Stage Ten of Genocide: Denial

          The tenth stage of genocide according to the Genocide Watch outline is denial. The definition of this stage as provided by President Gregory Stanton is as follows:

➔ 10. DENIAL is the final stage that lasts throughout and always follows genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses. They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims. They block investigations of the crimes, and continue to govern until driven from power by force, when they flee into exile. There they remain with impunity, like Pol Pot or Idi Amin, unless they are captured and a tribunal is established to try them.

          To understand the measures perpetrators undertake to deny participation with genocide, we will read two pieces describing the efforts of Pol Pot to shape international journalism during the Cambodian genocide. Specifically, the first piece will reflect the support Western academics and reporters supplied the Khmer Rouge, further terrorizing victims seeking justice. This reading demonstrates how international governments dismissed the accountings of refugees, and engage in a tacit form of victim blaming. The second piece is one of the few interviews Pol Pot participated in since 1979, in which he categorically denies the Cambodian genocide, and attempts to propagate Vietnam as the true perpetrator. 

Devastation and Denial: Cambodia and the Academic Left

written by Matthew Blackwell

II. Denial

          Amazingly, even as Cambodia disintegrated, the Khmer Rouge benefitted from unsolicited apologetics from intellectuals at the West’s august universities. Just as Mao, Stalin, and Hitler enjoyed disproportionate popularity among academics and university students, Pol Pot and his promise of a communist utopia in South East Asia elicited sharp defences from many radical Western academics. In what is now known by some historians as the ‘The Standard Total Academic View,’ these professors downplayed reports of atrocities perpetrated in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and printed vicious attacks against anyone who disagreed.

          Reports of cities being emptied by the regime’s forced marches, for instance, were explained away as a necessary policy to prevent starvation in the country. “What was portrayed as a destructive, backward-looking policy motivated by doctrinaire hatred was actually a rationally conceived strategy for dealing with the urgent problems that faced postwar Cambodia,” wrote Gareth Porter and George Hilderbrand in their 1977 book Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. “Cambodia is only the latest victim of the enforcement of an ideology that demands that social revolutions be portrayed as negatively as possible, rather than as responses to real human needs which the existing social and economic structure was incapable of meeting.” The authors didn’t have the direct data on food levels in Cambodia required to make this claim. Nor were they able to assess conditions on the ground, since the regime had expelled all Western observers under a policy even more strict than that adopted by North Korea today.

         As refugees who managed to escape the Khmer Rouge began spilling over the border into Thailand, their harrowing testimonies of horrific hardship, forced labour, starvation, and mass killings were dismissed by the West’s radical intelligentsia. In a manner reminiscent of the patronising social scientist, one academic wrote, “What the urban dwellers consider ‘hard’ labor may not be punishment or community service beyond human endurance … Such associations take what is happening in Cambodia out of its historical and cultural context.”2 

         After interviewing Cambodian refugees, the French priest François Ponchaud said, “How many of those who say they are unreservedly in support of the Khmer revolution would consent to endure one hundredth part of the present sufferings of the Cambodian people?” In his 1977 book Cambodge Année Zéro (translated into English a year later as Cambodia: Year Zero), Ponchaud argued that refugee testimonies spoke to the gravity of the crisis enveloping Cambodia. John Barron and Anthony Paul reached a similar conclusion in their 1977 book Murder Of A Gentle Land: “We believe that the documentation conclusively shows that cataclysmic events have occurred in Cambodia and that their occurrence is not subject to rational dispute. We hope that upon learning of these events, people in all parts of the world will act to halt the ongoing annihilation of the Cambodian people…”

          The academic Left in the West found Ponchaud’s book uncomfortable, and detested the conclusions in Murder Of A Gentle Land. Noam Chomsky, arguably the most formidable icon of the Left’s intelligentsia, called the book a “third rate propaganda tract.”3 Refugee testimonies were not be dismissed, Chomsky argued, but nor were they to be trusted. “Refugees,” he wrote, “are frightened and defenceless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocutors wish to hear.”4

          Many other Western intellectuals summarily dismissed Barron and Paul’s conclusion of a “monstrous dark age that has engulfed the people of Cambodia.” The aforementioned Gareth Porter called refugee testimony the “least reliable kind of documentation,” and derided the refugees themselves as merely the wealthy elite of Cambodian society who had lost out in the collectivisation process. When Porter testified before U.S Congress he stated, “I cannot accept the premise … that one million people have been murdered systematically or that the Government of Cambodia is systematically slaughtering its people.”5

           In response to such criticism, François Ponchaud countered that his interviews were carried out with lower class refugees who couldn’t read and write or speak French. The arrogance of Western intellectuals astounded him:

           After an investigation of this kind, it is surprising to see that ‘experts’ who have spoken to few if any of the Khmer [Cambodian] refugees should reject their very significant place in any study of modern Cambodia. These experts would rather base their arguments on reasoning: if something seems impossible to their personal logic, then it doesn’t exist.6

          But not all of the Khmer Rouge’s supporters on the Left stood firm. In 1978, Jean Lacoutre, originally a fervent supporter of the Khmer Rouge, wrote Cambodians Survive! After reading Ponchaud, Lacoutre attempted to wash his hands of his former support for the regime:

          The shame, alone, would have justified that this book be written—which is firstly a cry of horror. The shame of having contributed, even as little as it was, as weak as its influence could have been on the mass media, to the establishment of one of the most oppressive powers history has ever known.

          Lacoutre kept Chomsky in his sights, who had earlier criticised Lacoutre for a review of Ponchaud’s book, “Cambodia and Cambodians are on their way to ethnic extinction … If Noam Chomsky and his friends doubt it, they should study the papers, the cultures, the facts.”

*  * *

          One of Chomsky’s associates, the Marxist scholar Dr. Malcolm Caldwell, complained during the 1970s that the “richest countries of the world today are still disfigured by poverty and gross inequalities.” For Caldwell, the latest communist experiment in Cambodia represented the “promise of a better future for all.”7 Like his colleagues, Caldwell dismissed refugee stories that testified to the horrors unfolding inside Cambodia as the lamentations of the rich put to work: “It need occasion us no surprise that to begin with they required close supervision when put to work shifting earth and collecting boulders; we should bear this in mind when evaluating refugee stories, particularly those referring to the immediate post-liberation period.”8 As for the reports of mass killings, Caldwell cited the denials of the Khmer Rouge Information Minister Hu Nim as his primary evidence. He was unaware that, by the time he was quoting the Minister, Hu Nim had himself been tortured and killed in Tuol Sleng Prison during a party purge.

          In December of 1978, Pol Pot invited Caldwell and two other Western journalists to take a guided tour of Cambodia. Caldwell jumped on what he thought was the opportunity of a lifetime. However, the tour turned out to be bubble-wrapped. The journalists were not allowed to travel where they wished, and were forbidden from speaking to Cambodian citizens. Even Caldwell is said to have joked with his Western companions about the embarrassingly staged scenes they were invited to admire. After two weeks spent touring the country, Caldwell was summoned to speak with Pol Pot face-to-face. A few hours later he was killed in his hotel room by Pol Pot’s soldiers. Some have speculated that he was murdered because he had confronted Pol Pot with what he had seen in the country. Others suggest that he was killed by rogue soldiers who didn’t want him to return to the West and write supportive things in the media about the brutal regime, as he had done in the past. Elizabeth Becker, one of the other journalists on the trip, hid in her hotel bathroom as she heard the gunshots. Later she stated that, “Caldwell’s death was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired.”9

* * *

           The purpose of inviting journalists into Cambodia seems to have been an attempt to solicit Western support at a time when the regime felt threatened by closer enemy. Three days after Caldwell’s murder, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot. What had happened during those cruel years was finally exposed before the eyes of the world. Not only were the refugees’ stories of starvation and slaughter finally vindicated, but the horror was revealed to have been more extreme than anyone had imagined. What Pol Pot’s academic apologists had been defending was quite possibly the greatest slaughter in human history in per capita terms. In those three years of Khmer Rouge misrule, one in four Cambodians disappeared into the ground, and food shortages were so appalling the U.N. estimates that one in two people would have died in the near future without emergency aid.

          Western academe’s romantic vision of Cambodia came tumbling down. Most of the regime’s defenders never spoke of the issue again. Some offered immediate retractions and apologies. Others spent decades in reflection before making public apologies. In 2010, Gareth Porter admitted, “I’ve been well aware for many years that I was guilty of intellectual arrogance.”10 Others retreated into complete denial. Israel Shamir, latterly an associate of Wikileaks, has written:

          The Pol Pot the Cambodians remember was not a tyrant, but a great patriot and nationalist, a lover of native culture and native way of life […] New Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as it was called) under Pol Pot and his comrades was a nightmare for the privileged, for the wealthy and for their retainers; but poor people had enough food and were taught to read and write. As for the mass killings, these are just horror stories, averred my Cambodian interlocuters.11

          Where Shamir discovered Cambodians willing to provide him with this exculpatory testimony, I cannot say. But I found no such love for Pol Pot or denial of the the Khmer Rouge’s brutality among the Cambodian people I encountered there, and the shattering effects of those years appear to be borne out by Cambodia’s unusually high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.12

          As a godfather to the intellectual Left, Noam Chomsky was careful to avoid outright genocide denial, but also too proud to admit to any errors of judgment whatsoever. Strategically, he had been cautious enough to write everything he published on the issue with the precision of a lawyer. As he later pointed out, he never did say anywhere that the regime was not guilty of mass murder, he had only argued that those who said that it was were making an unconvincing case, or relying on fabricated evidence. Chomsky would later claim that, at the time, the best judgement call was to believe American intelligence sources, which held that only a few thousand people had died in Cambodia:

           We came out with no conclusion of our own about the numbers, in fact we ended up by saying that maybe the two million figure would turn out to be right, even if it were totally fabricated. But, tentatively, we assumed that American intelligence was probably right.

          However, Chomsky’s highly evasive manoeuvring doesn’t accurately capture his former position at all, or account for the copious derision he had emptied over those he accused of alarmism. In assessing Ponchaud’s dramatic claims of deaths, Chomsky had previously written, “We wonder, frankly, whether Ponchaud really believes such figures.”13

          In his 1979 book After the Cataclysm, co-written with Edward S. Herman, Chomsky invites us to consider historian Ben Kiernan’s hypothesis that the Khmer Rouge leaders never properly established discipline over insubordinate soldiers: “[Kiernan] notes that most of the atrocity stories come from areas of little Khmer Rouge strength, where orders to stop reprisals were disobeyed by soldiers wreaking vengeance, often drawn from the poorest sections of the peasantry.”14 According to this theory, atrocities were chiefly carried out by unaffiliated peasants unmotivated by party ideology.

          Kiernan has since confessed to the same lethargic response to the Khmer Rouge as other intellectuals. As Director of the Genocide Study Program at Yale University, Kiernan now utterly rejects his own earlier explanation: “Despite its underdeveloped economy, the regime probably exerted more power over its citizens than any state in world history. It controlled and directed their public lives more closely than government had ever done.”15

           In 1955 Raymond Aron published his masterwork, The Opium of the Intellectuals, in which he described how the French cognoscenti had become entranced by Stalinism after the Second World War. Here was a group of bright, erudite people “ready to toler­ate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines.” According to Aron, those proper doctrines—equality, classlessness, unselfish dedication—were something like pictures in a children’s book; enticing images that seduced the most imaginative among us—our intellectuals.

           Pol Pot completed his studies at the University of Paris in 1953, just two years before Aron would publish his book. There, he had fallen in love with the works of Marx, Rousseau, Stalin, and Mao. Many of the future Khmer Rouge leaders were also graduates of French universities at this time, and became the founders of a club they called the Marxist Circle. Conduct a survey of your own among blue collar workers and students and faculty at universities, and it will soon become apparent that Marxism is a movement of intellectuals. But in the name of the peasants and workers, their doctrines left the halls of the universities and entered the killing fields of Cambodia.


Pol Pot: Mistakes Were Made

By Robin McDowell; October 23, 1997

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Pol Pot, in his first interview in 18 years, refused to apologize for causing the deaths of as many as 2 million countrymen and suggested Vietnam had planted the bones in Cambodia’s notorious ``killing fields.″

The toppled Khmer Rouge leader’s musings near the end of his blood-stained life were published today in the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine. He spoke with American journalist Nate Thayer.

Pol Pot, 72, said his ``conscience is clear″ about leading the Khmer Rouge regime that came to power in 1975 and turned Cambodia into a vast, Maoist-inspired labor camp. Starvation, overwork, illness, torture and execution killed one Cambodian in five.

Pol Pot acknowledged ``mistakes″ but suggested he had been the target of a plot to discredit him. For example, he said, the mountains of skulls that have come to symbolize the brutality of his regime may actually have been planted by Vietnam _ Cambodia’s historic enemy, which invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

``There are documents talking about someone who did research on the skeletons of the people,″ Pol Pot told Thayer. ``They said when you look closely at the skulls, they are smaller than the skull of the Khmer people.″

Pol Pot showed no remorse and shed little light on the Khmer Rouge government. Instead, he seemed more concerned with talking about his personal suffering, and detailing his medical problems.

``You don’t know what I have suffered,″ Pol Pot told Thayer, speaking at a Khmer Rouge base in northern Cambodia where ex-comrades have him under house arrest.

Pol Pot needed help to walk the 25 yards to the outdoor pavilion where he was interviewed. He complained that he is confined to a mosquito-ridden hut with his second wife and 12-year-old daughter, where he is largely bedridden and sometimes on oxygen.

He described an apparent stroke in 1995 that left his left side partly paralyzed and left eye blind.

Pol Pot, whose real name is Saloth Sar, told Thayer he was born in January 1925, ending years of debate over his birthday and age. He said he lied in documents that became the basis of dispute to keep a scholarship to study in France from 1949 to 1952.

His favorite books then included accounts of the French Revolution and the peaceful politics of Mohandas Gandhi, whom he described as an influence.

Pol Pot became involved with the French Communist Party but said he made a trip to communist Yugoslavia _ where historians have speculated his revolutionary zeal was forged _ simply because it was a cheap vacation.

The secrecy that made the Khmer Rouge so effective was second nature to Pol Pot, who was not even known to lead the regime until after it had been in power a couple of years.

``Since my boyhood, I have never talked about myself,″ Pol Pot said. ``I’m quite modest. I don’t want to tell people that I’m a leader. I didn’t tell anybody, not my brother, not my sister, because I didn’t want to worry them.″

Pol Pot’s relatives, who have not seen him in decades, remember him as a quiet, polite boy. But they suffered under the Khmer Rouge like every other Cambodian.

After Vietnam ousted Pol Pot’s regime, he led his men into the jungle. They fought against the Vietnamese-backed regime of the 1980s, and then against the coalition installed in 1993 by U.N.-organized elections.

Pol Pot told Thayer: ``I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country.″

Asked whether his daughter will be proud when she grows up to know that her father is Pol Pot, he replied: ``I don’t know about that. It’s up to history to judge.″

Current Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge official who is hated by his former comrades for leading a Vietnam-supported government in the 1980s, was asked by reporters today for his reaction to the interview.

``Why do we have to wonder about Pol Pot’s denial that he killed people?″ Hun Sen said. ``All of us are what remains of Pol Pot’s genocide, so there is no need for us to ask or wonder.″

The Khmer Rouge fractured in 1996 when Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s former brother-in-law, led about 10,000 fighters in defecting. Pol Pot was reduced to shrinking territory at the northern jungle base of Anlong Veng with a dwindling force.

The Khmer Rouge hard-liners were on the verge of making peace with the government last spring when Pol Pot objected and ordered the execution of longtime comrade Son Sen and his family. Ta Mok, who commands the Khmer Rouge military wing, was on the death list but in the end captured Pol Pot.

Cambodia’s government, meanwhile, shattered in July when Hun Sen led a coup against his co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, destroying negotiations the prince had held with the guerrillas about possibly turning Pol Pot over to an international tribunal.

Pol Pot ultimately may have what he allegedly denied so many Cambodians _ a peaceful death.

``In Khmer, we have a saying″ Pol Pot said. ``When one is both quite sick and old, there remains only one thing _ that you die.″


Last modified: Monday, 2 Mar 2020, 23:17