Supporting Pol Pot

excerpted from the book

Rogue State

A Guide to the World's Only Superpower

by William Blum

Common Courage Press, 2000


The Killing Fields...the borders sealed, the cities emptied at gunpoint, a forced march to the countryside...being a professional, knowing a foreign language, wearing eyeglasses, almost anything, might be cause enough for persecution, execution...or the overwork will kill you, or a beating, or the hunger, or disease. For whatever reason: shortage of food, creation of an agrarian society impervious to the economic world order, internal party power, security...well over a million dead at the hands of the Cambodian Communist Party, the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, after ousting the US-supported regime of Lon Nol...the world is horrified, comparisons to the Nazi genocide mushroom, "worse than Hitler" is Pol Pot...

Four years later, January 1979, Vietnam-responding to years of attacks by the Khmer Rouge against ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia and cross-border raids into Vietnam itself-invaded what was now called Kampuchea, overthrew Pol Pot's government, and installed a government friendly to Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge forces retreated to the western end of Cambodia, by the border with Thailand, and later some set up camp in Thailand itself.

Washington's reaction was not any kind of elation that the Cambodian nightmare had come to an end, but rather undisguised displeasure that the hated Vietnamese were in control and credited with ousting the terrible Khmer Rouge. For years afterwards, the United States condemned Vietnam's actions as "illegal". A lingering bitterness by American cold warriors against the small nation which monumental US power could not defeat appears to be the only explanation for this attitude. Humiliation runs deep, particularly when you're the world's only superpower.

Thus it was that an American policy took root-to provide the Khmer Rouge with food, financial aid and military aid beginning soon after their ouster. The aim, in conjunction with China and long-time American client state, Thailand, was to restore Pol Pot's troops to military capability as the only force which could make the Vietnamese withdraw their army, leading to the overthrow of the Cambodian government.

President Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has stated that in the spring of 1979: "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. I encouraged the Thai to help the [Khmer Rouge]. The question was how to help the Cambodian people.[sic] Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him. But China could."

In November 1980, Ray Cline, former Deputy Director of the CIA, visited a Khmer Rouge enclave inside Cambodia in his capacity as senior foreign-policy adviser to President-elect Ronald Reagan. A Khmer Rouge press release said that Cline "was warmly greeted by thousands of villagers." The Reagan administration was apparently preparing to continue the policy of opposition to the Vietnamese-supported Phnom Penh government.

Some of the relief organizations operating in Cambodia considered supporting the Khmer Rouge guerrillas inconsistent with their humanitarian goals, in addition to the fact that distributing aid to military personnel was impermissible for such organizations as UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross. But as two American relief aid workers, Linda Mason and Roger Brown, later wrote: "Thailand, the country that hosted the relief operation, and the U.S. government, which funded the bulk of the relief operation, insisted that the Khmer Rouge be fed."

In the 1979-81 period, the World Food Program, which was strongly under US influence, gave almost $12 million in food to the Thai Army to distribute to predominantly Khmer Rouge camps by the border.

In 1982, trying to remove the smell from the Khmer Rouge, the United States put together a coalition composed of the Khmer Rouge and two "non-communist" groups also opposed to the Cambodian government, one headed by former Cambodian ruler, Prince Sihanouk.

The coalition became the recipient of much aid from the US and China, mainly funneled through Thailand. The American aid, by the late 1980s, reached $5 million officially, with the CIA providing between $20 and $24 million behind Congress's back. The aid was usually referred to as "non-lethal" or "humanitarian", but any aid freed up other money to purchase military equipment in the world's arms markets. Officially, Washington was not providing any of this aid to the Khmer Rouge, but it knew full well that Pol Pot's forces were likely to be the ultimate beneficiaries. As one US official put it: "Of course, if the coalition wins, the Khmer Rouge will eat the others alive". In any event, the CIA and the Chinese were supplying arms directly as well to the Khmer Rouge.

From 1985 on, there was a Federal law prohibiting the government from providing any money to Cambodia which would have the effect of helping the Khmer Rouge's fighting capacity, either directly or indirectly. After reports appeared in 1990 that aid to the coalition was getting into the hands of the Khmer Rouge, the Bush administration announced an official halt to the program. Whether this was a serious effort to comply with the law, or simply an effort at damage control is not known; nor is it clear how long the halt lasted, if indeed it had been halted at all. The following February, the administration acknowledged to Congress that there may have been "tactical military cooperation" between US-backed non-communist forces and the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge were meanwhile using this aid to regularly attack Cambodian villages, seed minefields, kill peasants and make off with their rice and cattle. But they never seriously threatened the Phnom Penh government.

The United States also successfully defended the right of the Khmer Rouge to the United Nations' Cambodian seat, although their government had ceased to exist in January 1979. They held the seat until 1993. Beginning in 1982, the seat ostensibly represented the coalition, but the chief UN representative, Thiounn Prasith, was a leading apologist for Pol Pot's horrendous crimes and played a major role in their cover up. 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."

During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the United States pressed for the dismantling of the Cambodian government and the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge in an interim government and in elections, despite still-lingering revulsion against Pol Pot and his followers amongst the Cambodian people and the international community, and despite the fact that the Vietnamese withdrew virtually all their forces from Cambodia in September 1989.


"The death of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot has again brought to international attention one of the most tragic chapters of inhumanity in the twentieth century-senior Khmer Rouge, who exercised leadership from 1975 to 1979, are still at large and share responsibility for the monstrous human rights abuses committed during this period. 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."

President William Clinton, April 16, 199814

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