Noam Chomsky on
Cambodia under Pol Pot, etc.

The original claim that the Khmer Rouge had "boasted" of having killed 2 million people was by Jean Lacouture in the New York Review, quickly taken up by Anthony Lewis and others. Lacouture was reviewing a French book by Francois Ponchaud, a priest who had lived in Cambodia. I was curious, obtained Ponchaud's book from a friend in France, and read it (it was being widely quoted all over the place on the basis of L's review; I wouldn't be surprised if I were the only person in the country who had actually seen it -- it had just appeared).

What Ponchaud actually wrote was that the US war had killed 800,000 people (which seems to be a considerable exaggeration) and that according to the US Embassy, 1.2 million had died since (that would be from April 75 through 1976 -- the statement was flatly denied by the Embassy). Adding these two (incorrect) figures, we get two million. The boast comes free. A few weeks later, in "corrections" (which I brought to his attention, privately), L. says that maybe there were only thousands killed, but asks whether it really matters -- a position for which he has won great acclaim. When Ed Herman and I responded to his challenge to me by saying that we thought that a factor of 1000 did matter, that aroused huge outrage, which still continues ("nit-picking," it's called on the left). Oddly, no one has taken the same view when we said we thought it also mattered whether the US killed thousands or millions in, say, Operation Speedy Express. In dealing with US atrocities, facts matter. For official enemies, anything goes.

Since that time figures of all sorts have been bandied about. In January 1979, the Far Eastern Economic Review (the main business journal covering Asia, now part of the Dow Jones system) claimed that the population of Cambodia had risen to 8.2 million under the Khmer Rouge (that would be an increase of about 1 million). The next year they said it had fallen to 4 million. The actual figure, by census count, was about 6.7 million. The CIA, in its demographic study in 1980, claims that Pol Pot killed 50-100,000 people and attributes most deaths to the Vietnamese invasion, also denying flatly the atrocities of 1978, which were by far the worst (that's the source of the famous piles of skulls, etc.; these became known after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, and were certainly known to the CIA). Michael Vickery has written about the CIA study, suggesting that it was tailored to fit the fact that the US was tacitly supporting Pol Pot in '78 and later.There's a careful analysis in Vickery's "Cambodia." He's a very serious Cambodia scholar, and his analysis is taken seriously by other reputable scholars (e.g., Australian scholar Robert Cribb, in his standard scholarly work on the Indonesian massacres with comparative evidence). Vickery estimates about 700,000 deaths "above the normal" in the Pol Pot years -- which, if accurate, would be about the same as deaths during the US war (the first phase of the "Decade of Genocide," as 1969-79 is called by the one independent government analysis, Finland). For that period, the CIA estimates 600,000 deaths. The Yale Genocide project (Ben Kiernan and others) gives higher estimates, about 1.5 million.In fact, no one knows. No one ever knows in such cases, within quite a broad range. When numbers are put forth with any confidence, and without a big plus-or-minus, you can be sure that there is an ideological agenda, in any such case. Demographic analyses are very weak.If we wanted to be serious, we would also ask how many of the post-1975 deaths are the result of the US war. The predictions by US officials, doctors in Phnom Penh, and others were that there would be a huge toll in the coming years; people were dying in Phnom Penh alone at 100,000 a year when the KR took over (no one has a clue as to what was happening in the heavily bombed countryside). The figure of 1 million potential deaths was reported by the highly respected correspondent of the FEER, Nayan Chanda, attributed to a high US official.

But these are ideological footballs. Only a few of those who write about the topic are interested in such boring things as truth -- as the original 2 million figure indicates.Incidentally, these numbers are from memory. I've quoted them exactly in print, and could check if you like -- or you could check originals. I think they are accurate, or close to.

Noam Chomsky


Noam Chomsky: more on
Atrocities in Cambodia

I didn't quite understand the first comment, which reads: "Quick response: Kiernan cites a figure of 1.5 million. He criticizes Vickery's population figures as too low by about 700,000--which explains the difference between the two estimates."

Remember that the relation is reciprocal. Vickery criticizes Kiernan's figures as too high. And there are various other differences in (highly uncertain) estimates. As I think I may have mentioned, leading specialists go both ways: thus Robert Cribb, in the standard scholarly study of Indonesian and comparative genocide, takes Vickery's figures.

It's true that the KR (not just Pol Pot, I believe) were rabidly racist, and had support for that. There was an element of what Vickery calls "poor peasant chauvinism." How large an element it was is another point of dispute. Vickery thinks a lot; Kiernan thinks less. Not easy to determine. We can't answer questions like that easily even for far more familiar and intensively studied societies: our own, for example.

On "casualities resulting directly and indirectly from the bombing of Cambodia," estimates are even more uncertain than for the Pol Pot period. The topic isn't studied, for the obvious reason (just ask who will be blamed). The Finnish government study "Decade of Genocide: 1969-1979," the only independent governmental study, recognizes that the "genocide" had two phases, but devotes only a few pages to the first phase, because there is so little information. US reporters on the scene (like Sydney Schanberg, called "the conscience of the press" because of his dedication to exposing Pol Pot terror) literally refused to interview refugees fleeing into Phnom Penh. That didn't require trekking into the jungle (which reporters were happy to do to interview refugees who could expose Pol Pot terror): just crossing the street from their hotel. Ed Herman and I documented this in detail in "Manufacturing Consent." It's standard. I saw it myself, first-hand, in Laos in 1970. I happened to be there just when the CIA mercenary army had drive a flood of refugees from the Plain of Jars to encampments about 20 miles out of the capital city, which was then hosting leading journalists from all over the world, who flew in because of fraudulent US claims of a North Vietnamese invasion (everyone knew it was a fraud, and there was much ridicule in the hotel bar where the journalists hung out, but they reported it soberly). The Plain of Jars had been subjected to the most intense bombing in history (later exceeded by US bombing in Cambodia); in fact, thousands of people are still dying every year from unexploded "bomblets," mostly children and farmers, while the US refuses to do anything about it and it isn't reported here though it is known -- another horror story. To get back to the point, I spent maybe 20 hours during the few days I was in Vientiane interviewing refugees to learn something about what had been going on in the Plain of Jars (I was taken by a Lao-speaking US volunteer, Fred Branfman, who had been trying desperately to get Western reporters to have a look at the facts, with no luck). Virtually no US reporters wanted to find out; they preferred the 5PM handouts at the US Embassy, which all knew were absurd. The story gets much worse. I wrote about it in "At War with Asia" (1970); Fred has a much more detailed account in his "Voices from the Plain of Jars." There's more in my "For Reasons of State" and later.

Same in Vietnam. Millions of people were fleeing into the slums of Saigon from US saturation bombing of the densely-populated Meking Delta. How many interviews can you find? Americans estimate the deaths in Indochina at about 100,000; journalists sometimes report that figure too; official figures are over 3 million. If we discovered that ordinary Germans estimated Holocaust deaths at a few hundred thousand, there would (properly) be an outcry. Have you heard one here?

It's easy to continue. US crimes are off the agenda.

To get to your question (finally), the little evidence is something like this. The CIA (in its postwar demographic study) estimates deaths in the first phase of the "decade of genocide" at 600,000 (of course, they don't regard the US as responsible). In 1975, just before the Khmer Rouge takeover, Western doctors in Phnom Penh were estimating deaths at 8000 a month -- what was going on in the countryside, where the bombing was in progress, no one tried to estimate. They also predicted that there would be a "lost generation," as a result of the horrendous attack on the countryside. The only extensive study of this that I know is Gary Porter and George Hildebrand's book, but since it is a heavily documented study of US atrocities, it is undiscussable here. Progressives, like "Progressive" editor Matthew Rothschild, regard it as outrageous even to say that the book is well-documented (though it transparently is); written in 1976, it is mostly devoted to US crimes, therefore even to cite it is criminal. We have to agree that before the KR takeover, Cambodia was a "gentle land" of happy people: to question that is another outrage, according to standard doctrine, going as far to the dissident side as Rothschild and "In These Times."

To continue, high US officials cited by the highly-respected Asia correspondent of the (eminently respectable) Far Eastern Economic Review predicted that 1 million would die as a consequence of the US bombings. US aid officials leaving Phnom Penh when the KR took over predicted that two years of "slave labor" would be necessary to overcome the effects of the bombing.

Whether these estimates are right or wrong, no one knows, and no one cares. There is a doctrine to be established: we must focus solely on the (horrendous) crimes of Pol Pot, thus providing a retrospective justification for (mostly unstudied) US crimes, and an ideological basis for further "humanitarian intervention" in the future -- the Pol Pot atrocities were explicitly used to justify US intervention in Central America in the '80s, leaving hundreds of thousands of corpses and endless destruction. In the interests of ideological reconstruction and laying the basis for future crimes, facts are simply irrelevant, and anyone who tries to suggest otherwise is targeted by a virulent stream of abuse. That runs pretty much across the spectrum, an instructive phenomenon. But one consequence is that no one can give a serious answer to the question you raise, because it is about US crimes.

Noam Chomsky