Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Holiday in Cambodia

With finals completely graded, I can once more return offering some follow-up remarks to Christiane Amanpour's CNN special Scream Bloody Murder (see the first to essays in the series here and here). Recall that in my initial comments I noted that:
With regard to the genocide in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime, Amanpour's narrative seems to put the onus of responsibility for the ensuing bloodbath on the "Vietnam Syndrome"; perhaps she does not do so in so many words, but it is pretty clear that those darned antiwar protesters and a war-weary US public are in Anampour's eyes, a major stumbling block to a "humanitarian" intervention. She does manage to make some mention of the US alliance of convenience with Pol Pot's regime as mutual opponents of Vietnam's regime, but it seems more an afterthought.
Amanpour's narrative is fraught with errors, not the least of which are those of omission. In her version of events, one would be led to believe that Pol Pot's regime sort of emerged out of nowhere, while the US was "intervening" (that's a polite way of putting it) in Vietnam, and the disastrous outcome in Vietnam coupled with a growing antiwar sentiment were the stumbling blocks to preventing the atrocities that occurred during Khmer Rouge's reign of terror.

What's left out of the picture? For starters, Amanpour fails to mention that the US was in fact already busily "intervening" in Cambodia long before Pol Pot came to power. US involvement in subverting Cambodia's government paved the way for Pol Pot to sieze power. Not surprisingly, that omission means that the viewer is not made away of the nature of US intervention in Cambodia. US efforts to depose Prince Sihanouk go back to the mid-1950s, finally succeeding by 1970 when Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup.[1] By the time of the 1970 coup, the Cambodians had already suffered through the Nixon regime's decision to carpet bomb the Cambodian countryside that had started the previous year. [2] By the time Sihanouk had been deposed, the Cambodian social and economic infrastructure was in ruins - a fact that Pol Pot would capitalize upon over the next five years, as his Khmer Rouge mobilized a critical mass of people to its side with a relentless campaign of terror and psy-ops. One could say that by April 1975, the Cambodians had already lived through one genocide (Sartre's [3] analysis of the Vietnam war would readily apply to US military action against Cambodians in 1969 and 1970), that had paved the way for the one that would follow from 1975-1979. [4] However else one might characterize the Khmer Rouge leadership, it certainly contained elements of a sort of populism and an anti-Vietnamese racism that composed an intellectual framework for what would unfold in Cambodia. By the time that the Khmer Rouge was deposed by Vietnamese forces, mass killings and famine had left around 2 million dead. [5]

What Amanpour does manage to mention is that the US government found plenty to love about Pol Pot, in particular the Khmer Rouge's anti-Vietnamese chauvinism, making the the US and Cambodia allies of sorts after the US military finally withdrew its troops from the region. In fact the US government would continue to support Pol Pot even after he was deposed, refusing to recognize the new Cambodian government that overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and denouncing the Vietnamese-backed overthrow as "illegal." [6] Some of your tax dollars went to provide aid to Khmer Rouge camped at the Thai border during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The upshot, I think, is that the US didn't bother to intervene to prevent the Cambodian holocaust not because of a bunch of dirty hippie peaceniks holding protest signs, but because: 1) Pol Pot's regime made a convenient ally, and 2) any intevention would risk the potential of facing up to the US government's own genocidal actions in Cambodia during 1969-1970.


1. Blum, W. (2005). Rogue State (3rd Ed.). Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.

2. Chomsky, N. (1987). Cambodia. The Chomsky Reader (pp. 289-297). New York: Pantheon Books.

3. Sartre, J. (1968). On Genocide. Boston: Beacon Press.

4. Chomsky, N. (1987). The Chomsky Reader.

5. Genocide Watch (2006). Genocides, Politicides and Other Mass Murders Since 1945.

6. See Chomsky, N. (1987), and Blum, W. (2005).

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