Thursday, July 25, 2013

It's always America's fault

When I’m not busy being a lawyer, I like to read. A lot. Mostly histories. For decades my main focus has been on World War II, ancient Rome, and ancient Greece. It has turned into the occasional article or even the occasional book, but I do examine as many periods of history as I an get my hands on. You never know what you might learn. And, I’ve found over the years, the more you learn, the more you realize just how much more you have to learn. The more you know the more you don’t know.

A bit worn out on World War II for a bit after finishing the manuscript for my book, I’ve been immersing myself in the details of the Khmer Rouge. For the uninitiated, I’ll give a bit of background.

For a long time the Cambodia (of Kampuchea, which is the name of the country in the local Khmer language) had been run by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was sort of the Southeast Asian version of Alcibiades, the occasionally Athenian general of the Peloponnesian War, immensely popular but corrupt and apt to change sides more often than Arlen Specter. During the 1960s Sihanouk, who was rather anti-American, vowed neutrality in the Vietnam War going on next door – but then allowed the North Vietnam People’s Army and the Viet Cong to operate from bases in Cambodia, which would seem to violate said neutrality. This agreement allowed North Vietnam to supply the Viet Cong by use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through eastern Cambodia, and the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. It also allowed the Central Office of South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese Communist headquarters, to operate in Cambodia. Eventually, the Viet Cong basically took over the border regions of eastern Cambodia.

The US responded to the construction of these Cambodian safe havens with, as one might expect, hostility – the (in)famous bombing of Cambodia. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, with backing from China, responded to Sihanouk’s hospitality by forming in 1968 the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which quickly became armed resistance to Prince Sihanouk. These Communists became known in the local Khmer language as Khmer Krahom – “Red Khmer,” which in French language of post-colonial Cambodia was Les Khmers Rouges – the Khmer Rouge.

(And for anyone who actually doubts the Domino Theory was real, note that after the appearance of communist North Vietnam we got the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the Pathet Lao in Laos. Them’s a lot of dominoes.)

Like most rebel movements at first, the Khmer Rouge were very weak, and depended on the North Vietnam “People’s” Army and the Viet Cong not only for money, training, and equipment, but for soldiers. For years it was the Viet Cong who did most of the fighting against the Cambodian military, which was notoriously ineffective. 

In 1970, while Sihanouk was abroad, his defense minister General Lon Nol seized power. There has been talk that it was a move instigated by the CIA, but there is actually little evidence to support that notion. The coup actually seems to have been initiated by senior government officials and locals in the capital Phnom Penh so they could get US aid – which they would then pilfer to further enrich themselves; the Khmer culture is ambivalent to corruption and crime. To be sure, the US took advantage of the situation to provide material support to Nol, who promised to get rid of the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge. For his part, Sihanouk went to Beijing and threw his support behind the Khmer Rouge rebels who had been trying to overthrow his regime.

Unfortunately, Lon Nol turned out to be an idiot and, after a stroke in 1971, a sick one at that. The US aid intended to go to the Cambodian army usually ended up on the black market with ministers and officers pocketing the profits. At the request of the Khmer Rouge, the North Vietnamese "People’s" Army launched an offensive in 1970 that took half the country. The Khmer Rouge gained recruits from the peasants of Cambodia and no small measure of conscription in the areas that they controlled. So ineffective were Nol’s forces that soon he held only Phnom Penh and the highways – and he was able to hold Phnom Penh against a determined Khmer Rouge attack in 1973 only with the help of US bombing. 

In 1975, after the US left South Vietnam, the situation came to a climax. Phnom Penh’s population had swollen to two million because of the influx of refugees fleeing the fighting and, indeed, the Khmer Rouge itself, about which horror stories abounded. A US consular official in South Vietnam had visited a hill overlooking the border into Cambodia, where he could see plumes from giant fires – lots of fires. He thought these were towns burning because of US bombing, but soon realized it was no such thing. This was the Khmer Rouge at work. They had forcibly evacuated these towns and set fire to them so that their inhabitants would have nothing to which to return. This, a Khmer Rouge policy since 1972, was an ominous sign of things to come.

On April 17, 1975, Nol’s forces suffered their final collapse, Nol fled the country (one of his few instances of good judgment) and the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Entering the city came tens of thousands of teenage and even pre-teen troops, all wearing the Khmer Rouge uniform of black pajamas, traditional Cambodian krama used as a scarf to signify rank, and “Ho Chi Minh Sandals” – sandals cut from old tires that were the perfect communist rebel attire inasmuch as they were simple, cheap, durable, and ugly. In contrast to how victorious troops normally behave, they also wore a cornucopia of disconcerting expressions – icy glares, black scowls, fiery anger, unfathomable hatred.

Khmer Rouge troops enter Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975. (CNN/Getty Images.)

That very day, at around 1:00 pm, the Khmer Rouge ordered the 2 million people in Phnom Penh to leave immediately. No time to pack or even get together with loved ones because it would only be for a short time – three hours (as if a city of two million could evacuate and return in three hours) or three days (impossible even in that time); they could never quite get their story straight. They said it was on account of an expected US bombing raid. There was no such thing and they knew it. The goal of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was to go back to the “Year Zero” with no history and create the perfect communist society, free from any foreign influence whatsoever (except the Chinese, of course, who kept supporting the Khmer Rouge). Because in his view the cities were corrupt hives of scum and villainy, so to speak, the cities – all of them – were to be completely evacuated, the people moved to the countryside to build their own houses and grow their own food. Private property was abolished, everything was to be owned by the “Angkar” (“Organization”), as the Khmer Rouge called their government. In reality much of that was left in Phnom Penh was carted off by the Khmer Rouge and sold to Vietnam.

And so the people were forced out. At gunpoint. Everyone, including patients in hospitals. Survivor Haing Ngor tells of being forced to leave a surgical patient behind open on the operating table. Herded like cattle the people were, driven forward into the unknown wilderness, overcome by fear and despair, with little food or water to sustain them. Those too slow or sick to keep up were shot by the Khmer Rouge. Others were so despondent at being stripped of all they owned in the world they committed suicide. Some 20,000 died in this evacuation.

Residents are forced to evacuate Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975. (Documentation Center of Cambodia)

The Khmer Rouge were largely illiterate peasants from the countryside – “Old People,” in the Khmer Rouge vernacular. Stories abound about their unfamiliarity with, and ultimately hostility to, such things as toilets, televisions, and cars. Those who were educated were threats in this atmosphere, and so doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and the like were targeted for execution. So were officers and soldiers from Lon Nol’s army. “New People” – those from the cities – were targeted for special mistreatment. Books were burned; churches, temples, and schools closed and/or destroyed.

Ah, the light in a child's eyes. Khmer Rouge troops celebrate the fall of Phnom Penh. (Roland Neveu/Getty Images)

Bruce Sharp gives the lowdown:
Draconian measures were instituted immediately. Within hours of their victory, they ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh, and all other cities as well. The Khmer Rouge flouted traditions of diplomatic immunity, political asylum, and extraterritoriality. High-ranking officials of the former regime were executed. Cambodians who had taken refuge in the French Embassy were forced out. Members of the press, for all practical purposes captives within the Embassy, witnessed macabre scenes of horror as the entire city of Phnom Penh, swollen with refugees, was evacuated. Even hospitals were emptied; witnesses saw patients pushed through the streets on hospital beds. An unprecedented atrocity had begun.
It is important to understand the nature of Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge regime was, without question, one of the most disastrous social experiments of the last century. One could make a persuasive case that it was in fact the single worst government in the modern era, combining mind-numbing brutality with astonishing incompetence. History was to begin anew: the Khmer Rouge declared that henceforth Cambodia was to be known as Democratic Kampuchea, and the beginning of their reign was "Year Zero." Determined to convert Cambodia into an agrarian communist state, the Khmer Rouge upended every institution in Khmer society, exterminating millions in a frenzy of executions and criminal neglect for the welfare of its citizens. Enemies, both real and imagined, were executed. Families were split apart as husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were sent to communal work groups in the countryside. Currency was abolished. Buddhism, the religion of roughly 95% of the population, was for all practical purposes banned. Angkar, "The Organization," assumed control over virtually all aspects of its subjects' lives.
And so began the “Killing Fields” in more ways that one. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China had nothing on Pol Pot’s Cambodia. This was the first slave state in modern history, possibly in any history. The entire population was slaved to the Angkar. Forced to work in hideous conditions – long working days, no weekends, little food, no medicine or modern medical equipment, little machinery, high production quotas, few if any amenities. Those who could not hold up were executed. People were reduced to little more than animals – scrounging, foraging, stealing to survive. Right out of Orwell’s 1984, children were told to spy on their parents, and anyone suspected of disloyalty was sent to prisons like S-21, a former high school in Phnom Penh also known by its common name Tuol Sleng where the objective was to extract “confessions” from its inmates. Some 20,000 mass graves, with the bodies of over one million people – soldiers and officers under Nol, intellectuals, monks, priests, dissidents – have been found. These were the “killing fields.” Many, many more died because of the aforementioned hideous conditions under which they were forced to work the fields. These, too, were “killing fields.” The true death toll will probably never be known, but the latest scholarship now suggests some three million people died under Pol’s Khmer Rouge.

Ironically, it was their former allies, the Communist Vietnamese ultimately drove them from power. The ancient rivalry between the two countries led to a complete breakdown of relations. Khmer Rouge troops took to invading now Communist Vietnam and massacring civilians. Like a tiger poked with a stick, the Vietnamese replied in angry fashion by in 1979 invading Cambodia. The Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power and installed their own government in Phnom Penh – one of the few instances where a new communist regime was actually good for the country and the people, relatively speaking, anyway, since the Vietnamese proceeded to rape the country. No slouches in the Department of Torture and Oppression themselves, these communist Vietnamese, even they were horrified by what they saw of the Khmer Rouge’s work.  China, who continued to support the Khmer Rouge, invaded Vietnam in response. Now back in the countryside as rebels again, and astonished at just how much the Cambodian people hated them, Pol Pot promised a kinder, gentler Khmer Rouge, in which they, among other things, ditched the black pajamas for jungle fatigues, but few actually bought it. Pol Pot himself died in 1998 without having been brought to justice, completely unrepentant for his actions or those of the Khmer Rouge. In fact, almost none of the Khmer Rouge leadership will be brought to justice:
Today, just two defendants remain in custody: Nuon Chea, the chief Khmer Rouge propagandist and second in command, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state. Both ailing octogenarians, the two men made measured apologies this June when they said they regretted the suffering imposed by the Khmer Rouge while distancing themselves from any decision-making authority.Worries that these and other high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders will die before the court can bring them to justice are well founded. So far, the court has tried and sentenced only one of the accused (Case 001): Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the notorious warden of Tuol Sleng S-21 prison. It was at Tuol Sleng—an emptied Phnom Penh high school and one of 200 “security centers” across the country—that Duch tortured and slaughtered some 14,000 Cambodian inmates, sending the overflow to a nearby killing field, Choeung Ek. In 2012, Duch was sentenced to life in prison.

Khieu Samphan, the intellectual leader of the Khmer Rouge, laughs while his people die at the hands of his boss Pol Pot (Cambodian Information Center).
Why do I bring this up? Well, to me it seems to make an interesting case study.

First, quite a few of the books and articles written about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia during this period blame the United States for the Khmer Rouge takeover. See, e.g., Cambodia: Year Zero by Francois Ponchaud, a French missionary who saw some of the carnage firsthand and wrote his account while the Khmer Rouge was still in power from the accounts of refugees that had made it out of the country; “Distortions at Fourth Hand”
(Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman, The Nation, June 6, 1977) and Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who played Dith Pran in the movie version of The Killing Fields. For that matter, The Killing Fields blamed the US for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Because … well, they’re never quite clear about that. Neither am I.

Did the US form the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US supply the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US train the Khmer Rouge? No, again, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US provide political, intelligence or logistical support to the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US fight alongside the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam.

So … how exactly is the Khmer Rouge regime the fault of the US?

I’ve heard that the US bombing of Cambodia was responsible because … well, bombing is bad. The bombing drove the Cambodians to support the Khmer Rouge, I guess.

Except, there’s not really any support for that belief. Vietnam suffered far more under US bombing than Cambodia ever did, yet never dove to these depths of depravity. Neither did Laos, another target of US bombing (though the Pathet Lao had their own issues). It was not as if the US did not have every right to bomb “neutral” Cambodia because “neutral” Cambodia was providing safe harbor to the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese “People’s” Army, and the Central Office of South Vietnam, all of whom were fighting the US. As he often did, Sihanouk spoke with a forked tongue.

Is it because of Lon Nol? The US did indeed support Nol – as would anyone else in the Americans’ place. Then again, Nol was actually fighting the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese allies, not effectively allying with them as was Sihanouk. It should be noted that a few years before, Nol was actually elected prime minister, along with a right-leaning parliament that wanted to take a hard line against the Vietnamese intruders.

The US certainly made mistakes during the Vietnam War and in its handling of Cambodia, which bordered on negligence. Nevertheless, to blame the US for the Khmer Rouge is insane and borderline slanderous. The Khmer Rouge were formed in a camp run by those "heroes" of the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese sponsors, with major support from China. Somehow, the "heroic" narrative of the Communist Vietnamese manages to leave that part out. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge did not gain in popularity from US bombing, but from Prince Sihanouk's throwing his support behind them in 1970. It is these parties who birthed and cradled the Khmer Rouge. Yet, somehow, it's America's fault. It's always America's fault.

Philip Short's Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare and Joel Brinkley's Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land give more balanced views, pointing out US mistakes while placing the bulk of the blame where it belongs. But it will take more than a few books to erase the damage done by decades of misinformation on Southeast Asia, let alone the reflex of some to blame the United Stats for each and every evil in the world, past or present.

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