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Who killed Cambodia?

The USA and its allies have bombed and starved Cambodia into oblivion. And now they have the nerve to blame Cambodians for the lack of Western-style democracy there. Helene Gold reports

After Cambodia held its first multi-party elections for 25 years at the end of May, the political scene quickly descended into chaos once more. Even before the election results had been finalised, a bitter three-way wrangle over the formation of a new government had broken out between Prince Sihanouk, the royalist party Funcinpec led by his son, and the Cambodian People's Party. Meanwhile Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge lurked in the background, threatening a new round of violent conflict.

It seemed to many observers that their worst fears had been realised. The consensus was that the West had done its best, the United Nations had opened up a path to the free world by organising the elections, but the Cambodians themselves had proved incapable of living within the democratic process.

In the run-up to the elections, the United Nations took over Cambodia. The UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) didn't just organise the elections, it ran the country. Around 22 000 UN police, troops and civilian officials governed for 18 months before the polls, as UNTAC took control of Cambodia's five main ministries - defence, foreign affairs, information, interior and finance.

In other times such an operation, organised as it was by powers like the USA, France and Japan, would have been called a colonial occupation. This time, however, the picture presented of the UN has been that of a benign outside arbiter, attempting to bring peace and democracy to the backward Cambodians through a combination of diplomacy and firm management.

Lawless land

Throughout the election campaign, most commentators expressed fears that the results would only lead to more conflict in Cambodia, and that the killings were bound to escalate again once UNTAC withdraws (which is due to happen within three months of the elections).

Robert McCrum described how the UN forces had acted as a temporary crutch for Cambodian democracy, and suggested that their removal could quickly lead to its collapse. 'Only then', he warned, 'will the world discover if the Cambodians have learned to walk unaided, or whether, as so often in the past, they will stumble back into the minefield for another rendezvous with fear and violence' (Guardian, 22 May).

McCrum described Cambodia as a country populated by people who have been 'killing each other without mercy for 20 years or more...a land of violent, despotic traditions, rife with malaria and malnutrition, a land virtually without laws, clinics, metalled roads, safe water or telephones'. It was not possible, McCrum implied, that democracy could thrive among people like these. An even gloomier picture of Cambodians was painted by Keith Dovkants, who described the country as a 'labyrinth of dark horrors, interwoven evil and corruption from which a pitiful people seem unable to struggle free' (Evening Standard, 25 May 1993).


Television news reports from Cambodia have routinely talked of a society prone to turn against itself, a land of the killing fields where Cambodians seem set to kill Cambodians for the foreseeable future. 'Autogenocide' is the new word used to explain the terrible human suffering in the country. Well before the election, commentators were suggesting that the brutal nature of Cambodia's people and politics meant the UN was likely to leave with 'mission unaccomplished', but only because it had engaged in a mission impossible. It was, they argued, simply too much to expect Cambodians to be able to live together in peace. That interpretation has been strengthened by the post-election power struggle.

Blame Cambodia

Common to commentators of all shades of opinion is the assumption that the cause of today's problems is in some way internal to Cambodia. Some journalists explain the continued destruction and suffering in Cambodia by focusing on the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, which ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and has been fighting a guerrilla war ever since. Others pin responsibility on the Vietnamese-backed regime which ran the country from 1979 until the signing of the Paris peace agreement in October 1991, and which has now been renamed the Cambodian People's Party. Ultimately, all of these analyses blame the Cambodian people themselves for their own problems. This is the premise which has led so many to accept the right of the West, through the UN, to take over the internal affairs of Cambodia.

The attempt to blame Cambodians for conditions in their country turns reality on its head. All of the arguments used to legitimise the UN 'peace-keeping' operation in Cambodia cloud over the real issue. People are given a glimpse of the trail of destruction that has been carved through this tiny country over the past 25 years, and encouraged to ask how Cambodians could have done this, and what the West should now do about them.

A million dead

But the truth is that all of the problems which the UN is presently mandated to solve were created by the Western powers in the first place. The reporters and journalists who focus on events internal to Cambodia in trying to explain this tragedy are letting the real culprits off the hook.

In the years from 1969 to 1975, at the height of the Vietnam War, the USA dropped the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs on rural Cambodia in order to break up Vietcong supply routes. It was the most intense aerial bombardment of a country in history - but US president Richard Nixon and his foreign affairs chief Henry Kissinger denied that it was even taking place.

It is estimated that at least one million people died in Cambodia during this period. A further three million (nearly half of the entire population) were forced to flee the ravaged countryside for the cities. The consequent disruption of agricultural production led to mass famine. By the end of 1973 rice and rubber production - Cambodia's prime commodities - had fallen to one third of their 1968 levels. Around 75 per cent of domestic animals had been killed. The roads were destroyed, and in practice industry no longer existed. Cambodia was now the poorest country in the world. It effectively had no currency. Payment and transactions were carried out with rice or gold.

This was the background against which the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, after overthrowing the pro-US regime in Phnom Penh. The conventional histories of that period attribute the millions of deaths in Cambodia to a policy of genocide pursued by the Pol Pot regime. In fact by far the majority of deaths (even in the period of Pol Pot's rule between 1975 and 1979) were caused by starvation, malnutrition and disease - the direct results of the US bombing campaign.

Amnesty International estimated at the time that a maximum of 300 000 people died as result of the purges carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Another two million died of starvation (see G Evans and K Rowley, Red Brotherhood at War). Today, the Khmer Rouge is held responsible for the immense suffering in Cambodia in the past, while the USA is absolved of blame. Yet the truth is that the barbaric conditions in which Cambodians lived and died during the seventies were the result of American barbarism.

Cambodia was torn apart by the tonnage of bombs dropped on it 20 years ago. Famine and disease spread through the next decade. In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge fell from power. The USA used the invasion as a pretext to renew its war against South-east Asia and reverse its defeat in Vietnam. For the next 15 years Cambodia and Vietnam were faced with complete international isolation. Thanks to US pressure, the devastated country of Cambodia, stricken by poverty and disease, became the subject of a UN aid embargo.


At the same time, the USA and Britain started backing the opposition coalition in Cambodia, in order to destabilise the country further. For several years, the Western powers ensured that the ousted Pol Pot regime continued to be recognised as the legitimate government by the UN. It has recently emerged that the British military trained the opposition forces in mine-warfare throughout the 1980s and into the nineties (Observer, 18 April 1993). It has often been reported that landmines have given Cambodia the highest percentage of amputees in the world, with an estimated 700 people losing one or more limbs every month. It is less well known that the Khmer Rouge and other opposition groups laid the mines so successfully thanks to British expertise.

While the Western powers were helping to keep the civil war going in the eighties, America was also encouraging another refugee crisis by cynically advertising 'prosperous camps' set up in Thailand, on Voice of America broadcasts directed at Cambodia.

The West has brought nothing but war and famine to Cambodia and the rest of South-east Asia. Yet now the consensus is that the impoverished Cambodians themselves are responsible for their problems. History has been rewritten to depict the victims as the villains. So the United Nations, which acted as a front for the US campaign to starve Cambodia of support in the seventies and eighties, can now be cast in the role of benign interventionist, seeking to bring peace, stability and democracy to a people torn between warring factions.


Even if the United Nations departs after Cambodia has descended into renewed warfare, the authority of the West will remain intact. We are told that UNTAC has done all that it could to disarm the warring factions and bring peace to Cambodia. It has done everything possible to teach Cambodians about democracy and how to vote (which according to some commentators has been a job in itself, since these people find it hard to understand that you can only register to vote once). We are told that Cambodians have been given the best chance possible, and if the UN mission to establish peace and democracy fails, it will be their own fault. In other words, whatever happens next in Cambodia, the West cannot lose.

For the people of Cambodia, on the other hand, this is a no-win situation. They will never experience peace as long as the USA and the rest of the Western powers are granted the right to trample all over their lives.

Today, foreign powers are queuing up to exploit Cambodia's plight for their own sordid ends. The dynamic towards intervention started with Japan's emerging role in Cambodian politics. In June 1990 Japan bypassed the UN by holding talks with the Phnom Penh government in Tokyo. This was a break with Washington's position of not moving towards a settlement until all of its conditions had been met. In July 1991 the USA was forced to shift its policy to keep pace with the Japanese intervention.

Cambodia has presented Japan with an invaluable opportunity to recast its image as a peacebroker in South-east Asia. Since Japan re-emerged as an economic power in the world, the expansion of its political influence in its own region has been held back by its bloody record of colonial conquest before and during the Second World War. Only recently, the Japanese authorities felt obliged to apologise to the peoples of South-east Asia for atrocities perpetrated against them 50 years ago.

The Cambodian situation has provided a perfect pretext for Japan to start to put these troubles behind it. It has allowed Japanese forces to return to South-east Asia, not as hated oppressors, but in the guise of peacemakers. This time it is not the imperial ambitions of Japan, but the bloodlust of the Cambodians which is being blamed for the bloodshed. Cambodia has become a stepping stone for Japan to return to the stage of international diplomacy as a major player. That is why, on 15 June 1992, the Diet (parliament) authorised Japanese forces to join the UN 'peacekeeping operation' in Cambodia - dispatching troops abroad for the first time since the Second World War.

Past returns

France, the old colonial power in Cambodia and Vietnam, has also tried to use the current crisis to clean up its image and increase its authority in the region. The French foreign minister was the first from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to make an official visit to Cambodia. France has pledged to rebuild Cambodia's education system (under the condition that French and not English is taught in all the courses). The French have offered military assistance to any government emerging from the elections, and are already training Cambodia's police force. Once France and Japan had started to interfere in Cambodia, Washington then called for a UN solution, in order to ensure it was not left out of the carve-up.

Today all of the Western powers are back in the country they have destroyed, playing their Great Power games and rewriting their sordid colonial histories. The Cambodian people are being used as pawns - and blamed for the chaos that results.

(Above) The image of the killing fields has been used to shield the USA
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993

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