Chomsky on Cambodia

From ChomskyChat (

11. From Talha, about Cambodia

(A) On war crimes trials.

If these exclude foreign powers, they would be about as meaningful as trials of the Taliban (whose crimes are horrendous) without attention to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the machinations of other powers. Naturally commissars in pre-Gorbachev Russia would have insisted on exactly that narrow focus, and would have condemned any call for a broader inquiry exactly in the terms you quote from the US press (diversionary tactic, etc.). And equally naturally, their Western counterparts want to excise politically incorrect parts of the "Decade of Genocide" -- the title of the one independent governmental inquiry into the years 1969-1979 (Finland), not quite a best-seller here. Hence the statements you quote from the US press. Those who are interested in justice, not serving personal or power interests, will take a different stance, in both cases.

Suppose that Pravda in pre-Gorbachev days had argued that "as a practical matter" an inquiry wouldn't reach to the Kremlin because it's too powerful, so we might as well keep to crimes of the resistance and the Taliban. I don't think we'd take that very seriously. Same with the counterpart here. "As a practical matter" trials can reach to the White House. We know that. Open today's newspaper.

Of course, as a "practical matter," it's restricted to trivial issues, but it could happen on important ones too if popular organizing reaches a level sufficient to demand it. That's our choice. Recall that during the Watergate farce (which is what it largely was, in my opinion), one of the articles of impeachment -- the only serious one -- had to do with the "secret" bombing of Cambodia. That was dropped, precisely because it was a serious issue. That wasn't a law of nature, any more than the current articles of impeachment have to keep to choices that don't even merit ridicule, while excluding, say, the wanton destruction of a major African pharmaceutical plant by state terror.

Note also that the "secret" bombing was secret by choice and design. There was public evidence available from early 1969, including impassioned pleas by Prince Sihanouk to the Western press to publicize and denounce the murder of Khmer peasants by US bombing. There was also nothing to stop US reporters from crossing the street from their Phnom Penh hotels at the peak of the bombing in 1973 to interview the hundreds of thousands of refugees driven into the city by horrendous bombing. Michael Vickery once pointed out that the forceful evacuation of Phnom Penh was considered a shocking crime, but driving over a million people into the city by bombardment was somehow different. The story continues, as you know. The article you mention that Ed Herman and I wrote in early 1977 was a review of several books, including Francois Ponchaud's "Cambodge Annee Zero," which later came out in two simultaneous and sharply different English versions, a rather accurate American one and a wholly fraudulent British (and world) one. The period discussed was mid 1975 through 1976, and very little was known about that, as every serious account (including Ponchaud) stressed. The review by Lacouture that you mentioned brought Ponchaud's book to an English-speaking audience, but in a wholly farcical version. Lacouture wrote (first in France, reprinted at once in the NY Review) that Ponchaud had shown that the Khmer Rouge had "boasted" of killing 2 million people -- the likely original source of the figure you are quoting. In fact, Ponchaud had claimed that 800,000 died during the US phase of the "decade of genocide", and that the US Embassy in Bangkok had given a figure of 1.2 million deaths attributed to the Khmer Rouge. Lacouture added the numbers, got 2 million, attributed them to the KR, and added the "boast." That became the standard version. A few months later, Lacouture issued "corrections" (only in the US, never in France where his article originally appeared and he knew that it wouldn't be questioned), asking whether it really mattered whether deaths were in the "thousands" or "hundreds of thousands." The challenge was addressed to me personally (I had written him privately suggesting that he correct his review, in which literally every statement attributed to Ponchaud was a comparable fabrication). Accordinly, in the review you mentioned, we said we thought it did matter whether the US had boasted of killing 2 million people in Operation Speedy Express, or whether only thousands had died; in short, a factor of 1000 matters in estimating deaths, and we should try to keep to the truth, whether considering our own crimes or those of official enemies. That response was considered outrageous at the time, and still is, while Lacouture is highly praised for his courage in concocting fantastic lies about an official enemy. A little piece of an interesting story. In the review, we also pointed out that Ponchaud had misread casualty figures (given accurately in another book we reviewed, the only one with documentation), and had therefore greatly exaggerated the deaths attributable to the US bombings. Interestingly, that correction of Ponchaud's error has always been considered quite legitimate (in fact never mentioned). We were also informed by the leading Cambodia specialist at the US embassy in Bangkok (later US Ambassador to Cambodia) that the 1.2 million figure was a fabrication, and had never been issued by the Embassy. Details about this whole intriguing story appear in our two-volume "Political Economy of Human Rights" (1979). There's more in Michael Vickery's "Cambodia," and elsewhere.

What about the facts? At the time we were writing, US intelligence was estimating deaths under the Khmer Rouge in the thousands to hundreds of thousands range, not from "mass genocide" but from "brutal rapid change," with considerable regional variation. US intelligence was the only source with broad and credible information, and was almost entirely ignored -- I presume, because the information wasn't useful for propaganda purposes. Much more extensive evidence became available in 1980, with the huge flow of refugees after the Vietnamese invasion drove out the Khmer Rouge. Based on that, the CIA issued a demographic study that was completely ignored in the media, though praised by the highest US authorities as the best account available. The study was outlandish. It attributed most of the deaths to the Vietnamese, and largely exonerated the Khmer Rouge, claiming that 50-100,000 people were killed (mostly military and government officials), that the atrocities were mostly in the early period, and that most peasants didn't make out badly under the KR. The reality, as all competent observers agree, is that far more than that were killed and that the killings peaked towards the end, in 1978 (that's the source of the famous piles of skulls, for example). Vickery, one of the few Cambodia specialists to pay attention to the broad picture, points out that by 1978 the KR were tacit US allies under Carter's "tilt towards China," so the CIA had a stake in denying the major atrocities and playing down the others.

What Herman and I wrote in the Nation was quite accurate, as Ponchaud pointed out explicitly in the (American) edition of his book, in fact praising us for our careful and responsible work, and thanking us for praising his book (as we did). But obviously nothing could be known then of later years: 1977-78, particularly 1978, when the worst terror took place. In fact, nothing much was known about that until 1980. By now it's possible to piece together some kind of account. There are substantial disagreements among specialists, but essentially, it seems that the assessments of US intelligence in the mid-1970s (which were ignored by the media; we reviewed them) were pretty close to accurate; total deaths by the end are variously estimated in roughly the 1-2 million range, meaning deaths beyond the norm, from all causes. One might bear in mind that in Phnom Penh alone deaths beyond the norm were running at 100,000 a year at the time the KR took over, and that as they took over, high US officials estimated that 1 million would die in the best of circumstances as a result of the conditions left by the war, and that probably two years of "slave labor" would be necessary to get the country to a level in which it could function. About these predictions (rarely noted here) there are also various disagreements. Note incidentally that virtually nothing is known about the first phase of the "decade of genocide." There are no projects investigating it, and in fact the topic is essentially off the map -- like others mentioned in this same set of responses (children dying this minute from US terror weapons in Laos, or from the effects of chemical warfare in South Vietnam, etc.). Those facts should interest us, unless, of course, we choose to be slaves to the doctrinal system and the power interests it serves.

One problem in dealing with whole topic is that an overwhelming amount of the clamor, from the beginning, has no concern at all with the fate of Cambodians. That's obvious enough even from the title of the best-selling book of the period: "Murder in a Gentle Land." It's main thesis is that until April 1975, Cambodia was a "gentle land" of peaceful Buddhist farmers -- right through the first phase of the "decade of genocide," while a million and a half of them fled to Phnom Penh for some mysterious reason, not worth investigating.

Cambodians have been used for purposes of power and personal gain by malicious propagandists. So one has to look very carefully at the facts. The amount of outright lying on all of this is stupendous, beyond anything I know about, apart from Stalinist and Nazi archives. The origins of the 2 million figure is not exceptional. A lot of the story is reviewed in our 1979 book and in Vickery's book, and Ed Herman and I have updated it since repeatedly. It's also worth bearing in mind -- crucially -- that the victims of the stupendous lies and deceit are not just Cambodians. Fears of the "Pol Pot left" were assiduously exploited to mobilize support for comparable atrocities in Central America in the same and subsequent years. Another horror story that is an unlikely candidate for "history," but that those with a taste for reality might want to think about.