The Apologist in Suburbia
On April 16, the day after Pol Pot expired in a jungle hut near the Thailand border, President Bill Clinton vowed to pursue those who had aided the dictator during his reign over Cambodia's killing fields in the late 1970s.
"We must not permit the death of the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge leaders to deter us from the equally important task of bringing these others to justice," Clinton said.
But while the United States talks of hunting down Khmer Rouge leaders hiding in the jungles of Cambodia and Thailand, Pol Pot's chief diplomatic defender during the 1980s and early 1990s sits reading the news in the plush living room of his suburban Westchester home.
Thiounn Prasith, a 68-year-old Paris-educated intellectual, served as the Khmer Rouge envoy to the United Nations from 1979 to 1993. During the Khmer Rouge's regime, from 1975 to 1979, he was a close adviser to Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's foreign minister and brother- in-law. Today, despite a 1995 State Department vow to deport him, he lives the life of a retired gentleman in a spacious stucco house on a quiet street in Mount Vernon, New York.
"They are concentrating on the apprehension of people in the jungle when they could send a police car to apprehend a potential suspect right here in the U.S.," says Craig Etcheson, the former program director of the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program, which has gathered evidence for possible use in a war-crimes trial.
When the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 and transformed the country into a labor camp, families were destroyed; the traditional religion, Theravada Buddhism, abolished; and self-expression deemed cause for execution. The Cambodian Genocide Program estimates that the Khmer Rouge claimed the lives of up to a quarter of Cambodia's 8 million people.
Thiounn Prasith, while not as intimately involved with the running of the Khmer Rouge as top members of Pol Pot's inner clique, was one of his leading apologists, and according to Cambodia experts, played a major role in covering up his crimes.
During his tenure as Khmer Rouge envoy to the UN, for example, Thiounn publicly downplayed the severity of the genocidal regime. In March 1980, when asked by Newsweek about reports that a million Cambodians had perished under Pol Pot's rule, he said: "We estimate between 10,000 and 20,000 persons were killed, 80 per cent of them by Vietnamese agents who infiltrated our government."
And Thiounn was at least peripherally involved in the formation of the Khmer Rouge. David Chandler, one of the world's leading Cambodia scholars, describes Thiounn as "Pol Pot's old friend" in his book Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, and notes that Thiounn was one of 21 Cambodian Communists summoned by Pol Pot to a secret 1960 meeting at a Phnom Penh railway yard. The meeting, many scholars agree, was a key juncture in the formation of the Khmer Rouge. Thiounn, who had been active among railway workers, secured the use of a building for the meeting.
A widely voiced allegation against Thiounn is that while serving as an officer in the Foreign Ministry in the 1970s, he persuaded Cambodians living abroad to return after the Khmer Rouge takeover. Many who did were later murdered.
One of those who went back was Sokhom Hing, a professor at SUNY Stony Brook. Documents obtained from S-21, a notorious Khmer Rouge prison, indicate that Hing died there, according to John McAuliff, director of the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project, a private group established in 1985 to improve U.S. relations with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Chan Bunhan, a human rights activist who served on the advisory board of the now defunct Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge, was an acquaintance of Hing's. "He spoke with Prasith and other people from the Khmer Rouge delegation [who] convinced him to go back," said Chan.
Reached at his Westchester home, Thiounn spoke to a Voice reporter through his screen door. "Everything has to be done to make clear what happened," Thiounn said, although he refused to answer questions about his own role. He denied the allegations about Hing and others, saying, "I told them, don't go, don't go, because it would be harsh. Because I know."
Thiounn, who claims that members of his own family died during the Khmer Rouge regime, says he is no longer involved with the organization. But, as recently as 1993, he was still touting the Khmer Rouge party line. The Voice obtained copies of Khmer Rouge propaganda sent in the spring and summer of 1993 to sympathizers in Lowell, Massachusetts, home to the largest Cambodian American community on the East Coast. The return address on the top of the correspondence was that of Thiounn's Manhattan apartment at the time.
The propaganda contains transcribed speeches by Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan and an article that dubiously asserts: "The Khmer Rouge...is now receiving increasing support from Khmer peasants as well as from Khmer intellectuals."
Whether Thiounn can be tried for war crimes is unclear. But the former Khmer Rouge spin doctor most certainly has knowledge of the workings of Pol Pot's operation, and his testimony could prove vital in a war-crimes trial. "He probably knows a lot of things, being a diplomat at the UN," said Chan.
Regardless of his role in any trial, many Cambodian Americans feel Thiounn should not be allowed to reside in the U.S.
"I live in Yonkers, and he lives in Mount Vernon," said Vandy Tek, a 35-year-old killing fields survivor who lost his father to the Khmer Rouge. "That's only half an hour away."
Thiounn hasn't had diplomatic status since 1993, when the Khmer Rouge lost its UN seat. Foreign diplomats whose terms expire are typically given 30 days to leave the country. In September 1995, after learning of Thiounn's continuing presence here, the State Department declared it would try to find a way to expel him from the country.
But spokespeople for the State Department and the INS refused comment on the current status of Thiounn's residence in the U.S., citing privacy laws.
Craig Etcheson has said that because the U.S. supported the Khmer Rouge when it warred with Vietnam in the early 1980s, the State Department actually hindered the effort to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders. "They actively blocked it between 1979 and 1986, because, then, the U.S. was the Khmer Rouge's most important military ally," he said.
And Thiounn is only one of perhaps several thousand former Khmer Rouge living in the U.S. By many accounts, Khmer Rouge cadres were among the first Cambodians to emigrate here, while their victims remained in refugee camps well into the mid 1980s.
But apparently not everyone is unhappy about Thiounn's presence here. After a visit to the Thiounn residence, the Voice asked some of the reclusive man's neighbors if they were aware of his past. One man, who was watering his lawn, remarked: "We all have skeletons in our past--I know I've got some."
To which Etcheson, who has overseen the exhumation of mass graves in Cambodia, replied: "Do you have 1 million skeletons in your past?"
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.