the Khmer Rouge takeover and eventual genocide that took place in Cambodia.
I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in February-March 1975 with the Chicago Tribune when the Khmer Rouge had ringed the city and were pelting it relentlessly with Chinese-made 107mm rockets. It was a terrible experience--especially for Cambodian refugees who had flocked to the city seeking shelter.
At the time, none of us was sure just what the Khmer Rouge were planning for the people of Cambodia, but we had warning signs. The Khmer Rouge purposely targeted refugee camps with their rockets--an indication that Khmer Rouge leaders were not the benevolent liberators they claimed to be.
Nuon Chea Ieang Sary Khieu Samphan
Now, with the trial underway for Nuon Chea, former Khmer Rouge chief ideologist and its No. 2 leader after Pol Pot who died in 1998; Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister; and Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head of state, just how brutal the regime was is about to be divulged in the testimony of some 1,000 witnesses.
As a correspondent who covered the end of the wars in both Cambodia and Vietnam, I still feel a responsibility to help set the record straight.
At a time when most Americans are concerned with the debt-ridden U.S. economy, high unemployment, the housing market collapse and myriad other fiscal concerns, it may be understandable that a trial being held some 8,000 miles away is not on the radar screen.
Nevertheless, it is the media's obligation to report it. While a handful of reporters are in Phnom Penh for the trial, their stories are getting scant play in newspapers, magazines and on television/cable news outlets.
Think about it. How many stories have you seen about the trial on CNN, FOX or MSNBC? You can forget about the networks. They have simply stopped covering anything but the most major of international stories. Newspaper coverage is almost totally absent. I have not seen one story on the tribunal in any of the three daily newspapers I read here in Southern California.
I understand that times have changed. The American public has little interest or understanding of international events--unless it directly concerns the American military. And editors and TV producers often lament the high cost of foreign news coverage. And of course, this tribunal is examining events that took place more than 30 years ago.
Yates Talking with Cambodian Refugees1978
In the late 1970s and early 1980s I traveled often to Cambodian refugee camps and Khmer Serei (anti Khmer Rouge guerilla) outposts along the Thai-Cambodian border. I interviewed countless refugees who recounted one tale of horror after another. To its credit the Chicago Tribune gave these stories great play--even at a time when most Americans were trying to forget their nation's ill-fated involvement in Southeast Asia.
Today, time and distance have put Cambodia far from the minds of Americans. But that still does not relieve the American media of their responsibility to cover the tribunal and thereby ignore a government that ordered hundreds of thousands of executions, instituted forced labor, authorized torture, and initiated a policy of deliberately starving the populace--all of which, it can be argued, occurred as a result of the American involvement in their country.
The tribunal is proving to be a legal seminar in duplicity and disavowal. All three men on trial seem intent on ignoring the fact that millions of Cambodians were killed while they wielded power.
Speaking in an opening statement to the court, Khieu Samphan said he was not aware of the mass atrocities taking place throughout the country, despite being the nominal head of the movement.
His denials left some in disbelief.
Gregory Stanton, a research professor in genocide studies at George Mason University, in Virginia, called the statement “beyond belief.”
“He was the head of state,” Stanton said. “How on Earth could he not have known about it? He’s a liar. I happened to know, because we’ve looked at the documentation. He made speeches directly to people, to cadres, calling upon the cadres to exterminate all the enemies of the people. I mean, directly. He made these speeches himself in 1977 and at other times too.”
Nuon Chea, the man known as Brother No. 2 of the Khmer Rouge, is on trial for atrocity crimes, including genocide. Tuesday he addressed tribunal judges and rejected the prosecution’s charges, adding that he had only worked for the good of the nation.
“All accusations against me are wrong,” said the man who was the influential ideologue of the regime. “My position in the revolutionary resistance was for the interest of the nation and the citizens. And it was not for the killings, or the so-called genocide.”
Outside the courtroom, meanwhile, Cambodian victims and former cadre alike gathered to witness the opening salvos of the landmark trial.
Chhim Phan, a 72-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre, said he had been ordered by “top leaders” to kill a young couple who had fallen in love. The couple was beaten to death by hoes and clubs in front of others from their commune, he said.
“I’m happy to come here,” he said. “I want to show the public that we didn’t kill people by our own selves. We received orders to commit the killings.”
There is something eerily familiar about such statements, however. Didn't the world hear similar justifications at a place called Nuremberg?