In his early twenties, Kiernan visited Cambodia but left before the Khmer Rouge expelled all foreigners in 1975. Though he initially doubted the scale of genocide then being perpetrated in Democratic Kampuchea, he changed his mind in 1978 after beginning a series of interviews with several hundred refugees from Cambodia. He learnt the Khmer language, carried out research in Cambodia and among refugees abroad, and has since written many books on the topic.
From 1980 onwards, Kiernan worked with Gregory Stanton to bring the Khmer Rouge to international justice. He obtained his PhD from Monash University, Australia in 1983 under the supervision of David P. Chandler. He joined the Yale History Department in 1990, and founded the award-winning Cambodian Genocide Program at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies in 1994, and the comparative Genocide Studies Program in 1998. Kiernan currently teaches history courses on Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War and genocides through the ages.
In 1995 a Khmer Rouge court indicted, tried and sentenced Kiernan in-absentia for "prosecuting and terrorizing the Cambodian resistance patriots".
Select publications and awards
His 2007 book, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale University Press), received the 2008 gold medal from the US Independent Publishers Association for the best work of History published in 2007, and the German Studies Association's biennial Sybil Halpern Milton Memorial Book Prize for the best book published in 2007 or 2008 dealing with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in its broadest context, covering the fields of history, political science, and other social sciences, literature, art, and photography.
In June 2009, the book's German translation, Erde und Blut: Völkermord und Vernichtung von der Antike bis heute, won first place in Germany’s Nonfiction Book of the Month Prize (Die Sachbücher des Monats).
Criticism of Kiernan's scholarship
While Kiernan has become a fierce critic of Khmer Rouge behaviour, Peter Rodman states that "When Hanoi turned publicly against Phnom Penh, it suddenly became respectable for many on the Left to "discover" the murderous qualities of the Khmer Rouge-qualities that had been obvious to unbiased observers for years. Kiernan fits this pattern nicely. His book even displays an eagerness to absolve of genocidal responsibility those members of the Khmer Rouge who defected to Hanoi and were later reinstalled in power in Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978." Rodman himself was a prominent defender of the Reagan administration’s Third World policies, which involved active support for the Khmer Rouge-led coalition fighting against the post-genocide Cambodian government and its Vietnamese backers, including military aid.
In 1994, Kiernan was awarded a $499,000 grant by Congress to help the Cambodian government document the Khmer Rouge's abuses. Stephen J. Morris, at the time a research associate in the department of government at Harvard University cited statements Kiernan had made regarding the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal Morris claimed that Kiernan's earlier opinions made him a poor choice to study Khmer Rouge abuses. Gerard Henderson, executive director of Australia's Sydney Institute stated that Kiernan had "barracked for the Khmer Rouge when the Cambodian killing fields were choked with corpses". The Morris article was challenged by 29 Cambodia specialists who praised Kiernan as "a first-rate historian and an excellent choice for the State Department grant".
- Kiernan, Ben (December 1976). "Social Cohesion in Revolutionary Cambodia". Australian Outlook.
- Kiernan, Ben (October–December 1979). "Vietnam and the Governments and People of Kampuchea". Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars.
- Kiernan, Ben and Boua, Chanthou (1981). Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942–1981. Zed Books Ltd.
- Kiernan, Ben (2004) . How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism in Cambodia, 1930–1975. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10262-3.
- Kiernan, Ben (1986). Cambodia: The Eastern zone Massacres.
- Kiernan, Ben (1986). Cambodge: Histoire et enjeux.
- Kiernan, Ben (2002) . The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09649-6.
- Kiernan, Ben (1998). Le Génocide au Cambodge, 1975–1979: Race, idéologie, et pouvoir.
- Kiernan, Ben (2007). Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10098-3.
- Kiernan, Ben (2007). Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia: Documentation, Denial, and Justice in Cambodia and East Timor. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-4128-0668-2.
- Kiernan, Benedict (17 November 1978). "Why's Kampuchea Gone to Pot?". Nation Review (Melbourne).
- Kiernan, Benedict (October–December 1979). "Vietnam and the Governments and People of Kampuchea". Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars.
- Shawcross, William (1984). The Quality of Mercy – Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience. Simon and Schuster, New York. ISBN 0-671-44022-5.
- "2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards Results". Retrieved 7 December 2009.
- "2009 Sybil Halpern Milton Prize Winner". Retrieved 7 December 2009.
- "Sachbücher des Monats Juni 2009". Retrieved 7 December 2009.
- Morris, Stephen (17 April 1995). "The Wrong Man to Investigate Cambodia". Wall Street Journal.[dead link]
- Gunn, Geoffrey (1991). Cambodia Watching Down Under. Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University. ISBN 974-579-532-1.
- Grantsmanship & the Killing Fields; Peter W. Rodman; Commentary Magazine; March 1996
- Patrick Dilger; Back to the "Killing Fields" Yale Alumni Magazine, April 1996