• Email
  • Print

An Exchange on Cambodia

To the Editors:

The article by William Shawcross, “The Third Indochina War” (NYR, April 6), demonstrates what is wrong with the intellectual and political discourse on postwar Cambodia. In discussing Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution Shawcross repeatedly violates intellectual fairness in ways which raise serious questions about his whole approach to the problem.

First, he falsely charges that the book was written “partly to offset the refugee accounts that had begun to circulate in the West,” meaning refugee reports of atrocities and reprisals. In fact, however, the book was never intended to deal with the issue of atrocities or reprisals in Cambodia. It was meant, as we explicitly state in the introduction, to compare the way in which the US-Lon Nol side and the Khmer revolutionaries each dealt with the problem of food and starvation. Shawcross chooses to forget that throughout 1975 and early 1976, the major themes of press coverage and comment on Cambodia were a barbaric forced march out of Phnom Penh and the imminent starvation of the Cambodian population. It was in response to such press reports, which assumed without evidence that the evacuation of the cities was motivated by cruelty or ideological fanaticism rather than rational calculation and concern for solving the food problem, that we wrote the book.

Second, he charges that we accepted Khmer Communist “assertions and statistics” as though the account is based solely or mainly on Khmer Communist sources. As anyone who has seen the book will know, nothing could be further from the truth. We document the conditions under which the evacuation took place from Khmer refugee reports, as well as European and American eyewitness accounts. As for the agricultural system in the Khmer revolutionary zone during the war, the bulk of the documentation does come from their own broadcasts. However, we cite numerous reports from interviews with refugees, intelligence reports and diplomats who have visited the countryside since the end of the war which confirm the main themes of our analysis: that there was a system of water conservancy which made possible a very significant increase in rice production compared with prerevolutionary agriculture, that food was tightly rationed during the war to build up emergency stocks in the countryside, and that there was an explicit policy of preparing for the return of refugees from the cities.

Third, Shawcross attempts to set up a straw man by claiming that we dismiss the view that the Communists evacuated Phnom Penh in order to control the population or to “eradicate the hated capital of their enemy.” It is true that we reject as unfounded the notion that the evacuation was motivated by a grudge against anyone who happened to live in the cities, for which no convincing evidence has ever been adduced. But we make clear in the book that Khmer Communist leaders were afraid that an urban population suffering from starvation and disease would be ripe for violent disorder within a few months, and that they viewed the solution of the food problem as directly connected with the problem of security. We also point out that the evacuation made it possible to track down saboteurs and commandoes who were unquestionably operating in the city when the war ended. The issue, therefore, is not our ignoring the security concerns of the Khmer leaders but the refusal of Shawcross to admit that they were genuinely concerned about the food problem.

In this regard, Shawcross attempts to dismiss that concern by quoting Pol Pot as saying that the decision to clear the cities was made “because we knew that before the smashing of all sorts of enemy spy organizations our strength was not enough to defend the revolutionary regime.” But he does not explain that the context of that statement was an answer to a question about the “victories” scored in Cambodia in its first two years. The first part of the answer, quoted only in part by Shawcross, was that Cambodia had succeeded in “defending the fruits of revolution.” And it was at that point in the answer that he mentioned fear of stay-behind agents of the old regime. But the second part of the answer, which Shawcross chose to ignore, was that, immediately after the war, the leadership had “first of all” to “solve the problem of grain and the problem of people’s livelihood.” By doing so, he concluded, they had provided a “guarantee” for “defending the people’s revolutionary political power and Democratic Cambodia.”

Pol Pot’s press conference answer is obviously not complete in the Chinese report, but it is consistent with the point that Khmer leaders have made repeatedly since 1975: the decision to evacuate the population involved both concern with the problem of food supply and with the threat of future efforts to overthrow the government—and the two were closely linked in their minds.

On the question of whether the evacuation was justified by the Cambodian realities of early 1975, Shawcross has not even been consistent. In his 1976 essay [“Cambodia: The Hidden Facts,” NYR, March 4], he conceded that “most of the inhabitants of Phnom Penh belonged to the land and would be needed there.” (Our own figures show that 80 percent of the population of Phnom Penh at the war’s end were actually refugees from the countryside.) But he complained of the speed of the evacuation and the insistence that it be total. Now he concedes that there was a food crisis as well as a threat of epidemic in the capital, which one would suppose would support a policy of total as well as rapid evacuation, but he challenges our assertion that there was food stored in the countryside for the refugees. Now, one may argue over how much was stored in preparation for their return and how long it would last. But to argue that the population could not be better fed in the weeks following the end of the war in the countryside than in the city is, I submit, manifestly absurd. It seems evident that Shawcross is straining to avoid having to accept the conclusion that we reached about the evacuation.

Finally, in criticizing our “use of evidence,” Shawcross cites my own use of a document, not in the book but in Congressional testimony more than a year after the book was completed and on an entirely different point. I cited a letter from W. J. Sampson to The Economist on reports from his Khmer refugee friends regarding the scope of reprisals after the war. Shawcross tries to discredit this letter by reporting his own conversation with Sampson by phone, but he does not address the point on which I was using the letter: that Khmer friends who had become refugees had not reported widespread reprisals. Furthermore, Shawcross misrepresents Sampson’s views. Sampson did not tell him that he believed 500,000 people had died beyond the normal death rate since the end of the war. He was referring to the total number of deaths from the time the war began. Moreover, Sampson does not denigrate the evacuation by suggesting that there was plenty of food available in the city. On the contrary, in his letter to The Economist, he cited the “plentiful” supplies of fish throughout the countryside and of vegetables in the areas around Phnom Penh and Battambang, to suggest that the population would not starve in the countryside.

It is true, as Shawcross notes from my May 1977 Congressional testimony, that I have changed my view on a number of aspects of the Cambodian situation. I have no interest in defending everything the Khmer government does, and I believe that the policy of self-reliance has been carried so far that it has imposed unnecessary costs on the population of Cambodia. Shawcross, however, clearly does have an interest in rejecting our conclusions. It is time, I suggest, for him to examine it carefully, because it does not make for intellectual honesty.

Gareth Porter

Institute for Policy Studies

Washington, DC

William Shawcross replies:

I am sorry that Mr. Porter has taken such umbrage at my rather mild criticism of the defense he and Mr. Hildebrand made of the Khmer Rouge in their book Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. His letter, however, is unconvincing.

He says that I “falsely charge” that the book was written partly to offset refugee accounts of Khmer Rouge reprisals and atrocities in 1975. This he denies. I do not understand why he is upset—that is a perfectly respectable purpose and my words were more by way of an explanation than a “charge.” As for “falsity” the book’s introduction claims that “while US government and news media commentary have contrived to avoid the subject of death and devastation caused by the US intervention in Cambodia, they have gone to great lengths to paint a picture of a country ruled by irrational revolutionaries, without human feelings, determined to reduce their country to barbarism. In shifting the issue from US crimes in Cambodia to the alleged crimes of the Cambodian revolutionary government, the United States has offered its own version of the end of the Cambodian war and the beginning of the new government. This study is aimed at setting the record straight on these crucial events….”

Mr. Porter argues that I suggested his book is based “solely or mainly on Khmer Communist sources.” In fact I merely said “their apparent faith in Khmer Rouge assertions and statistics is surprising in two men who have spent so long analyzing the lies that governments tell.” For example, on page 79 they say that “a major dry season crop was gathered in April, May and June of 1975.” They then cite three official government statements about the harvest and conclude “thus, at the same time the NUFK assumed the responsibility of feeding the people leaving Phnom Penh, a substantial rice crop was brought in.” This seems to me to show remarkable faith in the reliability of propaganda.

I do not “refuse to admit” that the Khmer Rouge were concerned about the food problem. I agreed that a crisis existed but said that Porter and Hildebrand were “unable to show, however, that the immediate forced expulsion of some 2.5 million from Phnom Penh was necessary or in any sense benign or that adequate food was generally supplied to those who survived the march and arrived at the fields.” Their inability derives, in my view, from the fact that no such evidence exists.

I have not, as Porter alleges, quoted Prime Minister Pol Pot out of context. If anything, it is Porter who has done that. After describing in some detail the way in which the fierce struggles of the regime against “the enemy’s secret agent network” in 1976 and 1977 were aided by the dispersal of the population, Pol Pot said “the second success is the solution of our people’s livelihood. Our 1976 harvest can in the main meet the people’s need for livelihood. After the war, we must first of all solve the problem of grain and the problem of the people’s livelihood. A guarantee is thus provided for defending the people’s revolutionary political power and Democratic Kampuchea. In solving the problem of grain we have solved a basic problem” (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, October 4, 1977).

I have not, as Porter alleges, been inconsistent. In my 1976 article I wrote that the Khmer Rouge “subsequently claimed that Phnom Penh had to be evacuated for lack of food. This was rather more than an excuse; there was no way in which the city could be fed without an airlift, as even the State Department eventually admitted.” I “complained of the speed of the evacuation and the insistence that it be total” (Porter’s words) in both articles. Porter submits that it is “manifestly absurd” to suggest that the population could have been better fed in the towns than in the countryside after the end of the war. In fact, I never suggested that, but Porter offers no scrap of evidence for his confident assertion.

The letter of Mr. W.J. Sampson was, in my view, important above all for the way in which others, Porter included, exploited it without question to make their own cases. I submitted that neither side of the argument over the nature of the Khmer Rouge examined carefully enough the evidence it used. Porter now asserts baldly that I “misrepresented” Sampson’s views and that “Sampson did not tell” me what I quoted him as saying in our telephone conversations. These were two-sided conversations, Porter was not on the line; I quoted Sampson exactly. He did tell me that he thought that up to half a million people over the usual death rate might have died since the end of the war. I never said, as Porter implies, that Sampson thought there was “plenty of food available in the city.” I wrote “he considered there were ample supplies of fish and vegetables in and near the city,” for that is what he said. To that extent and to the extent that he thought the Khmer Rouge considered Phnom Penh “Sodom and Gomorrah” Sampson did indeed “denigrate” the food imperative of the evacuation.

I was glad to acknowledge in my article that Mr. Porter had changed his views on the Khmer Rouge and it is a tribute to his own integrity that he now agrees that the Khmer Rouge have imposed “unnecessary costs” on the Cambodian people. He should, however, be a little more careful before he accuses others of deliberately falsifying evidence and of intellectual dishonesty.

  • Email
  • Print