|Country Report Cambodia - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 72 p.)|
|Breakdown of limits|
The ICRC consultation in Cambodia paints a picture of a populace that is fiercely protective of civilians and desperate for peace. Yet nearly 30 years of unceasing conflict have overwhelmed any attempts to separate civilians from combatants and made the concept of a normal, quiet life a seemingly unachievable goal. While political factions, armies, weapons and goals have shifted shape and character, the average Cambodian has borne the brunt of conflicts that are hard to fathom but all too easy to feel.
When asked to explain why soldiers and fighters attack civilians despite known prohibitions, Cambodian respondents are divided between those who see these attacks as the wilful acts of determined forces and those who want to relieve combatants of responsibility for their actions. Forty-one per cent of respondents say combatants are determined to win at any cost, 41 per cent say they dont care about the laws and 17 per cent say they attack civilians because they hate the other side so much. A large number point to the weak character of combatants: 25 per cent say that they are following orders, 25 per cent that they dont know the laws; 21 per cent that they are too young to make judgements; and another 22 per cent that they lose all sense, are under the influence of alcohol and drugs or are simply afraid. 29
29 The percentages add up to more than 100 because respondents were asked to pick two reasons from among the list.
These responses help illuminate three of the key elements that have combined in Cambodia to dissolve the limits in war that are meant to protect civilians: deliberate anti-civilian policies that began under the Khmer Rouge; the chaotic nature of conflict; and the immaturity and ignorance of many combatants. The first of these elements differs from the other two in both intention and importance. Taken together, the three have helped ensure that attacks on civilians have been constant and unrestrained.
The years of Pol Pots rule are best defined as a war on civilians. From 1975 to 1979, civilians in Cambodia were not collateral casualties of conflict but, rather, the express targets of a genocidal regime. The success of the Khmer Rouges policies can be measured not only in the towers of skulls and legions of broken families, but in the patterns it established. After 1979, the idea of civilians coming under attack - and indeed being subjected to torture and other kinds of treatment once reserved for combatants - were part of the Cambodian battlescape.
Civilian involvement in Cambodian wars, of course, did not begin or end with Pol Pot. During the 1970-1975 civil war, commanders in the army of Lon Nol and guerrilla fighters conscripted village youths throughout the nation and fought scores of battles in villages. During a decade of Vietnamese rule, foreign troops did not halt their attacks on villages simply because they were having trouble deciding who was a guerrilla fighter and who was a village resident. In fact, these kinds of attacks served only to strengthen anti-Vietnamese sentiments among Cambodians. In 1989, after the Vietnamese withdrew and peace talks between factions began, there was a brief hiatus in the civil war. When the talks broke down, Khmer Rouge commanders replaced their treat the civilians well policy with a scorched earth approach; combatants were ordered to burn the peoples property. As a group of former Khmer Rouge fighters recalled:
Destroying all, burning into ash was the objective of fighting the enemy... We could survive from 1979 until 1989 because of having support from Khmer citizens; after the Vietnamese withdrawal, we had to destroy [the] enemys economy, and fight against the State of Cambodia. We didnt have any idea to [we did not set out to] destroy and burn our mothers home, our wifes home... We had to destroy anybodys [property] regardless of mother, father and relatives, in order to destroy the enemys economy... We turned to burning houses, warehouses, cut off roads in order that the existing government lacked supplies so that they [the government] would compromise. (FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)
The lasting influence of the Khmer Rouge era - during which a wrong word from a neighbour could mean a death sentence - can also be discerned in the deeply suspicious nature of Cambodian combatants and civilians. This suspicion, coupled with the guerrilla fighters dependence on the local populace for support, has helped legitimize the notion of civilians as fair targets. In focus groups and in-depth interviews, a number of participants said civilians acted as spies and disguised agents.
During fighting we can see many civilians, but if we do not destroy the civilians we cannot also destroy our enemy. Sometimes we think of law and sin and merits, but we have to destroy for our life. The civilians on the other side can be agents; although they do not carry weapons they can give information to the enemy. (FG, RCAF members, Kompong Som)
... we cannot know exactly whether they are real civilians or not, some of them could be spies who are trying to attack the soldiers from behind... In some cases, some civilians are the spies, messengers, food suppliers, etc., therefore there is inevitably some retribution. (FG, female urban youth, Phnom Penh)
Some civilians take rice, chickens and wine to the enemy soldiers. They are spies. So they were attacked because they were considered as the enemy as well. (FG, female single heads of household, Phnom Penh)
Sometimes they [soldiers] hate the civilians because they found out that the civilians provided food to the other side [enemy], therefore they must attack. (FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)
Chaos is a natural and often deadly part of war - a tangle of residents flees a city under siege; friendly fire wipes out an allied unit; villagers under artillery attack scatter into a minefield. In guerrilla warfare, chaos combines with intentional attempts by combatants to hide themselves among peaceful residents in order to escape the enemy. The result is combustible. Casualties multiply and, as time passes, the deaths of civilians gradually become an acceptable, if terrible, fact of war.
In Cambodia, chaos - both intentional (e.g., the 1975 Khmer Rouge evacuation of the cities) and unintentional (e.g., the 1997 Phnom Penh street riots that turned into pitched battles) - has been a critical player in the suffering endured by civilians.
Those who have been caught in the crossfire describe scenes in which anxious combatants combine with terrified civilians to produce confusion and random death. Combatants and civilians give reports of confused and nervous fighters who feel disturbed by the civilians and lose [their] sense and feel agitated. (IDI, male mine victim, Battambang; FG, female urban youth, Phnom Penh; IDI, deminer, Phnom Penh) Recalling harrowing moments, older women tell of soldiers who just shoot around or are shooting randomly in the market. (FG, female market stall vendors, Phnom Penh; FG, female single heads of household, Phnom Penh) Wielding a weapon in battle or supporting a particular faction does not seem to bear any relation to ones fate. 30
30 In fact, 71 per cent of combatants report having experienced six or more negative consequences of war, compared with 60 per cent of non-combatants. Similarly, 70 per cent of those who report having supported a side in the war say they experienced six or more negative consequences, compared with 59 per cent of those who say they were non-partisan.
In almost every focus group and in-depth interview, participants commented on the difficulty of distinguishing between civilians and combatants, particularly when Khmers fought Khmers. In such an atmosphere, they agreed, civilian casualties became inevitable.
The war in Cambodia was... not the war of patriotism. It was the war of grabbing power. They [soldiers] didnt want to kill the civilians, but the other side was mixed with the civilians. So they can be killed; there was no option. There is no distinction [between soldiers and civilians in this type of war]. (IDI, government official, Phnom Penh)
[When there is] fighting between soldiers and soldiers in the same country, we all look almost the same... If we attack a village, we cannot see who are soldiers, who are the soldiers wives, and who are the real civilians. (FG, female urban youth, Phnom Penh)
In a war, I think, touching and harming is inevitable.
In a war, there is usually chaos, therefore harm to civilians cannot be avoided...
This [attack on civilians] is something that cannot be avoided sometimes. People live everywhere.
People cannot move on time when the war occurs. Sometimes the civilians are running back and forth in front of the soldiers, and when the soldiers are disturbed they shoot...
It cannot be avoided.
(FG, female urban youth, Phnom Penh)
One of the most interesting aspects of these discussions was the almost eerily uniform words that both civilians and combatants used to explain away the behaviour of soldiers and fighters.
Sometimes it was not on purpose [that soldiers attacked civilians], because people were running through bullets, when the [government] soldiers were fighting with the Khmer Rouge. Sometimes the bullets [or shells] just dropped in the bunker where people were hiding. (FG, male rural youth, Battambang)
The civilians are running in front of the bullets. It was not [the soldiers] intention [to shoot them]...
It cannot be avoided during fighting.
(FG, female single heads of household, Phnom Penh)
The main objective in fighting is soldiers against soldiers either in the forest or in the villages. Therefore the harm to civilians is inevitable. Each side is fighting to win and occupy the target area.
I agree [that attacks on civilians are inevitable] because bullets dont have eyes, we dont have intention [to kill the civilians].
(FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)
...in the fighting the bullets have no eyes. (IDI, male rural high school student, Kompong Speu)
They want to attack the soldier but they missed the target.
They want to prevent [people] from daring to join the army.
The bullet has no eyes, so sometimes it hits the people. They [soldiers and fighters] dont want to attack civilians.
(FG, female returnees, Malai)
While one woman noted a lack of attention on monitoring the attacks on civilians, most participants bent over backwards to excuse the actions of combatants who killed civilians. (FG, female single heads of household, Phnom Penh) While a few participants appeared to be motivated by a desire to avoid placing blame, more seemed to genuinely believe that the chaos of battle combined with inexperienced combatants to leave civilians exposed to harm.
The character and background of combatants - their training, maturity and experience - are critical predictors of their behaviour during wartime. It is impossible, of course, to guarantee that a well-trained, well-disciplined professional army will heed the rules of war that protect civilians. In the heat of battle, as the ICRC consultation in war zones around the world demonstrates, even the most skilled practitioners of war can lose control of a situation. War promises safety for no one.
The odds of civilian casualties, however, are vastly increased when young, untrained and impressionable soldiers and fighters are pressed into service. They are much more likely to follow the orders of their commanders, no matter how many lives may be lost. Lacking even the most basic knowledge of the rules of war, they roam the countryside like packs of human landmines - armed to the teeth and indiscriminate in their choice of target. With such forces in the field, the potential for attacks on civilians, whether intentional or not, increases dramatically. Such, sadly, has been the case in Cambodia for decades.
Yet, no matter the era or the type of armed force under discussion, Cambodia has been home to combatants who share a reputation for disorder and brutality. These forces have included regular government troops, guerrilla fighters, militia members and commandos. Acting separately, but considered as a whole, these soldiers and fighters have exacerbated an already tenuous situation and put tens of thousands of civilians into deeper danger as the conflicts have dragged on. A foreign military adviser put it simply: ...there are a core of people [civilians] who just want to be left alone... [but that] becomes difficult when every fourth person carries a weapon. (IDI, foreign military expert, Phnom Penh)
The roots of the troubles can be traced to the 1970-1975 civil war, when government commanders descended on villages across Cambodia to conscript unsuspecting young men. Khmer Rouge commanders competed for the conscripts and by the time they marched into Phnom Penh to take power in 1975, they had developed manipulation of armed young men into an art. Memories of the Pol Pot era are studded with stories of children barely big enough to hold a rifle off the ground.
Those who used violence were the young soldiers. They did not understand about life. They were in the armies of Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge. They cut off the heads of the enemy. They had no feelings, no conscience. None at all. (IDI, government official, Phnom Penh)
There were children who [were] obliged to join the army when they did not know how to judge what is wrong or right... This is the role of the commander: to try to find many forces in order to scare the enemy. So they just conscript the children... (IDI, Buddhist monk, Phnom Penh)
During Pol Pots time the gun they carried touched the ground. They know nothing. If they are told to shoot they just shoot. (FG, RCAF members, Kompong Som)
The problem of child soldiers has declined in the 1990s, a trend that began with the arrival of the UN peacekeepers and was dramatically hastened by the mass surrender of Khmer Rouge fighters that began in 1996. 31 But the harsh memories of the Pol Pot era are sharply reflected in current Cambodian opinion. In the survey, only 4 per cent of respondents say that a child younger than 18 is mature enough to take up arms. Seventy-seven per cent say that soldiers and fighters must be at least 18-21 years old, and 19 per cent say combatants should be over 21.
31 Commanders in the RCAF are still said to use ghost soldiers in order to meet unit quotas and attract supplies that can be traded on the black market. (IDI, government official, Phnom Penh; IDI, foreign military expert, Phnom Penh)
In focus groups and in-depth interviews, participants say those
under 18 were hot tempered and thin-blooded (impetuous),
but that soldiers needed to be thoughtful, stable and
have good judgement. 32 Participants also offered
explanations for why commanders would want raw, untested recruits in their
32 FG, female market stall vendors, Phnom Penh; FG, female returnees, Malai; IDI, deminer, Phnom Penh; FG, female urban youth, Phnom Penh; FG, female single heads of household, Phnom Penh.
The [young soldiers] are brave... they have no judgement. They dont know about the soldiers laws, and they dont know what is death. (IDI, newspaper reporter, Phnom Penh)
The younger soldiers [are], the worse tempered they are...
The mature one is thoughtful. The 17- and 18-year-old soldiers could even kill their parents when they are ordered to, and they are bad tempered, especially when they have guns in their hands.
(FG, female market stall vendors, Phnom Penh)
It is... easy for the commanders to give orders [to young soldiers], because the children did not have a conscience and are illiterate.
[Why do you think the commanders use these very young soldiers or fighters?] They have enough strength for fighting; they dont have much education or training in human rights. They do not know what is good, what is bad. So they will simply follow the orders the commanders give them. (IDI, male university student, Phnom Penh)
...[young soldiers are] easy to use and [they] follow orders. They are not able to judge correctly. They will do what they are told to do. They dont [know] what is right and what is wrong. (IDI, monk in training, Phnom Penh)
It is easy to use [young people] for fighting. If they [soldiers] are educated, they will not go to fight because they are afraid of dying. (IDI, male mine victim, Battambang)
Dont know [why we were fighting]. It was their policy. They [the government] asked us to fight, [so] we fought. They asked us to join the armies, [so] we joined. (FG, male rural youth, Battambang)
To this day, rank-and-file Cambodian soldiers are said to be disproportionately young, rural, poor and uneducated. 33 They really are just civilians, a long-time observer of Cambodian combatants and conflicts explained. A soldier here [in Cambodia] is a guy whos been recruited or conscripted, usually conscripted, during war... In a lot of cases he is taken from the village because the village... couldnt pay for him not to be taken... anyone who can pay is not in the army. (IDI, foreign military expert, Phnom Penh)
33 The survey provides insufficient evidence on these questions because combatants were not separated according to the force they fought with or their rank.
In addition to suffering from the ignorance of youth, the vast majority of Cambodian combatants have never received formal or systematic military training, let alone schooling in the rules of war. Combatants learn their trade in the jungle and the streets - a fact that has had enormous consequences for the shape of conflict in Cambodia.
We were all guerrillas, we didnt know human rights law, we didnt go to school, we didnt know how many articles in the law, we only learned how to shoot and kill...
The soldiers, at that time, didnt understand about the international law yet... didnt understand about the law of war, or any law. We didnt learn the laws of war.
(FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)
They [Khmer Rouge troops] cannot read. They cannot write. If the commander leads them, they will do good. If not, they wont. (IDI, RCAF general, Phnom Penh)
These observations go a long way towards explaining why so many Cambodians bend over backwards to absolve regular soldiers and fighters of the lethal consequences of their actions. Disparate voices across Cambodia - of those who carried weapons and those who watched the battle; those who ran for their lives and the lucky few who stayed clear of the fray - reach a similar conclusion: blame the commanders. The combatants were only following orders.
Not all commanders think the same. Some are crazy, some are polite. (IDI, RCAF general, Phnom Penh)
If we were ordered to attack an army camp in which people were also there, we had to fight.
If people were wounded, we helped care for them.
...soldiers must follow their orders, although we dont want to harm anybody...
We were under the dictatorial leadership, we had to follow them in order to survive...
Because the soldiers had to fight for the target area, we aimed at the enemy side, and there was no order for not attacking the civilians.
...we had to achieve the plan of our leader.
(FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)
If they [soldiers] want to do anything they need to have orders from their commanders. (IDI, rural male high school student, Kompong Speu)
It is really up to the officers in war to decide what is allowed or not. It is this [their attitude] that sets limits... depend[s] on the captain, the commander. If he has a sense of morality... Do you understand? Soldiers will follow the spirit of their commander. If he has a humanistic spirit, the soldiers will have limits set on the destruction, on what they can fire upon. (IDI, government official, Phnom Penh)
We cannot say good soldier or bad soldier. Any soldier in the battlefield, they had to listen, they had to obey their commanders... I am not a soldier, but I think if I was... I would kill any people according to the order of my commander. (IDI, journalist, Phnom Penh)
Sometimes I interview the soldiers - Khmer Rouge soldiers and State of Cambodia soldiers. I ask them, Why [are] you fighting?... the Khmer Rouge say, I fight the Vietnamese because my commander says that the Vietnamese come to Cambodia. And when  see the State of Cambodia [soldiers], I ask, Why [do] you kill the Khmer Rouge?... [They say] My commander says the Khmer Rouge are the bad guys, so I have to fight... I think most of the soldiers, nearly all, [are] the simple soldiers... [who] dont know anything about war... what they have done they have done according to their commanders. (IDI, journalist, Phnom Penh)
The extent of this sentiment is perhaps best measured by the comments of a former refugee who has been resettled in Cambodias north-west. Asked about the treatment of prisoners of war, she responded to a fellow villager who had flatly said that Khmer prisoners were released while the Vietnamese were killed. Sometimes we also released the Vietnamese by allowing them to go abroad, she countered. They were forced to fight by their commander. (FG, female returnees, Malai)