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What did we know about the Cambodian holocaust and when did we know it?.
Shawcross reviews the story, and tells use we knew the full horror from the beginning, and ignored it. This directly contradicts Chomsky's account of Cambodia, and Chomsky's account of the coverage of Cambodia
Shawcross reviews what was known of the scale of Khmer Rouge atrocities at the time they were being carried out, the time that Chomsky was writing about them, and reviews the lack of publicity and the lack of world reaction that they received. He tells us we knew then as now, he knew then as now, how vast the terror was, and the world ignored it.
Many newspaper editors and television networks played by the United States government's rules and treated Cambodia as a “sideshow”. (The term was first used, correctly, by Bernard Gwertzman of The New York Times.) There were few full-time correspondents in Phnom Penh during the war. There were, however, many stringers, a lot of whom were young and were appalled by the destructiveness of the war, in particular by the widespread bombing and the flood of refugees off their land into the towns; they hoped for a victory by the other side, the Khmer Rouge led nominally by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Their work was supplemented by full-time correspondents of newspapers and networks who made visits from Saigon or Bangkok. They too wrote moving, often angry descriptions of United States policy and its effects upon the country.
Through 1974, however, as more and more reports of Khmer Rouge brutality began to seep out of the growing areas that they controlled, some journalists began to wonder whether postwar reconciliation would be as easy as they had hoped. In March 1974, the Baltimore Sun correspondent wrote of "the incomprehensible brutality of the Khmer Rouge communists"; the Washington Post reported on how the Khmer Rouge were "restructuring people." Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times wrote about the joy with which refugees escaped Khmer Rouge control at Kompong Thom. James Fenton wrote in the New Statesman of the fear with which some Khmers were beginning to talk of the other side. In the fall of 1974, journalists learned of Sar Sarsdam, a village near Slem Reap, which had been burned by the Khmer Rouge and in which, according to Catholic Relief Services workers, over sixty peasants had been brutally killed. Old women were reported to have been nailed to the walls of their homes before being burned alive. Children had been torn apart by hand.
Even so, there were few journalists in Phnom Penh who wanted to believe the blood-bath theory. It had been invoked so often by United States officials in defense of a policy with which most of those same journalists disagreed, that there was a tendency in the final days of the war to dismiss the United States Ambassador John Gunther Dean and other officials who harped on Sar Sarsdam as hawks who wished to prolong the war. Martin Woollacott of the Guardian later recalled with pain that some journalists sang a little song to the tune of "She Was Poor but She Was Honest":
Oh will there be a dreadful bloodbathWhen the Khmer Rouge did come to town, in April 1975, only a few foreigners remained in Phnom Penh. Closeted in the French Embassy they watched, at first more astonished than appalled, as the victorious young army began to empty the entire city at gunpoint. Hospital patients, refugees, schoolchildren, all had to take one of the main roads out of the city. Most of the Cambodians in the Embassy were ordered to leave its supposed sanctuary and to trek into the countryside as well. The foreigners were then trucked to the Thai border. From then on, the Khmer Rouge closed Cambodia almost completely from the outside world and embarked upon one of the most radical and bloody revolutions in history.
When the Khmer Rouge come to town?
Aye, there'll be a dreadful bloodbath
When the Khmer Rouge come to town.
For the next three and a half years the few thousand refugees who managed to escape to Thailand were the principal source of news about the country. They told from the start a consistent story of deaths from starvation and exhaustion during the evacuation of Phnom Penh; of forced evacuation of almost all the towns after Phnom Penh; of relocation into new villages or work zones; of inadequate food supplies and nonexistent medical care; of a rule of terror conducted by young boys with AK-47s on behalf of a shadowy, all-powerful organization known as Angka. Refugees spoke of people being shot, clubbed to death or buried alive for disobeying orders, asking questions or in some other way infringing the rules that Angka laid down. Among the dreadful tales they told were those of babies being beaten to death against trees.
Accounts of such atrocities began to appear in the Western press in the summer of 1975. In London, early reports were by Bruce Loudoun and John McBeth in the conservative Daily Telegraph, the paper which had reported German atrocities wrongly in World War I and correctly in World War 11. In July, Henry Kamm wrote a long article in The New York Times, and the paper ran an editorial cornparing the Khmer Rouge policies with "Soviet extermination of kulaks or with the Gulag Archipelago." Kamm was one of the few journalists on a major newspaper to cover the Cambodian story throughout.
Clearly, Cambodia was not ignored. Its travails received far more attention than those of, say, East Timor, Burundi or the Central African Republic, to mention just three other contemporary disasters. Nonetheless, it was some time before many reporters came to accept that terrible events were taking place in Cambodia. just as few people had wished to believe in the elimination of the Jews until the evidence was thrust before them, so many people wished not to believe that atrocities were taking place in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge takeover. This was especially true among reporters who had reported the war negatively from the Lon Nol side, hoping for the victory of the others. Far from eagerly seeking, let alone fabricating, evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities, they shrank from it. Others believed, at least for a short time, that the refugees were unreliable, that the CIA was cooking up a blood bath to say, "We told you so."
I had made one brief visit to Cambodia in 1970, just a few months after Prince Sihanouk had been overthrown and before war had really engulfed the country. During the course of the 1970-75 war I had tried to follow what was happening and when the refugees began to come out in the summer of 1975 1 started to try to discover what their stories meant, who the Khmer Rouge were, and why they might be behaving thus.
At the end of 1975 1 visited China, which was emerging as the one foreign country to enjoy close relations with the government of Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge had renamed Cambodia. In Peking a deputy foreign minister of the People's Republic assured me blandly that the refugee stories were meaningless and that all was well under the new revolutionary leadership.
From China I made my way to Thailand. I had expected the right-wing administration of Thailand to be anxious to exploit the refugee stories for their propaganda value. However, the procedure for obtaining permission to visit refugees along the border was complicated, involving numerous passes from different government offices in Bangkok and still more from the local authorities in the border town of Aranyaprathet.
The refugees whom I eventually met talked of the unrelenting rigor of life in Democratic Kampuchea, and they spoke of the fear in which the Khmer Rouge were held. None of those to whom I spoke had actually witnessed massacres themselves, but almost all claimed to have seen the bodies of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Some said that anyone associated with the Lon Nol regime risked being savagely killed. Others said that those with education faced death. They spoke of being ruled by children with AK-47s.
Although it was hard to find a rationale for the Khmer Rouge conduct that the refugees described, their testimony was the same as that given to other people along the border. And their stories rang true; I just could not believe that these people had invented their tales or that they were simply being manipulated by the CIA or by Thai military intelligence. Refugees fleeing dictatorships-Stalin's USSR, Hitler's Europe, Pinochet's Chile, Husak's Czechoslovakia have all been reliable witnesses of the states they left behind. It seemed to me that whatever the numbers who had died in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge took over, the regime was using terror as a means of social control.
After leaving the camp I went to the bridge at Aranyaprathet. It crosses a narrow stream that forms the border between Cambodia and Thailand at this point. Once the bridge linked Cambodia with the world to its west. Since the Khmer Rouge takeover it had, like the entire country, been closed. It was overgrown now. just across the brid e a single young Khmer Rouge soldier dressed in black stood stiffly, his checkered scarf around his neck, an old rifle straight at his side. Beyond him lay the empty Cambodian border town of Poipet, only the wind in the deserted streets, and beyond that the terrifying, incomprehensible brutality that the refugees described. I shuddered to think how close and yet how unreachable this area of darkness really was.
At that time one of the few journalists doing sustained research among the refugees was Anthony Paul of the Reader's Digest. I listened to some of the interviews he had recorded; they were seriously done. Eventually, however, his work was incorporated by the Digest into a book-Murder of a Gentle Land, co-authored by John Barron-which was diminished by its reliance on propaganda. It suggested that one cause of the Khmer Rouge violence might be the fact that one of its leaders, Khieu Samphan, was alleged to be impotent. The United States bombing and the destruction of Cambodian society between 1970 and 1975 were all but forgotten. Nonetheless, the refugee accounts gathered by Paul have stood the test of time and eventual firsthand verification.
In February 1976, Le Monde published a series of articles about life under the Khmer Rouge by a French priest, Francois Ponchaud, who had lived for years in Cambodia and had a closer understanding of the country's culture and history than most foreigners. Ponchaud's book Cambodge Annee Zero was published first in France in 1977, and elsewhere in 1978. It was the first serious attempt to describe and to analyze what was taking place in Cambodia.
Through 1976 and 1977 and especially in 1978 the Western press s coverage of Cambodia increased. Nonetheless, the issue never reached critical mass. I did not write enough myself. And there was no broadly based campaign of protest in the West as there was, say, over abuses of human rights in Chile.
One reason for this was the skepticism (to use a mild word) displayed by the Western left toward the stories coming out of Democratic Kampuchea. That skepticism was most fervently and frequendy expressed by Noam Chomsky, the linguistic philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He asserted that from the moment of the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975 the Western press colluded with Western and anti-Communist Asian governments, notably Thailand, to produce a "vast and unprecedented" campaign of propaganda against the Khmer Rouge. Many left-wing academics and journalists took the same line. The Washington-based pressure group Indochina Resource Center, which had determinedly opposed the American war effort, now threw itself energetically into the defense of the Khmer Rouge against what it saw as vicious calumny in the media. Two of its directors, Gareth Porter and George Hildebrand, published a book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, which was in effect an apology for Khmer Rouge behavior.* Such apologies by the Western left-and by many prominent American antiwar activists, Joan Baez being a notable exception-continued until Vietnam itself began publicly to denounce the Khmer Rouge.
Vietnam took a long time to do so. Through 1975, 1976, and 1977, relations between Hanoi and Phnom Penh deteriorated, with border skirmishes turning to open warfare. Most of the provocation appears to have been carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Nonetheless, so long as there was a chance of negotiating a settlement with, Phnom Penh relative to their border and other disputes, Vietnamese spokesmen continually disregarded the stories told by the refugees in Thailand and publicly endorsed the Khmer Rouge regime . The far larger number of refugees who fled to Vietnam had remarkably similar tales, but until 1978 they were kept silent by Hanoi. Where Vietnam went, its socialist friends went also. Throughout the period, the Soviet and East European press published articles favorable to the Khmer Rouge, and gave no credence to the refugee reports.
In such circumstances, one might have expected the United States government to be quick to exploit the refugee stories out of Cambodia and to argue that they gave ex post facto justification of the United States adventure in Indochina. In fact, it did not. There were many reasons. War weariness and the anxiety to look away from Indochina was one. Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford asked that there be no recriminations about the war. Their pleas were heeded and, as a result, there was no examination, either. Later Jimmy Carter was concerned that his human-rights crusade break new ground by attacking right-wing regimes as well as traditional left-wing opponents. Under Carter the State Department's Human :Rights Bureau did much good work, but it barely noticed Indochina.
United States relations with both Thailand and China also had considerable impact.
After April 1975 relations within the region began to change extraordinarily rapidly as the powers moved to fill the apparent vacuum created by the American defeat in Indochina. The Thai govemment, which had actively helped the United States _prosecute its war, felt, for that very reason, particularly vulnerable to the Communist victors. Bangkok's attitude toward the Khmer Rouge was deeply ambiguous. Its fiercely anti-Communist ideology profited from exposure of Khmer Rouge atrocities. But the strategic implications were different. As often in the past, the Thais saw the Vietnamese as a greater threat than the Khmers, a race whom the Thais have traditionally seen as a buffer against Vietnam.
Back in 1975, the poor relations between the leadership of the Khmer Rouge and that of Hanoi were not well documented in the press. But it was well known to United States and, presumably, Thai intelligence; in researching Sideshow, I found CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency reports of the tensions stretching back as far as 1970. Moreover, fighting between the victorious Communists in the two countries broke out along the border and over offshore islands as early as May 1975. This information was available from satellite surveillance.
Immediately after the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975, the Thai government attempted to improve relations with the new government in Phnom Penh. This attempt continued, with interruptions, throughout the three and a half years of Khmer Rouge rule. Thus, while the Thai press busily recounted Cambodian refugee horror stories, Khmer Rouge and Thai officials exchanged cordial visits. Thailand even forced some refugees back across the border to almost certain deaths. And throughout the period, Washington was attempting to support most Thai government policies.
At the same tune China's status in the region was changing dramatically. Throughout the war the Chinese government had supported Hanoi, the Khmer Rouge and the Pathet Lao. The USSR had aided the Vietnamese and the Lao revolutionaries, but had given scant support to the Khmer Rouge. After April 1975 China began to withdraw support from Vietnam, a country which it has traditionally tried to subjugate. Vietnam strengthened its links to China's own principal foe, the USSR. Simultaneously Peking increased its support for the Khmer Rouge regime even as that regime moved into a state of hostility with its own former ally, Vietnam. The Chinese also embarked upon a diplomatic offensive among the non-Communist countries of Southeast Asia, an area where hitherto they had had no relations at all. Remarkably effective links were quickly established with Thailand.
This whole realignment, which was designed in part by the Chinese, if not by the Southeast Asian countries, to "contain" Vietnam and which was far more complex than such a thumbnail sketch suggests, was at least tacitly endorsed by the United States.
One of the priorities of the Carter Administration was normalization of relations with China. Normal relations with Vietnam, an ambition of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Richard Holbrooke, was a much lower priority in the White House. For obvious reasons, it was not much of a vote winner; and it was rendered politically impossible by Hanoi's insistence until mid-1978 that the United States pay war reparations as part of any agreement and by Congressional opposition to almost any form of aid to Vietnam.
These strategic considerations-part'cularly the importance that was being attached in Washington to the views of both China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-seem to have discouraged the United States government and other Western nations from leading any "vast and unprecedented" propaganda campaign against the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978. In Bangkok I found that the U.S. Embassy was surprisingly reluctant to help reporters discover what was going on under the Khmer Rouge, still less to share information.
In January 1977 Khmer Rouge troops swooped into Thailand across the disputed border just north of Aranyaprathet and attacked three Thai villages. They slit the throats of children, murdered pregnant women and departed leaving piles of dead behind them. Photographs of the bodies were published around the world, and for the first time there was visible firsthand evidence of the conduct with which the refugees had charged the Khmer Rouge.
The improvement of relations between Thailand and Democratic Kampuchea was interrupted. But two things were extra-ordinary about this. First, the interruption was only temporary; it was soon set aside by Thailand. Secondly, the Khmer Rouge regime did not deny that its soldiers were responsible for the murders. Instead it claimed that the villages in question were actually part of Cambodia and that the Thai protest was therefore an interference in Cambodian affairs.*
Despite the fact that news items about the atrocities were carried widely by the Western press, Western governments still limited their expressions of outrage. A young Englishman encountered directly the lack of public 'interest they displayed. Robert Ashe, who worked with a British Christian relief agency for Cambodian refugees along the Thai border-long before it became fashionable-sent off a series of letters to the British and American governments urging they take action over Khmer Rouge conduct.
To President Jimmy Carter he wrote, "Working amongst the refugees I often hear stories of the brutal revolution that has racked the country since 15th April 1975 . . . if only ten per cent were true, it is still a horrifying picture of life for those people left alive in Cambodia. . . . I urge you to take up the cause of the innocent Cambodian people
Ashe received no reply from President Carter or the White House. Almost three months later he received a cursory response from Charles Twining, the political officer and "Cambodia watcher" of the U.S. Embassy 'in Bangkok, who was, in fact, personally appalled by Khmer Rouge behavior. "We fully agree with you that the attacks [on the Thai borderl were reprehensible and merit worldwide reprobation. We have been asked to express Washington's appreciation to you for having taken the time to write to the President on the subject."
Ashe also wrote to Ivor Richard, the British permanent representative to the United Nations, to ask whether the U.N. knew of the atrocities in Cambodia and what it was doing to investigate and condemn them.
In response he received a letter from N.R. Jarrold of the Foreign Office's U.N. department, who pointed out that British government ministers had twice mentioned Cambodia in the Houses of Parliament in 1976. Neither exchange indicated any sense of urgency by the British government.
Mr. Jarrold observed that "We have not thought it right to raise this question at the United Nations. I am sure that we could not help potential victims if we were to do so: and, if the Cambodian authorities believed that the West was orchestrating a campaign against them, they might respond by withdrawing even further into the isolationism from which there are at present some signs that they want to emerge."
This did not satisfy Robert Ashe on the Cambodian border. He wrote again to the British government. This time he received a reply from a junior minister, Lord Goronwy Roberts, who explained that Britain had not taken the Cambodian question to the U.N., because any resolution condemning Khmer Rouge conduct was bound to fail and such a failure would only reinforce the Khmer Rouge. However, "There have recently been signs that the Cambodians may be emerging from their present self-imposed diplomatic isolation. As they do so, they will become more aware of the impact of their behavior on world opinion. We shall do what we can to encourage the learning process.
Another individual to become increasingly concerned was jean Lacouture, a French socialist intellectual and specialist on Indochina. In March 1977, in a review in the New York Review of Books, he gave an emotional endorsement to Fran@ois Ponchaud's Cambodge Annie Zgro, which thus far had been published only in France. (Lacouture's review had been published first in French in Le Nouvel Observateur, a Paris periodical.)
"Ordinary genocide (if one can ever call it ordinary) usually has been carried out against a foreign population or an internal minority," Lacouture wrote. "The new masters of Phnom Penh have invented something original, auto-genocide. After Auschwitz and the Gulag, we might have thought this century had produced the ultimate in horror, but we are seeing the suicide of a people in the name of revolution-worse, in the name of socialism." Lacouture felt that "Francois Ponchaud's book can be read only with shame by those of us who supported the Khmer Rouge cause." He was almost alone in acknowledging such a sense of shame.
His apology obtained wide circulation and much comment, particularly in the United States. Unfortunately, 'in his haste, Lacouture had made a number of errors. These did not alter either his or Ponchaud's assessment of the Khmer Rouge, but they were seized upon by Noam Chomsky, who circulated them widely. In a subsequent issue of the Review, Lacouture corrected himself. Not all those who had reported his mea culpa published his corrections. Chomsky used the affair as part of his argument that the media were embarked on an unjustified propaganda blitz against the Khmer Rouge.
As a third example, a single United States Congressman, Stephen Solarz, held hearings on "Human Rights in Cambodia" in the summet of 1977 before a subcommittee of the House Foreign A-ffairs Committee. What was perhaps remarkable was that this was the first time that any such Congressional hearing had been held. All the witnesses at the first hearing were Journalists or academics; no United States government official testified. At a later hearing that summer, the Assistant Secretary Richard Holbrooke and the Bangkok Embassy's Cambodia watcher, Charles Twining, did testify. Whatever their personal repugnance for the Khmer Rouge, their statements were measured and certainly no part of a propaganda blitz against Democratic Kampuchea.
Finally, in 1978, Cambodia did become something of an international issue. It happened after and partly because the bitter but surreptitiousborder disputes between the Khmer Rouge and their former Vietnamese allies broke into public warfare and violent recrimination. Massive abuse of human rights alone had failed to win worldwide attention in the way that open schism and warfare within the Communist bloc did.
Part of the reason was that Vietnam and its allies in the Soviet bloc now directed their own considerable propaganda resources toward blackening the reputation of the Khmer Rouge. Now, in a complete reversal of its propaganda, Hanoi endorsed the most dreadful of all the accounts. Thus, for example, it declared that "The entire Cambodian nation now faces genocide" and that the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique has already executed several million Cambodian people," and that Cambodia was "a land of blood and tears, hell on earth." Hanoi radio also began to broadcast excerpts from Francois Ponchaud's book Cambodge Annee Zero and from the Reader's Digest account, Murder of a Gentle Land. Vietnamese propaganda began what was to be a long campaign to equate Pol Pot with Hitler.
This was the first-ever war between two Communist states. Zbigniew Brzezinski called it a "proxy war," fought by Cambodia and Vietnam, on behalf of their respective patrons, China and the USSR. This phrase appeared at the time to underplay the real national differences between the two sides in favor of superpower concerns. But even if the war began from local causes, each side's great power backer soon adopted and thereby expanded its cause to embrace its own priorities.
Evidently anxious finally to secure normal relations with the United States, Vietnam now dropped its claim to war reparations. It was too late. United States policy, under the influence of Dr. Brzezinski, was moving closer toward normalizing relations with China. And now that Vietnam was openly at war with China's protégé, Democratic Kampuchea, reconciliation with the old enemy held even less attraction 'in Washington.
However, even as the United States moved closer toward the Khmer Rouge's patron, China, so at last Washington and its allies began to play more aggressive role in denouncing the crimes of the Khmer Rouge themselves. One important reason may have been that, without much governmental support, public interest in Cambodia had finally reached such a point that it could not be ignored but had rather better be embraced.
In early 1978 a group of Norwegian politicians, academics and journalists arranged a hearing on Khmer Rouge atrocities. Somewhat to everyoneҳ surprise, President Carter — who had previously made almost no mention of Khmer Rouge conduct — sent the Conference a statement declaring that the Khmer Rouge were "the world's worst violators of human rights."
Almost at the same time the Canadian Foreign Ministry compiled a hurried dossier of refugee allegations. And the British government — despite serious misgivings in the Southeast Asian department of the Foreign Office, which was concerned lest Thailand and the other ASEAN countries be upset — raised the matter at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The British delegate asked for an inquiry into the situation in Democratic Kampuchea.
Despite the fact that the Soviet Union was now, along with Vietnam, publicly denouncing Khmer Rouge atrocities, the Soviet delegate to the Commission vigorously opposed the British request. Soviet refusal to accept the notion that the Commission should inquire into the affairs of any member states-save South Africa, Israel and, after 1973, Chile-bas rendered the Commission singularly ineffective for most of its life. In 1948 the Commission had drawn up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the General Assembly and has been seen by 'individuals all over the world as both a prayer and a promise. Eleanor Roosevelt observed that "a curious grapevine" would carry its words around the world even (perhaps especially) to those deprived of information or liberty by their governments. But millions of those people were betrayed by the geopolitics that controlled the Commission's work.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission was established by the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council 'in 1946. Its problems reflect in fine detail those of the entire U.N. system. Unlike the members of the European Human Rights Commission, who are relatively free of government pressures, members of the U.N. Commission are their countries' delegates. From the start, many of them, particularly those from the Soviet bloc, cited Article 2, Paragraph 7 of the United Nations Charter, which could be interpreted as saying that violations of human rights were "matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." In 1947 the Commission actually adopted a self-denying ordinance that "it had no power to take action in regard to any complaints regarding human rights."
Throughout the fifties, desperate messages from individuals and groups were sent from all over the world to the Commission; they were quite literally, ignored. In 1959 the Commission was empowered to send complaints-known in U.N. terms as "communications"-on to the governments concerned, but not to follow them up or comment.
In the sixties, the new majority of the U.N. moved, with Soviet support, to consider white racism in South Africa-a human-rights abuse that the West had preferred to condone. In 1961 and 1962, the General Assembly established special committees on both colonialism and apartheid with unprecedented powers of investigation. Their creation showed how a majority could override Article 2, Paragraph 7, the "domestic jurisdiction" clause of the charter. In 1967 and 1968 the Commission set up an ad hoc group of experts to examine first South Africa and then the one other target whose investigation was becoming politically acceptable-Israel. Most important of all, in 1967 the Commission was empowered "to make a thorough study of situations which reveal a consistent pattern of violations of human rights, as exemplified by the policy of apartheid" (emphasis added). It was a hopeful moment; the opportunity provided by the words "as exemplified by" was seized by defenders of human rights in lands other than South Africa. But the new procedures were not embarked upon courageously. In 1971 well-documented "communications" alleging genocide in Bangladesh were dismissed. In 1972 torture in Greece was thrown out. Only in 1973 were eight cases even really considered; these alleged "consistent patterns of gross violations of human rights" in Brazil, Guyana, Burundi, Indonesia, Tanzania, Britain (Northern Ireland), Iran and Portugal. In the end nothing was done. Amnesty International condemned this as "an ignominious abdication of the Commission's authority to promote respect for and protection of human rights and individual freedoms. . . . The present rules of confidentiality are an undisguised stratagem for using the U.N., not as an instrument for promoting and protecting and exposing large-scale violations of human rights, but rather for concealing their occurrence."
In 1974, procedures, precedents and confidentiality were set aside when a special committee was set up to examine human rights abuses under the military junta in Chile. This group issued a devastating report in 1975. Few other victims were as fortunate as the Chileans. In 1978, for example, when estimates of the number of Cambodians who had died ranged between one and three million, the Commission could agree only that the allegations should be presented to the government in Phnom Penh for comment. The eventual response was a Khmer Rouge tirade of abuse against all those who dared to criticize Democratic Kampuchea. Since then, the Commission's procedures have been further improved, from the point of view of the victims, but the situation remains uncertain. For example, in 1981 the Commission decided not to censure the terror conducted by the Ayatollah Khomeimi's regime in Iran. But in 1983 the Commission condemned continuing violations in Cambodia, West Sahara, Afghanistan, East Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala, Poland, Iran and Bolivia.
The image of Cambodia that one had in 1978 was both horrible and imprecise. Under the growing threat from Vietnam, the government in Phnom Penh was beginning to make some links to the rest of the world. A group of Scandinavian ambassadors from Peking made a brief visit to Phnom Penh; they said they found it a "ghost city." They were appalled. So was a group of Yugoslav journalists; their film of empty towns was chilling despite the caution of its commentary.
At the same time, refugees said that the killings were getting worse and worse. Under the threat of Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge were embarking on widespread purges. The New York Times published an editorial entitled "The Unreachable Terror in Cambodia," which reflected some of the despair that the visions of Cambodia from the outside world evoked.
The magnitude of disaster numbs the mind. . . . We have said little about the war because we do not know what outcome to prefer. A Vietnamese victory that places Hanoi's puppets in control of Cambodia would probably have its own unfortunate consequences for Cambodians. And while denouncing the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror is easy, we are unable to suggest ways in which the United States and other countries might apply pressure against the offending regime. There appears to be no way, short of war, to influence the policies of Pol Pot and his colleagues.
That thought occurred also to Senator George McGovern; he actually speculated about the possibility of an international invasion of Cambodia. At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he declared that the Khmer Rouge record made the Nazis "look very tame by comparison." He asked, "Do we sit on the sidelines and watch a population slaughtered or do we marshal military force and put an end to it?" He thought that "we ought not dismiss out Of hand" the possibility of international action, preferably by the U.N. "One would think the international community would at least condemn the situation and move to stop what appears like genocide."
McGovern's question was not well received. His former allies in the antiwar movement were stunned that this most doveish Senator could be proposing armed intervention in Indochina. From the right there was contemptuous dismissal; the Wall Street journal told liberals that since their policies had led to the present horrors. they should now keep quiet about Indochina.
But McGovern's question was serious. How can or how should the international community react in the face of the knowledge that a government is massacring its own people? Where do human rights supersede those of sovereignty? What lesson, if any, can be derived from the world's inaction over the murder of the Jews? How can we now meet the promise of "never again" made in 1945? Or, to return to the problems of knowledge and awareness, which I mentioned in the prologue, what obligations does awareness of a continuing disaster impose upon the world community? Is the spread of our knowledge making us blind? Or are we, like the blinded Gloucester in King Lear, still able to "know how this world goes" because we can see it feelingly"?
These were all questions that the fate of Cambodia in the 1970s prompted. It did not encourage ready answers.
* Chomsky declared:
Three features of the propaganda campaign with regard to Cambodia deserve special notice. The first is its vast and unprecedented scope. Editorial condemnation of Cambodian "genocide" in the mainstream media dates from mid-1975, immediately following the victory of the so called "Khmer Rouge." After that time the western media were deluged with condemnation of Cambodia.
A second major feature of the propaganda campaign was that it involved a systematic distortion or suppression of the I-righly relevant historical context as well as substantial fabrication-the grim reality evidently did not suffice for the needs of the propaganda.
A third striking feature of the campaign was the constant pretense that the horrors of Cambodia were either being ignored except for the courageous voices that seek to pierce the silence or that some great conflict was raging about whether or not there have been atrocities in Cambodia.
the Kampuchean question is shrouded in a dense fog of prejudices, distortions, propaganda, and half truth. The Western media and intelligence worked hard on Kampuchea. But, and here is a tragic irony, it becomes increasingly likely that some of the most malicious fantasies of propagandists, conceived with little or no regard for truth, may actually be close to the truth. This is a difficult and unpalatable conclusion.
McCormick thus seems to be attempting to vindicate the fact that he and others, in what he calls "the movement of solidarity with the peoples of Kampuchea and Indochina as a whole," denied for so long the terrible suffering of those people.
Throughout the rest of 1975, relations between Thailand and Democratic Kampuchea continued to improve, particularly after diplomatic relations were established between China and Thailand. In October 1975, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary of Democratic Kampuchea flew to Bangkok for talks on establishing normal and even friendly relations between the two countries. (He came in a Chinese Boeing and was visited every day at his suite in the lavish Erawan Hotel by the Chinese ambassador.) On October 30, 1975, the Bangkok Post reported "under a friendly atmosphere and with discussion on future cooperation and no reference to the past, Thailand and Cambodia yesterday agreed to normalize relations. . . . At a press conference at the Erawin Hotel, Ieng Sary said that he had asked the Thais to return all refugees. Asked about reports that some refugees who had returned had been killed, he said that most of the refugees had fled the country because they had some penalties to pay, so that any statement made by them was unreliable. The two countries promised to resolve any border disputes by peaceful means."
An official Thai-Cambodian Liaison Committee was established at Aranyaprathet and Poipet on November 17, 1975, and official trading between the two countries was resumed on August 30, 1976. At the end of November 1976 a group of Cambodian refugees was handed back across the border to the Khmer Rouge; there were reports that these refugees were all immediately executed by the Khmer Rouge.
Relations deteriorated at the end of 1976, following a bloody coup by extreme right-wing sections of the Thai military in October 1976. By the end of the year the new Thai junta was giving more help to anti-Communist Khmer Serei (Free Khmer) guerrillas along the border. Border consultations were dropped by Phnom Penh. In January 1977, Khmer Rouge troops attacked three villages in a disputed area of the border just north of Aranyaprathet.
Relations between Bangkok and Phnom Penh began to improve again after General Kriangsak Chamanand, a relatively moderate military figure, became Thai Prime Minister in October 1977. Kriangsak restored the emphasis on national rather than ideological priorities in foreign policy. Support for the Khmer Serei was cut back. In February 1978, just after skirmishes turned into open warfare between Vietnam and Democratic Kampuchea, Thai Foreign Minister Uppadit visited Phnom Penh. Henry Kamm recorded in The New York Times that when Uppadit returned to Bangkok, "reporters at the airport were struck by Mr. Uppadit's effort to say nothing unkind about Cambodia. He volunteered a comment that reports about conditions in Cambodia since the Communist victory might have been exaggerated. Asked about his impression of life in Phnom Penh, Mr. Uppadit said it had seemed like a normal city."
Somehow, the enormity of the Cambodian tragedy — even leaving aside the grim question of how few actually died in Angka Loeu's experiment in genocide — has failed to evoke an appropriate sense of outrage in the West.... The U.N., ever quick to adopt a resolution condemning Israel or South Africa, acted with its customary tortoise-like caution when dealing with a Third World horror: it wrote a letter to Phnom Penh asking for an explanation of charges against the regime.