31 Dec, 2010
by Max Blenkin
Australia finally withdrew diplomatic recognition of one the most blood-drenched regimes in human history, but not before the issue had produced deep divisions in the government of Malcolm Fraser.
Cabinet papers for 1980 - released by the National Archives of Australia under the 30-year rule - show Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock pushed for withdrawal of recognition of the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
At the start of 1979, Vietnam had booted out the Khmer Rouge regime and installed its own government, which was speedily recognised by the countries of the Soviet bloc.
But the Khmer Rouge, waging a guerrilla war from the border regions, continued to be recognised by China, the ASEAN states, the US and many other countries including Australia.
In a submission to cabinet in July 1980, Peacock said he had chosen to maintain recognition of what was euphemistically termed "Democratic Kampuchea" mainly because of the relationship with ASEAN.
"The Australian government has supported the ASEAN objective of a political settlement in Kampuchea (Cambodia) based on the ASEAN resolution adopted by UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) last year which calls for the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Kampuchea and an act of self-determination by the Khmer people free from outside coercion," he wrote.
But Peacock acknowledged there was little prospect of achieving that in the short term.
He said Australia's stance would be increasingly hard to sustain because of domestic opposition to the atrocious human-rights record of the Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot.
"I do not believe that the strong expression of Australian public feeling on this issue can or should be ignored in policy considerations," Peacock said.
The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, forcibly evacuating cities to create a brutal agrarian society in which intellectuals, professionals, government officials, ethnic Chinese and many others were murdered in what became known as the killing fields.
Estimates of the death toll go as high as three million. On Christmas Day 1978, Vietnam, finally tiring of murderous border incursions, invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge government was gone within a fortnight.
Vietnam installed the government of Heng Samrin, recognised by the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern bloc.
In September 1979, the United Nations voted to maintain recognition of Democratic Kampuchea by a vote of 71, including Australia, to 34 against.
The Khmer Rouge's most ardent supporter was China, with which Australia was forging a growing relationship. Chinese support enabled Khmer Rouge remnants to sustain their guerilla campaign right through to the early 1990s.
At the same time, Prime Minister Fraser was orchestrating growing Australian opposition to the Soviet Union over its invasion of Afghanistan.
In his submission to cabinet, Peacock said domestic revulsion against the atrocities of Pol Pot should be properly reflected in Australia's foreign policy stance.
But that needed to be done in a manner that minimised damage to relations with ASEAN nations, while maintaining pressure on Vietnam to reach a political settlement.
Peacock said backing Democratic Kampuchea as the legitimate holder of Cambodia's seat at the UN was an important part of this.
Cabinet decided on September 23 to recognise Khmer Rouge credentials at the upcoming meeting of the UN General Assembly, but this recognition was to be short-term.
Australia finally withdrew its recognition on February 14, 1981.
Archives historical consultant Jim Stokes said this issue strained the already uneasy relationship between Peacock and Fraser, although the extent wasn't revealed until some time later.
Veteran journalist Paul Kelly, guest speaker at the launch of the 1980 cabinet papers, said on the afternoon of September 11, 1980, Peacock had gone to Fraser's office and threatened to resign.
The threat came just after cabinet had endorsed Fraser's decision to go to the polls on October 18 but before he could visit the Governor-General to launch the election process.
Peacock offered Fraser three options: he could resign, Fraser could have cabinet change the policy, or Peacock would stay silent in the campaign but refuse a portfolio post-election.
Kelly said Primary Industry Minister Peter Nixon sorted out the deal with Peacock whereby Australia would vote in favour of Democratic Kampuchea's credentials in the UN but later announce it planned to withdraw recognition.