Interview: Documenting Year Zero

POV: You founded the Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) at Yale in 1994. What was the CGP intended to do?
The Flute Player - Ben Kiernan Ben Kiernan

Ben Kiernan: First, in January 1995, the CGP established the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, and formally began documenting the mass killings by Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime in 1975-79. While funding, training, and equipping the Cambodian staff of the Documentation Center, the CGP set out to collect, study, and preserve all extant documents and other sources of information about that period of Cambodian history; to make this information available to a court or tribunal willing to prosecute the surviving war criminals and genocide suspects, to victims or their family members, and to scholars around the world; and to generate an analytical understanding of genocide to assist in the detection and prevention of political and ethnic violence against populations elsewhere in the world.

For nine years, the CGP has furthered these goals of documentation, preservation, research, and training. In 1998, we expanded our activities to include other international tragedies. Under the rubric of the comparative Genocide Studies Program, we have established parallel interdisciplinary projects to document and research events during the Holocaust and in the colonial era, and more recent genocides such as those in Rwanda, East Timor, Guatemala, Bosnia, and Sudan.

POV: How does the CGP go about gathering documentary evidence? What kinds of materials are in the archive?

Kiernan: We first built up a multi-lingual library and archive at the Documentation Center. In Phnom Penh in 1996, the CGP obtained a 50,000-page trove of documents produced by the former Khmer Rouge regime's security police, the Santebal. We had these confidential communications between the top DK leaders and their apparatus of repression microfilmed by Yale's Sterling Library and made available to scholars worldwide. Based on information in this and other archives we had assembled, the CGP and the Documentation Center compiled and published over 19,000 biographic entries on Khmer Rouge officials and their victims, 3,000 bibliographic records on sources of information about that era, and over 6,000 photographs, documents, translations, and maps, along with CGP books and research papers on the genocide. Meanwhile we visited hundreds of mass grave and former prison sites throughout Cambodia, recording their precise locations on computerized maps and on satellite images taken during the genocide.

POV: What sort of opposition has the CGP faced in gaining access to documents or witnesses?

Kiernan: The CGP has benefited from helpful cooperation from the Cambodian and U.S. governments, and financial support from the U.S., Australian and Netherlands governments. Both of Cambodia's major political parties, the People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec, and King Norodom Sihanouk, have also provided encouragement and support. The Cambodian coalition government gave the CGP written authority to search throughout the country for documents, to interview witnesses, and record mass grave sites. The government itself provided documents, and donated land to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Meanwhile, in 1995 the Khmer Rouge opposition "indicted" me as an "arch war criminal." Pol Pot's clandestine radio station complained that "the Australian Ben Kiernan, who is an accessory executioner of the U.S. imperialists," was "prosecuting and terrorizing the Cambodian resistance patriots." Two days later a Khmer Rouge spokesman also called me a "vile and odious hireling of the communist Vietnamese and the Allies." The Khmer Rouge had me "tried" and "sentenced." Their own day in court is now approaching.

POV: What is the role of technology in the documentation project? Are the resources of the CGP widely available? Are there common access privileges, international standards, or rights to documentation?

Kiernan: We have made the original documentation which the CGP gathered as widely available as possible, in hardcopy in Phnom Penh, on microfilm through university libraries, or in scanned digital form on our website. Much of the data is also accessible in searchable form in our large biographic, photographic, bibliographic, and geographic databases (see links at right). These were developed using UNESCO standards and software, with the support of the Departments of Information Technology and Geomatic Engineering of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, the Center for Earth Observation at Yale's Institute for Biospheric Studies, and the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

POV: The government of Cambodia and the United Nations have recently come to an agreement on genocide tribunals. How do you think the tribunal will proceed? How do you see the prospects for success?

Kiernan: The signing of the agreement on June 6, 2003 is a major development in a long campaign to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. For a quarter century justice has been delayed and denied by political considerations. U.N. support for and supervision of the tribunal to be held in Cambodia's Extraordinary Chambers is to be welcomed. A mass of probative evidence is now available to the international and Cambodian co-prosecutors and judges. We can only hope that a fair trial of perpetrators of the genocide and other crimes against humanity will help entrench the rule of law in Cambodia and deter criminals in other countries from contemplating such outrages against human rights in the future.

Ben Kiernan, born in Melbourne, Australia in 1953, is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of a hundred scholarly articles on Southeast Asia and genocide, as well as several books including "The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979." He recently won the Critical Asian Studies Prize for 2002, and is currently writing a global history of genocide since 1492 for Yale University Press.

Related Links:

Learn more about the Cambodian Genocide Program at
Visit the Yale Genocide Studies Program at
Find out more about the origins of the word, genocide, on POV's Discovering Dominga website.
Referring to the widespread killings in the Sudanese region of Darfur, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on September 9, 2004 that "genocide has been committed." Learn more about the situation in Sudan in the POV film, "Lost Boys of Sudan."