excerpted from the book
by John Pilger
South End Press, 2001 (and 1986), paper
Phnom Penh: August 1979. The aircraft flew low, following
the unravelling of the Mekong River west from Vietnam. Once over
Cambodia, what we saw silenced all of us on board. There appeared
to be nobody, no movement, not even an animal, as if the great
population of Asia had stopped at the border. Whole towns and
villages on the riverbanks were empty, it seemed, the doors of
houses open, chairs and beds, pots and mats in the street, a car
on its side, a mangled bicycle. Beside fallen power lines was
a human shadow, Iying or sitting; it had the shape of a child,
though we could not be sure, for it did not move.
Beyond, the familiar landscape of South-East Asia, the patchwork
of rice paddles and fields, was barely discernible; nothing seemed
to have been planted or be growing, except the forest and mangrove
and lines of tall wild grass. On the edge of towns this grass
would follow straight lines, as though planned. Fertilised by
human compost, by the remains of thousands upon thousands of men,
women and children, these lines marked common graves in a nation
where perhaps as many as 2 million people, or between a third
and a quarter of the population were 'missing'.
Our plane made Its approach into what had been the international
airport at Phnom Penh, towards a beaconless runway and a deserted
control tower. At the edge of the forest there appeared a pyramid
of rusting cars, the first of many such sights, like objects in
a mirage. The cars were piled one on top of the other; some of
the cars had been brand new when their owners were forced to throw
away the ignition keys and push them to the pile, which also included
ambulances, a fire engine, police cars, refrigerators, washing
machines, hairdryers, generators, television sets, telephones
and typewriters, as if a huge Luddite broom had swept them there.
'Here lies the consumer society', a headstone might have read,
'Abandoned April 17, Year Zero'.
From that date, anybody who had owned cars and such 'luxuries',
anybody who had lived in a city or town, anybody with more than
a basic education or who had acquired a modern skill, such as
doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, tradespeople and students,
anybody who knew or worked for foreigners, such as travel agents,
clerks, journalists and artists, was in danger; some were under
sentence of death. To give just one example, out of a royal ballet
company of 500 dancers, a few dozen survived; of the others, some
escaped abroad, some starved to death or succumbed to illness
related to extreme deprivation, and some were murdered.
During my twenty-two years as a journalist, most of them spent
in transit at places of uncertainty and upheaval, I had not seen
anything to compare with what I saw in Cambodia. 'It is my duty',
wrote the correspondent of The Times at the liberation of Belsen,
'to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind."
That was how I and others felt in the summer of 1979.
My previous trip to Cambodia had been twelve years earlier.
I had flown across from wartime Saigon, exchanging venality and
neurosis for what Western visitors invariably saw as the innocence
of a 'gentle land' whose capital, Phnom Penh, had a beauty only
the French could contrive. On Sundays the parade down Monivong
Avenue was a joy: the parasols, the beautiful young women on their
Hondas, the saffron robes, the platoons of well-fed families,
the ice-cream barrows, the weddings, the hustlers. You awoke at
the cavernous Hotel Royale, switched on your radio and, in all
probability, heard the squeaky voice of Prince Norodom Sihanouk
berating you or another foreign journalist for writing about the
financial excesses of the royal family. This might be followed
by a summons to the royal palace and an instruction to listen
to the Prince's collection of jazz recordings, usually Oscar Peterson.
Sihanouk, 'God-king' and a relic of the French empire, was his
country's most celebrated jazz musician, film director, football
coach, and juggler of apparently impossible options in Indo-China's
cockpit of war. Such was his kingdom: feudal, unpredictable, preposterous
and, in relation to events in the region, at peace.
The Cambodia which foreigners romanticised (myself included)
belied a recent history of savagery between warring groups, such
as those loyal to Sihanouk and the 'Issaraks', who were anti-French
and anti-royalty but sometimes no more than murderous bandits.
The atrocities which emerged from some of their skirmishes from
the 1940s to the 1960s were of a ritual nature later associated
with the Pol Pot period, but were probably common enough in a
peasant world which few foreigners saw and understood. Sihanouk
himself was a capricious autocrat whose thugs dispensed arbitrary
terror when Westerners were not looking, or did not wish to look;
and his authoritarianism undoubtedly contributed to the growth
of the communist party, or Khmer Rouge. Certainly his 'Popular
Socialist Community', which he set up in the 1950s, had little
to do with socialism and everything to do with creating suitably
benign conditions for the spread and enrichment of a powerful
mandarinate in the towns and ethnic Chinese usurers in the rural
areas. But it is also true that the extremes of hunger were rare;
indeed, so bountiful seemed the Khmers' lush, under-populated
land that the Chinese coined a superlative: 'As rich as Cambodia!'
In 1959 a United States Defence Department report described
the Khmers as a nation of people who could not be easily panicked,
whose horizons were limited to village, pagoda and forest, who
knew of no other countries, who respected their government, who
feared ghosts and 'cannot be counted upon to act in any positive
way for the benefit of US aims and policies'. Cambodia then was
regarded as 'neutral'; that is, it was allied to no bloc. However,
Sihanouk later allowed Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese to run their supply
routes through his territory, and this fact was not unrelated
to the Prince being divested of his Kingdom in 1970 by a general
called Lon Nol. The CIA denied that they had anything to do with
the coup d'etat. That may be so; but in that year Richard Nixon
and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were conducting
their 'secret bombing' of Cambodia, aimed at Vietnamese 'sanctuaries'.
Pilots were sworn to secrecy and their operational logs were falsified
or destroyed. During 1969-70 the American public and Congress
knew nothing about it. During one six-month period in 1973 B-52s
dropped more bombs in 3,695 raids on the populated heartland of
Cambodia than were dropped on Japan during all of the Second World
War: the equivalent, in tons of bombs, of five Hiroshimas.
In 1977 a former member of Kissinger's staff, Roger Morris,
described the way in which the President's foreign-policy advisers,
known as 'the Wise Men', prepared the ground for the final destruction
Though they spoke of terrible human suffering reality was
sealed off by their trite, lifeless vernacular: 'capabilities',
'objectives', 'our chips', 'giveaway'. It was a matter, too, of
culture and style. They spoke with the cool, deliberate detachment
of men who believe the banishment of feeling renders them wise
and, more important, credible to other men . . . [Of Kissinger
and Nixon] They neither understood the foreign policy they were
dealing with, nor were deeply moved by the bloodshed and suffering
they administered to their stereotypes.
On the eve of an American land invasion of 'neutral' Cambodia
in April 1970, according to Morris, Nixon said to Kissinger, 'If
this doesn't work, it'll be your ass, Henry.'
It worked, in a fashion. The bombing and invasion provided
a small group of fanatical communists, the Khmer Rouge, with a
catalyst for a revolution which had no popular base among the
Khmer people. What is striking about the rise of Pol Pot, Khieu
Samphan and other principals in the Khmer Rouge is their medievalism,
which their principally Marxist pretensions barely concealed.
Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan were both leftwing students in Paris
in the 1950s, when and where other colonial revolutions were reputedly
conceived; but neither admitted the existence of a Marxist-Leninist
or communist organisation until 1977, by which time they were
prime minister and head of state respectively of 'Democratic Kampuchea'.
Indeed, in the movement they led all ideology, authority and 'justice'
flowed from 'Angkar Loeu', literally the 'Organisation on High',
which 'has the eyes of a pineapple; it sees everything'.
Angkor was the capital of a Khmer empire which was at its
zenith between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries. It reached
from Burma to the South China Sea and was interrupted only by
what is now central Vietnam; the equally nationalist Vietnamese
having not long freed themselves from a thousand years of Chinese
rule. Angkor, the place, was a tribute to the riches, energy and
chauvinism of the dynasty, with its series of temples conceived
as a symbolic universe according to traditional Indian cosmology,
and built by slaves. There was an absolute monarch, a pharaoh-style
figure, a bureaucracy organised by Brahmins, and a military leadership;
and, like Egypt and Rome, the empire duly collapsed under the
weight of its monuments and megalomanias, as well as its changing
patterns of trade. The celebrated temples of Angkor Wat are all
that remain of its glory.
'If our people can build Angkor Wat', said Pol Pot in 1977,
'they can do anything!' This was the year Pol Pot probably killed
more of his people than during all of his reign. Xenophobic in
the extreme, he might almost have modelled himself on a despotic
king of Angkor, which would perhaps explain his ambition to reclaim
that part of the Mekong Delta, now southern Vietnam and known
as Kampuchea Krom, over which the Khmer kings had once ruled.
He was also an admirer of Mao Tse-tung and the Gang of Four; and
it is not improbable that just as Mao had seen himself as the
greatest emperor of China, so Pol Pot saw himself as another Mao,
directing his own red guards to purify all elites, subversives
and revisionists and to create a totally self-reliant state and
one sealed off from the 'virus' of the modern world.
Cambodia is 90 per cent villages and the worsening imbalance
in the relationship between peasant and town-dweller was one which
Pol Pot and his 'men in black' were able to exploit almost with
impunity. The French had created Phnom Penh in their own remote
image and had brought in Chinese and Vietnamese bureaucrats and
traders. Those in power in the capital took from and taxed the
peasants as if by divine right; and when three years of American
bombing killed or wounded or dislocated hundreds of thousands
of Khmer peasants and created many more as refugees, the Khmer
Rouge, now operating from enclaves, swept into a power vacuum
in the bloodied countryside.
A month earlier, July 1979, most of the senior tier of the US
State Department had given evidence before a Senate hearing on
IndoChinese refugees. The witnesses explained that because the
United States did not recognise the new government in Phnom Penh,
led by Heng Samrin, it was prohibited by law from giving direct
aid to Cambodia: that is, America was prevented from legally sending
a single relief aircraft to a country over which it had illegally
sent waves of B-52 bombers. Stories began to appear in the American
Press that the International Red Cross had been told by the Phnom
Penh authorities that no food was needed.
The opposite was true. The ICRC [International Red Cross]had
been asked by the government in Phnom Penh for 100,000 tons of
food, 15,000 tons of sugar and 8,000 tons of butter oil, as well
as medical supplies. The request, in writing and dated July 3,
was handed to Francois Bugnion and Jacques Beaumont in Phnom Penh.
Prior to that, in May, the journalist Wilfred Burchett had visited
Phnom Penh and described in graphic articles in the Guardian the
overwhelming needs in Cambodia. Accompanying Burchett on that
trip were Doctors Follezou and Vinot, representing the Comite
Francais d'Aide Medicale et Sanitaire, who returned to Paris with
a 'shopping list' of emergency relief drawn up with the Phnom
Penh government. Follezou and Vinot showed the list to all who
might help, principally French government officials and journalists,
but the interest expressed was minimal. The European Economic
Community had confined its compassion to £425,000 as part
of a development grant to the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees which was destined for refugees outside Cambodia.
Wilfred Burchett, who was based in Paris, brought the list
to London and read most of it out at a packed all-party meeting
at the House of Commons. He described a trauma so profound that
'the very fabric of Khmer society has begun to unravel'. He said
that not only food but basic equipment was needed, like hoes and
fishing nets. When asked about difficulties in getting relief
to Cambodia, he replied that the problems were inside the country,
that there was no heavy transport and there were no roads; wharves
and communications had been vandalised or had fallen into disrepair
and therefore trucks were a priority. He said there was nothing
to stop civilian relief aircraft flying into Phnom Penh, and that
both the Vietnamese government and the government in Cambodia
had assured him relief would be welcomed. 'I want to impress upon
you', said Burchett, 'that a great many human beings are starving
and need your help.' It was a moving speech. Nothing happened.
That is, nothing happened at the level of government; Margaret
Thatcher had come to power only a few weeks earlier and one of
her first acts as prime minister was to join the American boycott
of Vietnam and suspend all food aid there, including powdered
milk for Vietnamese children. To the British government, as to
Washington, Cambodia was now in the 'Soviet/Vietnamese camp'.
At the House of Commons meeting was Jim Howard, technical
officer of Oxfam. Oxfam had been set up in 1942 as the Oxford
Committee for Famine Relief with the aim of arousing public interest
in the suffering of civilians in Europe who were denied food because
of the Allied blockade. The unfolding events of 1979 were not
dissimilar, as Ben Whitaker recounts in his book about Oxfam,
A Bridge of People:
It was thought intolerable - a prelude to the cry 'people
before politics' heard at the time of the recent Cambodian operation
- that even at the height of the war the Allies should say to
innocent children in Greece, 'Sorry, you've got to die'.
A majority of the UN credentials committee, including almost all
the Western democracies, supported a Chinese motion that Pol Pot's
'Democratic Kampuchea' continue to be recognised as the government
of Cambodia. As the American representative, Robert Rosenstock,
rose from his seat after voting for Pol Pot, somebody grabbed
his hand and congratulated him. 'I looked up and saw it was Ieng
Sary [Pol Pot's foreign minister],' he recalled. 'I felt like
washing my hands."'
International 'legitimacy' would thus be denied to the government
the Vietnamese had brought to power, regardless of the fact that
it had freed the Khmers from their charnel house and governed
90 per cent of the territory of Cambodia. By contrast, the Lon
Nol government, which the Americans had sustained from 1970 to
1975, controlled only the towns and main roads, yet received full
international recognition. The cynicism of this was such that
had the Thais, the right people on the right side, liberated their
Khmer neighbours under the auspices of the Americans, the sky
over Phnom Penh would now be crowded with American relief aircraft
and Pol Pot's man would not be taking Cambodia's seat in the world
The UN vote for Pol Pot meant that stricken Cambodia was denied
almost the entire international machinery of recovery and assistance:
the United Nations Development Programme, the Asian Development
Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank could
not legally help. At the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the
British delegate, Sir Henry Yellowlees, voted for Pol Pot's man
to take Cambodia's seat. This meant that the resources of WHO,
the World Health Organisation, were now denied to Cambodia. Shortly
after the Geneva meeting a WHO official telephoned me. 'That picture
with your Cambodia story of the pock-marked man,' he said, 'can
you tell us if that was caused by smallpox?' I said I did not
know, but if smallpox had reappeared during Pol Pot's time, surely
a WHO investigator should go to Cambodia to find out. 'We can't
do that,' he said. 'They're not recognised.'
Fortunately, the charter of UNICEF permits it to operate in
territories that are not 'recognised'. UNICEF had formed a partnership
with the International Red Cross for the purposes of their 'joint
mission' in Cambodia. By October 1979 this 'mission' existed in
name only. UNICEF and ICRC, between them, had sent to Cambodia
100 tons of relief; or as Alan Moudoux, the head of Red Cross
public relations in Geneva preferred it, 'more than 100 tons'.
More than three months had passed since the foreign minister of
the Phnom Penh government, Hun Sen, had handed Francois Bugnion
and Jacques Beaumont a modest list of needs, including 100,000
tons of food. A month went by without even a reply from the two
As criticism grew, the Red Cross protested that it could do
no more under the terms of its constituted 'neutrality'. This
meant that unless the Red Cross continued to supply 'the other
side' it would not mount a relief programme in Cambodia itself,
where the overwhelming majority of people lived. 'The other side'
consisted of camps on either side of the Thai border where the
Thai Army had encouraged the Khmer Rouge to take refuge and regroup
under cover provided by refugees who had fled the famine and had
been driven ahead of the Khmer Rouge virtually as hostages.
On the face of it this 'neutrality' sounded proper, even commendable;
it always does. The International Red Cross deserves its reputation
for life-saving work, of which there are many celebrated instances,
but there have also been times when the impossible goal of 'neutrality',
as interpreted in Geneva with the multitude of prejudices that
afflict all human enterprise, especially those in which 'geopolitics'
is a major ingredient, is little more than benign fraud; the Cambodia
emergency was such a time.
The Red Cross and UNICEF 'joint mission' had two rules: one
for the way it would conduct its relief operation inside Cambodia
and another for its work on the Thai border. Both agencies' headquarters,
in Geneva and New York respectively, would not say 'go', as Bugnion
had said, until the Phnom Penh government accepted a long caravan
of conditions, guarantees and strings. These amounted to, according
to one relief official quoted by Brian Eads in the Observer, '.
. . absolute licence, a radio station, diplomatic status. They
want powers and assurances that would make them more powerful
than the government in Phnom Penh." Moreover, according to
the Guardian these conditions were designed '. . . to structure
aid to Cambodia in such a way as to give minimum legitimacy to
Heng Samrin and maximum help to Pol Pot . . . and to pursue the
unrealistic aim of using an army of aid officials in Cambodia
as a means of "internationalising" that country and
opening it up to Sihanouk."
In short, this was gunboat relief: arrogant and, above all,
hypocritical. In a secret meeting on September 17, arranged by
Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's 'foreign minister', Red Cross officials gave
Khmer Rouge leaders guarantees of relief supplies, knowing that
all talk of preconditions and monitoring was fruitless. When I
asked a senior Red Cross official in Geneva if the Khmer Rouge
had agreed to the same conditions imposed on Phnom Penh in the
cause of 'neutrality', he said, 'Of course not. We're dropping
the stuff over the border and getting out quickly.' As Brian Eads
reported in the Observer, monitoring what the Khmer Rouge did
with Western charity was 'in the hands of the Thai Army' at a
time when the Thais were doing everything in their power to restore
the Khmer Rouge as a military force. The international aid organisations
knew this. The World Food Programme knew this; nevertheless it
shipped huge quantities of food to the Thai Army without preconditions,
whereupon the food was promptly handed out to Khmer Rouge troops.
On January 8, 1980, John Gittings reported in the Guardian that
the previous November US State Department sources had revealed
. . . their intention of mounting an international propaganda
offensive to spread atrocity stories about Vietnamese behaviour
in Kampuchea. Within days, presumably on White House instructions,
US journalists in Bangkok and Singapore were shown the appropriate
refugee stories' and Dr. Brzezinski himself verbally briefed a
distinguished foreign correspondent and a Washington columnist
over lunch on the contents of 'the latest CIA report'.
The 'distinguished Washington columnist' was James Reston
of the New York Times. Under the emotive headline 'IS THERE NO
PITY?' he wrote:
The latest US intelligence report to President Carter on
the Soviet Union's role in South-east Asia indicates that Moscow
is not merely refusing to relieve the suffering of the Cambodian
people but is actually blocking the distribution of food and medicine
from other countries.
This intelligence report notes that large amounts of desperately
needed supplies are reaching Cambodia but they are being diverted
from the people who need them most and into the hands of proSoviet
Vietnamese and the Heng Samrin military.
Reston went on to say that 'there have been verified reports,
according to this report to the president, that chemical warfare
is being used against Pol Pot forces and Kampuchean civilians'.
He quoted an impassioned plea by President Carter in which he
called upon 'Moscow and Hanoi . . . not to feed the flames of
war, but use aircraft and airfields to ferry food to feed the
people of Kampuchea'. Reston ended his piece by quoting Carter
as asking, 'Is there no pity?'
Reston is regarded as something of an elder statesman among
journalists in the United States and in that cultivated role he
has access to presidents and their advisers. In this case he must
have suspended critical judgment; his information was simply untrue.
Moreover, it could be shown to be untrue from US government
sources. In 1980 the State Department published an assessment,
not an 'intelligence report', of international aid reaching Cambodia.
The Russians were listed as the biggest single donor and the 1982
Food and Agricultural Organisation report indicated that Soviet
aid to Cambodia between 1979 and the end of 1981 amounted to $300
Since 1979 the United Nations Under-Secretary General in charge
of humanitarian operations in Cambodia and Thailand had been Sir
Robert Jackson, a distinguished international civil servant and
veteran of many disaster emergencies. When asked about the division
of aid, he replied:
In terms of the Vietnamese army living in say, Kampuchea,
we have never had one complaint from anywhere nor have any of
our people. There's been all these allegations; governments come
to us and say, 'Our intelligence sources indicate this' - always
in very general terms. We've said, 'Look, for heaven's sake, will
you give us the time, date and place and we'll follow through.'
We've never had one response when we've asked that question.
Reston's was not the only platform for 'the latest CIA report'.
Other leading American columnists and editorial writers printed
extracts and embroidered them with their own indignation. One
Emmett Tyrell Jr wrote in the Washington Post, 'The lesson of
Cambodia is the lesson of the Nazi concentration camps and the
Gulag. Some people are immune to Western decency.'
To my knowledge, no journalist publicly questioned the 'facts'
of this mysterious CIA report, even speculated that it might be
in the tradition of the 'disinformation' so prevalent during the
Vietnam war and Watergate years. The report was 'Kampuchea: A
Demographic Catastrophe' released by the CIA in May 1980 (a draft
was leaked in November 1979). Much of it was warmed-over propaganda
which replaced an earlier CIA analysis from which only opposite
and unpalatable conclusions could be drawn. An author of the original
report told a Washington source, 'They [the CIA] misrepresented
everything I wrote'.
Shortly after Reston's column appeared, I was asked by a Western
foreign minister for my observations on the situation in Cambodia.
I began by asking him, 'Have you seen the CIA report?' 'Yes,'
he replied. 'The State Department advised us to ignore it, that
it was only for the media.'
The 'distinguished foreign correspondent' who, wrote John
Gittings, had lunched with Brzezinski and Reston, was Alistair
Cooke. In his BBC Letter from America broadcast on December 28,
1979, Cooke spoke of 'a document that has been delivered into
the hands of the President of the United States and one that made
him furious'. With 'the latest CIA report' as his source, Cooke
accused the Vietnamese and the Russians of plotting to block 'great
supplies and medicines that could save unaccountable lives in
Cambodia'. Cooke had been misled; none of this was true.
Cambodia's suffering spawned a flourishing cottage industry
of 'sidelines reporting' and punditry, especially among those
to whom the true nature of events inside Cambodia since the liberation
presented an often infuriating challenge. To Western ideologues
and active cold warriors, the fact that the 'wrong people' had
rescued the Khmer nation from a 'communist hell' was embarrassing.
It was embarrassing because both conservatives and liberals in
the West found themselves supporting those who had sustained arguably
the most extreme communist movement in history. Their confusion
was at times almost comical as events in Indo-China made a mockery
of that venerable demon known as monolithic communism from which
American ideology and strategy had drawn inspiration since 1945.
Clearly, new demons had to be invented before the facts eroded
such an important myth.
In a book published in 1983 by two American relief workers in
Cambodia, they wrote:
The US Government, which funded the bulk of the relief operation
[on the border], insisted that the Khmer Rouge be fed . . . The
US was interested in the resistance movements for its own strategic
objectives. Like Thailand, the US preferred that the Khmer Rouge
operation benefit from the credibility of an internationally-known
Throughout 1980, their health rapidly improved . . . The
Khmer Rouge had a history of unimaginable brutality, and having
regained their strength, they had begun actively fighting the
That there is still only speculation about the possibility of
peace in Indo-China after a generation has suffered so much is
itself an indictment of those who have arranged and maintained
the present impasse. While the Khmer Rouge are given sanctuary
in Thailand, together with American dollars, Western supplies
and Chinese arms, while the United Nations continues to give them
respectability of a kind and the international 'lever' of representation
in the General Assembly, while the Western media continue at best
to obscure the role of the Khmer Rouge and at worst to rejuvenate
them, these fanatics will not wither in exile as they ought to
have done long ago. When asked how such a state of affairs could
exist, Sir Robert Jackson reflected:
I know of no parallel to the conditions which have been experienced
in Kampuchea over the last decade . . . In the case of post war
Europe there's the vast tragedy of the concentration camps: Dachau,
Auschwitz, Buchenwald, but thank God, the world had an immediate
reaction to that situation and to this moment there has been a
sensitivity as to what happened virtually forty years ago. In
the case of Kampuchea, for some extraordinary reason, I'm left
with the strong impression now that the world wants to forget
the tragedy that happened . . . they want to forget it.
If the Khmers were white-skinned or, like the Thais, 'the
right people on the right side', they would not be forgotten.
In 1986 they are in their eighteenth year of depredation: of bombing,
war, genocide, starvation and now isolation. They deserve better;
and they deserve better than occupation by a foreign army.
Neither history nor Hollywood nor pseudo-historians can alter
the fact that it was the Vietnamese who saved Cambodia. But without
the Khmer Rouge threat and a justification for remaining in Cambodia,
the Vietnamese presence in their country would soon be intolerable
to the Khmers. At the same time the social cost to the Vietnamese
of the border war and the occupation has been immense. It is a
mockery of the sufferings of these two nations to pretend that
they do not both want the opportunity finally to be at peace.
New evidence from US Government documents recently declassified
leaves no doubt, if ever there was doubt, that the illegal and
secret bombing of neutral Cambodia caused such widespread death
and devastation that not only was Pol Pot able to exploit it,
but it may well have been critical in bringing him to power.
Cambodia's punishment is exemplified in its children. In the National
Paediatrics Hospital, the most modern hospital in the country;
seriously ill children lie on the floor in corridors so narrow
there is barely room to step over them. A relative holds a drip
above them; if they are lucky they have a straw mat. The wards
are overflowing with children suffering from malnutrition and
common diarrhoea, which is a life-threatening illness in Cambodia;
more children die than recover from it.
I visited six other hospitals across the country and the situation
was as critical. Drugs cupboards are depleted or bare; there is
no vaccine; sterilisation equipment is broken; X-ray film unobtainable.
At Battambang Hospital in the north-west I watched the death of
an eleven-month-old baby, while the mother looked on. 'Her name
is Ratanak,' she cried. Had there been a respirator and plasma,
she would have stood a chance. A German drug, Gelifundel, would
have saved her, said the doctor; it was available in the market
but the mother could not afford it, and it was now too late. A
light was kept shining on the baby to keep her body temperature
up. Then the power went down and the baby died.
In hospital after hospital children die like that; and few
reach hospital at all. Today Cambodia has one of the highest death-rates
of young children in the world - one in five dies from mostly
preventable illness, such as diarrhoea. The question asks itself:
why are so many children still dying in Cambodia? It can be argued
that the young here are no worse off than in other developing
countries; and to some extent, that is true. But no other society
has experienced anything to compare with the Pol Pot years, when
most of the doctors and nurses were murdered, and the system of
health care and preventative medicine was destroyed or vandalised.
The difference in Cambodia is that children die explicitly for
'In a disaster operation', wrote Sir Robert Jackson, who was
United Nations Under Secretary-General in 1979, and oversaw the
international relief operation in Europe after the Second World
War, 'three phases are normally distinguished: relief, rehabilitation,
reconstruction and development. In the case of Kampuchea, not
even the phase of relief has been advanced to what in other humanitarian
operations would be regarded as "just adequate". At
best, it can be said that the lives of the people have been preserved
after that holocaust - but no more.'
Cambodia is the only country in the world to be denied United
Nations development aid. This is long-term aid in the form of
tools, materials and expertise, with which poor countries can
make a start at developing themselves. It provides such essentials
as a clean water supply, decent sanitation, medical books, hospital
equipment, vaccine, irrigation pumps, tractors. Cambodia gets
virtually none of these things because of a ten-year blockade
led by the governments of the United States and China, and supported
by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan,
Britain and most of Europe. A few governments have tried to circumvent
the blockade by funding the work of non-government organisations
(NGOs) in Cambodia. Australia provides the largest single Western
aid to Cambodia through its NGOs, whose projects are co-ordinated
in Phnom Penh by an Australian diplomat 'on leave': a ruse that
ensures that Washington is not offended, the government of Cambodia
is not 'recognised' and Antipodean consciences, presumably, are
NGOs have done remarkable work in Cambodia. They are often
the only link with the rest of the world. Oxfam's programme of
supplying and installing simple, efficient water pumps in rural
areas has improved and saved many lives; but Oxfam and the other
NGOs cannot mount the co-ordinated effort needed to rebuild and
restore this uniquely suffering country. Water is an example.
The children Iying on the floor of the paediatric hospital die
from intestinal ailments carried by waterborne parasites. The
only pure water in a city of half a million is imported from France,
smuggled across the border from Thailand and sells at £2
a litre - more money than most people see in months. All they
have is a water supply installed forty years ago and smashed by
Pol Pot; it is lethal. As the level of water rises and falls it
spills into the streets and draws in drainage and raw sewage.
A team from Thames Water has been here, studied the problem and
proposed that an entirely new system be installed urgently. There
are no resources for this in Cambodia. This ought to be development
aid; and it is being denied.
In the north-west most of the children fall prey to epidemics
of mosquito-carried diseases - cerebral malaria, Japanese encephalitis
and dengue fever. 'Our particular tragedy,' said Dr Chuon Nuuthorl,
director of Battambang Hospital, 'is that we had malaria beaten
here before 1975. In the 1970s the World Health Organisation assisted
us with training, medicines and funding. I remember the statistics
for April 1975; we had only a handful of malaria cases; it was
In the same month Pol Pot came to power and Battambang Hospital
was abandoned, its equipment and research files destroyed and
most of its staff murdered. When the Vietnamese drove out the
Khmer Rouge, the World Health organisation (WHO) refused to return
to Cambodia. Malaria and dengue fever did return, along with new
strains which the few surviving Cambodian doctors were unable
to identify because they no longer had laboratories. Today two
and a half million people, or a quarter of the population, have
malaria. The same estimate applies to tuberculosis, which was
also beaten in 1975. WHO assistance comes with United Nations
In June 1989, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
sent an 'exploratory mission' to Cambodia. It never arrived. The
two governments which effectively control the UNDP - the United
States and Japan - vetoed the mission as its members flew to their
first stop, Bangkok. In New York, the United States Ambassador
to the UN, Thomas Pickering - until recently ambassador to El
Salvador - argued that regardless of its tentative aims and humanitarian
purpose, the UNDP mission would amount to recognition of the 'Vietnamese-installed'
Phnom Penh government. He was supported by the Japanese ambassador,
whose government is one of the UNDP's principal underwriters,
by the Chinese ambassador, whose government is Pol Pot's principal
underwriter and whose own troops and tanks recently saw off democracy
at home, and by the ambassador of 'Democratic Kampuchea', whose
defunct regime is led by Pol Pot and was once described by President
Carter as 'the world's worst violators of human rights'.
It is not surprising that the Cambodian people cannot comprehend
the hideous perversity of all this; why they have been singled
out for such cruel and unusual punishment; why the Khmer Rouge,
whose crimes are universally acknowledged, are sustained in Thailand
by Western 'humanitarian' aid and Chinese arms; why the red and
yellow Khmer Rouge flag flies in United Nations Plaza and Pol
Pot's man speaks for his victims in the General Assembly. It is
as if the Federal Republic of Germany's seat in the UN was occupied
by Hitler's Third Reich, defeated but propped up in exile by the
Allies, and the Swastika flew over New York.
Few 'geo-political' games have been quite as cynical. In 1979
the Carter administration, which reputedly was concerned about
human rights, implemented a policy that would have the effect
of denying the most fundamental human rights to a country with
which the United States had no quarrel: Cambodia. Designed by
Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's cold warrior National
Security Adviser, the policy was known as 'playing the China card'
and was meant to cultivate Peking and so further divide China
and the Soviet Union. China's oldest enemy is Vietnam, which occupies
a geographic and strategic bridge to the rest of southern Asia.
To the Peking leadership, Pol Pot and his bloody revolution were
the means of 'destabilising' Vietnam. It was of no importance
that Cambodia, which Vietnam rescued, was to be punished in the
process. Brzezinski endorsed this. 'The friend of your enemy is
your friend', the Chinese had told him. In this way Pol Pot became
America's friend. 'I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot,'
Brzezinski said in 1981. The US, he added, 'winked semi-publicly'
as the Chinese sent arms to the Khmer Rouge through Thailand.
Propaganda was a key to the success of this strategy. Pol
Pot and the Khmer Rouge could not be retained as 'good guys';
but the Vietnamese could be promoted as 'bad guys' for having
'invaded' their neighbour, regardless of the positive outcome
of the invasion and of the circumstances that led to it. As American
intelligence, and the Chinese, knew well - and never made public
- Vietnam was brutally and repeatedly attacked by Pol Pot and
the Khmer Rouge from September 1977 and tried for more than a
year to get China to mediate and the UN to support a demilitarised
zone. All these efforts were rebuffed, and it requires a fine
comb indeed to find any reference to them in the American press.
During 1978 the attacks against Vietnam increased to the point
where on May 10 Khmer Rouge Radio called on its forces to exterminate
the Vietnamese race. 'In terms of numbers, one of us must [each]
kill thirty Vietnamese . . .'s7 Vietnam was now faced with a mad
dog government as a neighbour which attacked it and would not
negotiate; and so the Vietnamese dealt with Pol Pot's Cambodia
as the United States had dealt with Imperial Japan after Pearl
Harbor - by overthrowing the regime and constructing a new and
less hostile government. In the process, they saved the Khmer
people from possible extermination.
Under these circumstances, it is an extraordinary tribute
to the anti-Vietnamese feeling in Peking and Washington and the
influence of these two superpowers - and to the obedience of the
American media, said to be the freest in the world - that the
international community continues to call this Vietnamese action
'illegal' when so many analogous cases are called 'self-defence'
and promptly recognised. (For example: the Tanzanian overthrow
of Idi Amin.)
Throughout the 1980s blind hatred of the small, communist
country that 'defeated' and humiliated the United States in its
'noble cause' in Vietnam distinguished President Reagan's policy
towards Indo-China. This became known as 'bleeding Vietnam white
on the battlefield of Cambodia'. From 1979 to 1982 the United
States justified its support for the recognition of 'Democratic
Kampuchea' (Khmer Rouge) at the United Nations with oblique references
to the 'legal continuity' of the regime. At the same time American
funding for UNICEF'S humanitarian programme in Cambodia was cut
sharply; and Reagan's first Secretary of State, General Al Haig,
openly lobbied support for Pol Pot. But) worldwide revulsion at
Pol Pot's crimes was growing; several faithful American allies,
notably Australia, abstained in the annual vote in the UN Credentials
Committee; only by frantic lobbying did the United States, China
and the ASEAN countries ensure a majority for those who almost
murdered a nation.
In 1982 the United States and China invented the 'Coalition
of the Government of Democratic Kampuchea' (CGDK). In CIA terminology
this was a 'master illusion'; for it was neither a coalition nor
a government: nor was it democratic, nor was it in Kampuchea.
It was a fraud. The three 'equal partners' in the coalition were
the Khmer Peoples National Liberation Front (KPNLF), who were
a few thousand adventurers and bandits led by Son Sann, a prime
minister in the Lon Nol military regime; the Sihanoukists, led
by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had even fewer active followers;
and the Khmer Rouge, whom Western and Chinese aid was then restoring
as one of the strongest armies in Asia and for whom the coalition
was a front. Between 1979 and 1985 the United States provided
substantial covert, aid to the Khmer Rouge. This could now go
openly to the 'non- J communist' and 'democratic' partners in
the 'coalition', where it would end up with and rejuvenate the
Khmer Rouge as it continued America's war in Indo-China.
The Khmer Rouge dominates the coalition, whose Declaration
of Formation makes clear that it is 'under the legitimacy and
framework of Democratic Kampuchea' (Khmer Rouge). This is the
constitution that gave a legal basis for Pol Pot's terror. As
if to dispel any doubt, the Declaration states that 'if for any
reason the CGDK [the coalition] is rendered inoperative, the Khmer
Rouge will have the right to resume its activities as the sole
legal and legitimate state of Kampuchea . . .' At the United Nations
little has changed for Pol Pot's ambassador plenipotentiary. Although
three diplomats from each faction nominally represent the coalition,
the Permanent Representative is Thiounn Prasith, an accessory
to mass murder. Like most of the Khmer Rouge leadership, Prasith
comes from a wealthy Cambodian family. He is fluent in English
and French and was special adviser to Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's foreign
minister. When Pol Pot wanted to entice lone Cambodian intellectuals
living abroad - whom he regarded as potential enemies - he gave
Prasith the job of finding and persuading them and sending them
back to their death.
The coalition has been a propaganda success. In 1985 the Reagan
administration sought Congressional approval for a major arms
shipment to the 'non-communist resistance'. As this gathered momentum,
the Washington Post praised the KPNLF, calling it 'reasonably
democratic'. In Atlantic Monthly Stephen J. Morris described the
Sihanoukists and the KPNLF as the 'authentic representatives of
Cambodia' and the 'heroic survivors of the Cambodian holocaust'.
This label, as Ben Kiernan has pointed out, apparently applies
only to those allies of the perpetrators of that holocaust.
One Congressman has become the voice of the coalition in Washington,
and on Cambodia has become as influential as the Secretary of
State. He is Stephen Solarz, a liberal Democrat from New York
and chairman of the House of Representatives Asia and Pacific
Affairs Committee. Solarz is a pugnacious man who enjoys giving
media interviews. One of his favourite expressions is: 'So what?
That's history.' Solarz has the field to himself: such is the
ignorance and misinformation about Cambodia in Washington that
Vice-President Danforth Quayle can go to a refugee camp in Thailand
and announce that he is pleased 'to be right here in Cambodia'.
'We look to Solarz; he's the expert,' Senator Christopher Dodd
told me, 'he's the guy who's been there, and met the folks.' And
it is true: out of 535 senators and representatives, only Congressman
Solarz has visited Cambodia in the last decade. Eva Mysliwiec,
former head of Oxfam in Cambodia, recalled his visit in 1988.
'He flew into Phnom Penh in a private jet,' she said, 'called
a meeting of aid workers, then proceeded to lecture us. He met
a member of the government who chose the occasion to make a significant
statement about Cambodia moving away from Hanoi. But Solarz missed
the point entirely, and flew off after dismissing the regime as
a puppet. Why did he bother to come?' Solarz is almost singlehandedly
responsible for the Bush administration's announcement, in June
1989, that it intended to provide 'covert lethal aid' to the 'noncommunist
resistance'- which, according to Solarz, 'embody the hopes for
a decent and democratic Cambodia'.
It is difficult to find the source of these hopes. In a Congressional
report on the border camps, Stephen Heder, a Khmer-speaking American
on contract to the State Department, described camps controlled
by the KPNLF as lacking 'even a pretence of democratic political
practice. Camp residents are instead ruled by a kind of bureaucratic
military dictatorship which they complain is arbitrary, corrupt
and beset with nepotism and cronyism'. In 1979 the KPNLF held
hostage 6,000 refugees, and denied them international relief;
4,000 died of starvation.
For Solarz and the US administration Prince Sihanouk, above
all, embodies 'the hopes for a decent and democratic Cambodia'.
The prince is the 'good guy' and US policy is committed to maintaining
him in that guise. He is nothing of the kind. The Cambodia that
Sihanouk ran was anything but democratic. The prince regarded
himself as a 'God king' and the people as his 'children'. Members
of the Cambodian parliament were selected by him, or their seats
were bought and sold. There was no freedom to challenge him. His
secret police were feared and ubiquitous; and when an organised
opposition arose, seeking an end to corruption and abject poverty,
many of its leading members were forced to flee for their lives
into the jungle, from which cauldron emerged Pol Pot and his revolutionaries.
Moreover, there is now evidence that Sihanouk and the Khmer
Rouge are indivisible. After the CIA arranged his overthrow in
1970, Sihanouk called on his people to join Pol Pot. He has since
remained under the influence of the Khmer Rouge and the leadership
in Peking, where he lives. Although a number of his relatives
were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, he broadcast Pol Pot's propaganda.
In 1981 he flew to New York where he knowingly lied to the United
Nations about the true nature of the Khmer Rouge: that the evacuation
of Phnom Penh and the other cities had been carried out 'without
bloodshed' and reports of wholesale executions were 'unfounded'.
This inspired many Cambodians to return to a fate of torture and
Sihanouk's collaboration continues today. On March 17, 1989,
he wrote to supporters in the United States thanking them 'for
sending me the list of treasonous Cambodians', whose 'crime' had
been to visit their homeland. He signed himself 'President of
Democratic Kampuchea', the Khmer Rouge state. According to John
Pedlar, a former British diplomat who knows him, Sihanouk remains
in awe of Khieu Samphan, his former jailer. 'It is a psychological
attachment,' wrote Pedlar. 'They are like the rabbit and the snake
. . . One of his actual jailers, Chhorn Hay, a hard core Khmer
Rouge who oversaw his imprisonment in the Royal Palace, is often
among his entourage today, a constant reminder to him that his
life is still in the hands of "Angkar" [Pol Pot's secret
organisation]. The West - and indeed, he himself- still has not
recognised how much of what he purveys is Khmer Rouge propaganda.'
Since 1988 Sihanouk has done his mercurial best to sabotage
regional peace efforts. Of his numerous peace plans, his 'five
point programme' is the most revealing; for it demands the inclusion
of the Khmer Rouge in a future Cambodian government both as a
political and military force. In March 1989 Sihanouk and Khieu
Samphan held a joint press conference in Peking where Sihanouk
said that their organisations were to merge 'in the not very distant
future . . . to set up a national army of Kampuchea . What he
omitted to say was that his own small army already fought side
by side, in secret, with the Khmer Rouge. According to Congressman
Solarz, 'the non-communist resistance forces do not train or fight
with the Khmer Rouge and are not even in close proximity to them'.
There is filmed evidence of Sihanouk's men and the Khmer Rouge
on joint operations, using the same weapons to terrorise civilians.
When the United States sends arms to the 'non-communist resistance',
the route to their final destination is clearly marked.
For the Bush administration, it is supremely irrelevant that
the 'resistance' is 'non-communist' or otherwise. What matters
is that it is an effective means of furthering American aims in
de-stabilising IndoChina. Shortly after he took office in 1980
Secretary of State James Baker spoke with unusual frankness when
he described the Khmer Rouge as a 'fact of life'. The American
Ambassador to Thailand, Daniel O'Donahue, said he 'could not see
a scenario' in which the Khmer Rouge were not part of a future
Cambodian government.' Whenever Thailand's new reformist government
has made overtures to Phnom Penh, going as far as to invite Hun
Sen to Bangkok and indicating it would like to get rid of the
Khmer Rouge, Ambassador O'Donehue has expressed American displeasure
and reminded the Thais of their commitment to 'democracy' and
'security' in the region - i.e. American strategic interests.
This pressure invariably succeeds, and the Thais draw back.
American policy is to support a 'quadripartite solution' in
which the three factions of the coalition share power in Phnom
Penh with the Hun Sen government. An almost unanimous view of
this in Cambodia is that it will allow the Khmer Rouge to return
as a Trojan horse. According to John Pedlar, 'There are those
giving advice to the US Administration, like the [far right-wing]
Heritage Foundation, some of whose members see communist weakness
in the USSR, China and Vietnam as an opportunity for exploitation.
They believe that the Khmer Rouge - supported by the non-communist
world - is now in a position to destabilise Cambodia and eventually
The extreme right's benign view of the Khmer Rouge was expressed
by Douglas Pike, director of Indochina Studies at the University
of California, Berkeley. In August 1989, Pike described fears
about the return of Pol Pot as 'mindless sloganeering'. He wrote
that 'the Khmer Rouge today are not the Khmer Rouge of the 1970s'
and that what was needed was not a government controlled by the
Khmer Rouge 'but one acceptable to it'.
The Pike view, although reflecting official policy, is an
embarrassment in Washington. When Cambodia again became news in
1989, the State Department briefed journalists that there were
'subtle shifts' in American policy. The headlines said this; the
United States would have no truck with the monstrous Pol Pot.
On July 30, 1989, Secretary of State Baker said
The United States sincerely believes that the Khmer Rouge
should play no role in Cambodia's future . . . the strength of
our support for any [future] Cambodian government will directly
and inversely depend on the extent of Khmer Rouge participation,
if any, in that government.
What did this mean? Was it another 'master illusion'? Two
weeks later at the international conference in Paris, Baker supported
Prince Sihanouk's call for the Khmer Rouge to be part of a future
Cambodian government. He added only that this was 'conditional'
on the exclusion of Pol Pot and his close associates. Nothing
had changed. Earlier in the year, when Prince Sihanouk told a
Peking press conference that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to exclude
Pol Pot from any future government, Khieu Samphan, seated beside
the prince, burst out laughing.
American policy has long determined a united front on Cambodia
among Western governments. The Australian government, which has
sought to aid the people of Cambodia while looking over its shoulder
at Washington, supported Baker's 'conditional' call for the reintegration
into Cambodian society of a political movement that instigated
the deaths of a fifth of that society. However, the role of the
British government has been the most shameful, and is epitomised
by the words of a senior British diplomat. 'Cambodia', he said,
'is a country of about seven million people. It's of no real strategic
value. As far as Britain is concerned, it's expendable.'