The Friends of Pol Pot
"It is my duty," wrote the correspondent for The Times of London at the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Belsen, "to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind." That was how I felt in the summer of 1979 when I arrived in Cambodia. In the silent humidity, houses, office blocks, hotels and schools stood empty, as if vacated that day. In the ruined National Bank, blown up by the retreating Khmer Rouge, a pair of spectacles rested on a ledger. When the afternoon monsoon broke, the streets nearby ran with money as thousands of brand-new banknotes washed away in the gutter. Children, orphans, collected and dried them for fuel; I can still hear the crackle as the money burned.
As if in a mirage, a pyramid of cars rose on a football field. It included an ambulance, a fire engine, police cars, refrigerators, washing machines, TV sets, telephones and typewriters. It was as if these had been swept there by a gigantic broom on April 17, 1975--Year Zero in Pol Pot's calendar. From that date, anybody who had owned them, anybody who had lived in a city or town, or anybody who knew or worked with foreigners was in mortal danger. More than a million and a half would die--although recent discoveries of mass graves by a Yale University team suggest that this figure may be a gross underestimate. During the three years and eight months they held power, Pol Pot and his medievalists may have put to death a third of the nation.
It is all too easy and too dangerous to remember Pol Pot as a unique monster. What is remarkable about the U.S. coverage of his death is the omission of U.S. complicity in his rise to power, a complicity that sustained him for almost two decades. For the truth is that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge would be historical nonentities--and a great many people would be alive today--had Washington not helped bring them to power and the governments of the United States, Britain, China and Thailand not supported them, armed them, sustained them and restored them. In other words, the iconic images of the piles of skulls ought to include those who, often at great remove in distance and culture, were Pol Pot's accessories and Faustian partners for the purposes of their own imperial imperatives.
To hear Henry Kissinger deny recently that the United States and especially the Nixon Administration bore any responsibility for Cambodia's horror was to hear truth denigrated and our intelligence insulted. For Cambodia's nightmare did not begin with Year Zero but on the eve of the U.S. land invasion of neutral Cambodia in 1970. The invasion provided a small group of extreme ethnic nationalists with Maoist pretensions, the Khmer Rouge, with a catalyst for a revolution that had no popular base among the Cambodian people. Between 1969 and 1973, U.S. bombers killed perhaps three-quarters of a million Cambodian peasants in an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese supply bases, many of which did not exist. During one six-month period in 1973, B-52s dropped more bombs on Cambodians, living mostly in straw huts, than were dropped on Japan during all of World War II, the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. Evidence from U.S. official documents, declassified in 1987, leaves no doubt that this U.S. terror was critical in Pol Pot's drive for power. "They are using [the bombing] as the main theme of the propaganda," reported the C.I.A. Director of Operations on May 2, 1973. "This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of a number of young men [and] the propaganda has been most effective among refugees subjected to B-52 strikes."
What Kissinger and Nixon began, Pol Pot completed. Had the United States and China allowed it, Cambodia's suffering could have stopped when the Vietnamese finally responded to years of Khmer Rouge attacks across their border and liberated the country in January 1979. But almost immediately the United States began secretly backing Pol Pot in exile. Direct contact was made between the Reagan White House and the Khmer Rouge when Dr. Ray Cline, a former deputy director of the C.I.A., made a clandestine visit to Pol Pot's operational base inside Cambodia in November 1980. Cline was then a foreign policy adviser to President-elect Reagan. Within a year some fifty C.I.A. and other intelligence agents were running Washington's secret war against Cambodia from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and along the Thai-Cambodian border. The aim was to appease China, the great Soviet foe and Pol Pot's most enduring backer, and to rehabilitate and use the Khmer Rouge to bring pressure on the source of recent U.S. humiliation in the region: the Vietnamese. Cambodia was now America's "last battle of the Vietnam War," as one U.S. official put it, "so that we can achieve a better result."
Two U.S. relief aid workers, Linda Mason and Roger Brown, later wrote, "The U.S. government insisted that the Khmer Rouge be fed...the U.S. preferred that the Khmer Rouge operation benefit from the credibility of an internationally known relief operation." In 1980, under U.S. pressure, the World Food Programme handed over food worth $12 million to pass on to the Khmer Rouge. In that year, I traveled on a U.N. convoy of forty trucks into Cambodia from Thailand and filmed a U.N. official handing the supplies over to a Khmer Rouge general, Nam Phan, known to Western aid officials as The Butcher. There is little doubt that without this support and the flow of arms from China through Thailand the Khmer Rouge would have withered on the vine.
If the U.S. bombing was the first phase of Cambodia's holocaust and Pol Pot's Year Zero the second, the third phase was the use of the United Nations by Washington, its allies and China as the instrument of Cambodia's, and Vietnam's, punishment. With Vietnamese troops preventing the return of the Khmer Rouge and a Hanoi-installed regime in Phnom Penh, a U.N. embargo barred Cambodia from all international agreements on trade and communications, even from the World Health Organization. The U.N. withheld development aid from only one Third World country: Cambodia, which lay unreconstituted from the years of bombing and neglect. For the United States the blockade was total. Not even Cuba and the Soviet Union were treated this way.
If on his deathbed Pol Pot had felt moved to offer thanks to his Western collaborators, he surely would have made special mention of an unworkable U.N. "peace plan" imposed by the West and China in 1992. At the insistence of Washington and Beijing, the Khmer Rouge was included in the U.N. operation as a legitimate "warring faction"; the rationale was that they were far too powerful to be left out. Since then, the argument has been turned upside down. Thanks to the "triumph" of the U.N. in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge has "virtually disappeared." In 1993 the U.N.'s military maps showed that in half of Cambodia Pol Pot had a military advantage he did not have before the U.N. arrived. "You must understand," the U.N. spokesman in Phnom Penh, Eric Falt, told me in 1992, "the peace process was aimed at allowing the Khmer Rouge to gain respectability."
I watched Khmer Rouge officials welcomed back to Phnom Penh by U.N. officials who went to astonishing lengths not to offend them. Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot's henchman who once said that the only mistake the Khmer Rouge had made was not killing enough people, took the salute of U.S. and other U.N. troops as a guest of honor on United Nations Day in Phnom Penh.
The West, with the U.N. as its vehicle, brought to Cambodia elections, the "free market," AIDS and massive corruption, all of it reminiscent of the surreal and violent days in the early seventies when the B-52s were bombing the countryside and the Khmer Rouge was infiltrating the cities and towns. The fact that this process of infiltration is under way again was one of the reasons Cambodia's "second prime minister," Hun Sen, last year attacked the forces and supporters of the "first prime minister," Prince Ranariddh, who in exile had been the leader of the Khmer Rouge dominated coalition.
Are the Khmer Rouge now finished? I doubt it. The more pertinent question is: Will those foreign governments that backed Pol Pot while wringing their hands now help rebuild the country they helped devastate? Henry Kissinger appeared to answer this when he said, "Why should we flagellate ourselves for what the Cambodians did to each other?"