FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What the US Did to Cambodia was an Epic Crime

by

Since his early days as a correspondent covering the wars in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, documentary filmmaker and journalist John Pilger has been an ardent critic of Western foreign policy. Following in the footsteps of Martha Gellhorn, Pilger set out to cover the Vietnam War from the perspective of those most affected by it – the Vietnamese people and US draftees. In 1979, he filmed Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia, which depicted the humanitarian catastrophe following the ousting of the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh. He would go on to make three more films about Cambodia and become an outspoken critic of the United States’ intervention in the country and the West’s support of Pol Pot.

This week, he spoke to Daniel Pye about covering the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, Henry Kissinger’s recent comments downplaying the US bombing of Cambodia and new plans to send Australian refugees to the Kingdom.

You visited the country in 1979 with filmmaker David Munro and photographer Eric Piper. What drew you to Cambodia and what was it like reporting in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge?

I had reported, written about and filmed Vietnam since the 1960s; I suppose part of my heart lay in Indochina and its struggle for peace and independence – a struggle in which Vietnam may have lost more than four million people and Cambodia certainly lost well over two million, if you include the bombing and civil war that paved the way for Pol Pot. So, yes, I had kept a close eye on developments in Cambodia. What was evident then, and is clear now, was that Pol Pot would not have been able to seize power had it not been for the US bombing campaign. CIA assessments, the work of scholars like Ben Kiernan and the reporting of Richard Dudman from inside Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, together with numerous other credible sources, reach that conclusion. My own interviews with refugees and former Khmer Rouge left little doubt. In 1979, my colleagues and I were determined to see for ourselves, which wasn’t easy. We teamed up with a French group of doctors bringing aid as that critical year’s monsoon got under way. It’s almost impossible to describe the devastation and trauma we found. Incredibly, the United States and its Western allies imposed a crippling embargo on the country, then led by the government of Heng Samrin. This was blatant revenge on Vietnam, whose liberating troops had come from the wrong side of the Cold War. While the West stood by – concentrating its aid in the refugee camps in Thailand and supporting Pol Pot’s defunct regime in the UN – much of the emergency aid to reach Cambodia came from the devastated southern provinces of Vietnam.

Can you describe the humanitarian situation you witnessed and the response from the West to the suffering of the Khmer people?

The need of people was overwhelming. On my first day in Phnom Penh, I saw terribly malnourished children, including those who had walked in from the countryside. For many, life was a nightmare. People were drifting back to what had been a ghost city, and their distress was obvious. In an abandoned petrol garage, a woman and a group of stricken children were cooking leaves in a pot, the fire crackling with banknotes – worthless money – that had poured from the National Bank of Cambodia which the retreating Khmer Rouge had blown up. One of the first emergency aid flights into Phnom Penh arrived while I was there. The DC-8 was filled with medical supplies and powdered milk, organized by Oxfam, then the only major Western NGO prepared to break the Western embargo. And this was the “International Year of the Child”.

In an interview last week with NPR, Henry Kissinger said that the Nixon administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia had killed fewer people than drone strikes under President Obama. How would you respond to his comments?

There is plenty of evidence that makes Kissinger’s version [of events] laughable. The credible Finnish Government Commission of Inquiry described – rightly in my view – a “decade of genocide” with three phases. The first phase was 1969 to ‘75, the years of the American bombing, during which it is estimated that 600,000 Khmer died while two million became refugees. Michael Vickery’s study gives a “war loss” of 500,000 for this period. There are other estimates, some lower, some higher. What is beyond doubt is that Kissinger and Nixon unleashed an unprecedented aerial savagery – much of it kept secret from the US Congress and people – on a defenceless people. Kissinger should have stood trial with Khieu Samphan and the other Khmer Rouge leaders. What the US did to Cambodia was an epic crime.

What do you think of the Australian government’s deal with Cambodia to have refugees “resettled” here from its off-shore detention centre on Nauru and of Australia’s “stop the boats” policy?

The Australian governments’ treatment of refugees is immoral and criminal. The deal by which Cambodia will detain refugees for Australia defies natural justice, the decisions of the Australian courts and the legally-binding 1951 Refugee Convention, which lays out the rights of refugees and the legal obligations of governments. The agreement Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is making with the Cambodian government both squalid and lawless. His government is bribing Cambodia to collude in this lawlessness, and the reason is political opportunism and racism. Politicians like Morrison are terrified they’ll be voted out of office if they allow refugees fleeing personal danger in the Middle East or South Asia to enter the country. For an Australian like myself, this is all too shaming; and any official or diplomat who took part in setting up this deal ought to be shamed. Two refugees recently died in terrible circumstances in “offshore” detention imposed by Australia: one of them was murdered, the other denied basic medical care. Some 2,500 refugee children are held in detention by the Australian government, many of them suffering terrible conditions, and some of them, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, denied even “places for babies to learn to crawl or walk on the three-by-three metre metal containers where they are confined in the extreme heat”.

Civil society groups have documented what has been described as a “land-grabbing crisis” in Cambodia. Do you think donor nations and institutions should shoulder more responsibility for the exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources?

Yes, I do. All the major so-called donor nations have been content to watch Cambodia’s exploitation, from which they have profited.

Daniel Pye writes for the Phenom Penh Post, where this interview originally appeared.

John Pilger is the author of Freedom Next Time. All his documentary films can be viewed free on his website 

More articles by:
February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Mueller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon
Patrick Cockburn
People Care More About the OXFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic
Ted Rall
On Gun Violence and Control, a Political Gordian Knot
Binoy Kampmark
Making Mugs of Voters: Mueller’s Russia Indictments
Dave Lindorff
Mass Killers Abetted by Nutjobs
Myles Hoenig
A Response to David Axelrod
Colin Todhunter
The Royal Society and the GMO-Agrochemical Sector
Cesar Chelala
A Student’s Message to Politicians about the Florida Massacre
Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
Robert Fantina
Guns, Violence and the United States
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Latest Insulting Proposal: Converting SNAP into a Canned Goods Distribution Program
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Zaps Oxygen
John Laforge
$1.74 Trillion for H-bomb Profiteers and “Fake” Cleanups
CJ Hopkins
The War on Dissent: the Specter of Divisiveness
Peter A. Coclanis
Chipotle Bell
Anders Sandström – Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen
Ways Forward for the Left
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
Tommy Raskin
Syrian Quicksand
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Still Tries to Push Dangerous Drug Class
Jill Richardson
The Attorney General Thinks Aspirin Helps Severe Pain – He’s Wrong
Mike Miller
Herb March: a Legend Deserved
Ann Garrison
If the Democrats Were Decent
Renee Parsons
The Times, They are a-Changing
Howard Gregory
The Democrats Must Campaign to End Trickle-Down Economics
Sean Keller
Agriculture and Autonomy in the Middle East
Ron Jacobs
Re-Visiting Gonzo
Eileen Appelbaum
Rapid Job Growth, More Education Fail to Translate into Higher Wages for Health Care Workers
Ralph Nader
Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria—Wide-Ranging Lawyers for the People
Chris Zinda
The Meaning of Virginia Park
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail