Pol Pot
Pol Pot; drawing by David Levine


Two years ago I suggested that it was possible to see Cambodia only through the prism of propaganda.1 Since then the volume of the propaganda has swelled. But so has the body of evidence on which it is based. Consider the following letter published in the Vietnamese paper Nhan Dan and broadcast on Hanoi radio. It describes a midnight Khmer Rouge attack on a Vietnamese village last October, soon after the war between the two former allies began.

All of the houses were surrounded by Cambodian soldiers who immediately opened fire and used machetes, axes, sabers and sharpened sticks to slay the villagers…. A fleeing child was caught by a soldier who cut off his leg and threw him into the flames. All seven members of Mrs. Truong Thi Rot’s family were beheaded. Rot was disemboweled and had a seven-month fetus placed on her chest.

All the eight members of Nguyen Van Tam’s family were beheaded and the heads were put on a table for amusement. All eight persons in Nguyen Thi Nganh’s house were disemboweled, the intestines [piled] in one shocking heap. Mr. Quang’s wife was also disemboweled. The killers took out her five-month fetus, then cut off her breast and chopped her body in three parts. Her two-year-old boy…was torn in two and dumped into a well.2

And so on. Such an account is fairly characteristic of the way in which totalitarian governments speak of their enemies in wartime and it might easily be dismissed as mere hyperbole. If it seems more credible than other propaganda this is because it matches refugee accounts of Khmer Rouge behavior in Cambodia itself and the way in which the Khmer Rouge soldiers are known to have performed in the border villages where they have been fighting the Thais. With a few exceptions the stories which have emerged from Cambodia in the past two years have confirmed the impression, given by the early refugees, of a vast and somber work camp where toil is unending, rewards are nonexistent, families are separated, and murder is a constantly used tool of social discipline. Well before Hanoi published similar assessments, Democratic Kampuchea seemed to many in the West a uniquely atrocious experiment in human engineering conducted, in Hanoi’s words, by “infantile communists” who pursued “a consistent policy of national hatred” and were “deliberately turning young Kampucheans into medieval butchers” to indulge in “savage repressions” and “bloody massacres.”

When the French naturalist Henri Mouhot journeyed through Cambodia and Thailand in 1859 he rowed up the Great Lake in search of the ruins of Angkor. The lake he found exquisite. “The shore is low and thickly covered with trees which are half submerged; and in the distance is visible an extensive range of mountains whose highest peaks seem lost in the clouds. The waves glitter in the broad sunlight with a brilliancy which the eye can scarcely support.” The fish were so incredibly abundant that even when the “water is high they are actually crushed under the boat and the play of oars is hampered by them.”3

But although he was moved by the natural beauty of the country and by the splendor of the Angkor ruins, which had been lost for centuries, Mouhot was depressed by Cambodia. Once the Kingdom of Angkor had dominated the entire region and ruled much of Siam and the Mekong Delta. But after the Khmers abandoned Angkor in 1431 the nation disintegrated, as its Thai (i.e., Siamese) and Vietnamese neighbors encroached from both east and west, absorbing more and more of its peoples and its land. By the middle of the nineteenth century Cambodia was on the verge of disappearing altogether; Angkor itself was well inside Siam. As one scholar has noted, thousands of Khmers were being “killed and uprooted in a series of ruinous wars, carried on inside [their] territory by the Thai, the Vietnamese, and local factions.” 4

The Thais burned down the Khmer capital three times in the first half of the century; Vietnamese advisers kept the Cambodian monarch a prisoner for fifteen years; the chronicles are filled with references to plagues, famines, and floods. It was a very dark period. In 1840 the Cambodians mounted a rebellion against the increasing Vietnamese domination of Khmer life. The Vietnamese emperor, Ming Mang, characterized well Vietnam’s attitude to the Khmers in a letter to his general, Truong Minh Giang:

Sometimes the Cambodians are loyal; at other times they betray us. We helped them when they were suffering, and lifted them out of the mud…. Now they are rebellious: I am so angry that my hair stands upright…. Hundreds of knives should be used against them, to chop them up, to dismember them….

Elsewhere he ordered they be “crushed to powder.” The Cambodian view was expressed by an official who said simply, “We are happy killing Vietnamese. We no longer fear them.”5


The Khmer rebels used hit-and-run tactics against the better armed and organized Vietnamese, who were forced to withdraw from around Phnom Penh to the Delta. Nonetheless, in 1859 Henri Mouhot considered that “the present state of Cambodia is deplorable and its future menacing…. The population is excessively reduced by the incessant wars carried on against neighboring states.” He was sure that only government by France could guarantee the country’s survival.

And so it did. For almost a century the French ruled Cambodia and, for the most part, provided it with territorial security. In 1907 the western provinces of Siem Reap (which contains Angkor) and Battambang were returned by Thailand. (Ironically it was an American adviser to the Thai monarchy, Edward H. Strobel, who engineered the return of the two provinces. Strobel, a man of some wisdom, showed rather more understanding of the region than his successors half a century later.) 6 But definitive borders between Cambodia and its neighbors were never really agreed on; the French drew lines between Cambodia and Vietnam largely for their own administrative convenience. Siem Reap and Battambang were lost again to Thailand during the Japanese occupation; they were restored again after the end of World War II.

Territorial disputes began again in earnest after Indochina was granted independence in 1954. One consequence of the policy of neutrality that Sihanouk attempted to pursue through the Fifties and Sixties was that the regimes backed by the US in both South Vietnam and Thailand refused to recognize his frontiers. Border battles were a constant feature of the harassment he faced.

Less obvious at the time were the other tensions arising between the Vietnamese communists and the tiny band of Cambodian communists whom Sihanouk called the Khmer Rouge. Their quarrels began at the Geneva Conference in 1954 when Peking and Hanoi agreed that the Khmer Rouge should be disbanded and its cadres withdrawn to Hanoi. The Cambodians never forgave or forgot this betrayal. Last September, the prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot, declared in a long speech that as a result of it the “revolutionary struggle of our people…dissolved into thin air.” The problem, he said, was that the Cambodian communists did not have a proper “guideline,” did not know “which direction to follow, which goal to attain, which forces to rely on….”7 But Hanoi, clearly, was totally unreliable.

Pol Pot’s speech, together with his subsequent press conference in Peking, provide both a remarkably revealing assessment of Cambodia today and also a determined attempt to rewrite Cambodian communist history in the light of the struggle with Hanoi. Previously, for example, the Khmer Rouge had always claimed 1951—the year the Lao Dong Party was formed in Vietnam—as the founding date of the Cambodian Party. Now, in an obvious attempt to make it seem distant from any Vietnamese initiative, Pol Pot gave the year as 1960.

Until Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970 the Vietnamese communists subordinated Khmer interests to their own. The prince was cooperative; in 1965 he allowed them to establish base camps just across the hazy border with South Vietnam and then permitted them to ship supplies through the port of Sihanoukville. At the same time he waged a continual and harsh war upon the tiny Khmer Rouge groups in the woods and the hills; they came to understand well the insubstantial nature of international solidarity. Only after the 1970 coup by Lon Nol did Hanoi finally, and for its own reasons, begin to help build a communist organization in Cambodia.

Hatred between the two peoples is an essential feature of the war that followed. It was most apparent in relations between Lon Nol’s government and the South Vietnamese. In the first few weeks after the coup hundreds of Vietnamese residents of Cambodia were slaughtered by Khmers inflamed by government propaganda that all Vietnamese were “VC.” When the South Vietnamese invaded with the Americans in April 1970 their revenge was bloody. They treated the country as a military playground, with any Cambodian fair game. There were almost no controls. South Vietnamese air force pilots, until then very lazy, actually paid bribes for the privilege of flying seven days a week—over Cambodia. For weeks the 495th ARVN battalion rampaged around Takeo Province and, according to one CIA report from Phnom Penh, its commander, Captain Le Van Vien, constantly called in airstrikes “to drive the people from their villages.” His men would then seize the livestock and force the villagers to buy them back.

Mike Rives, the US chargé d’affaires in Phnom Penh and an excellent reporter, warned Washington in August 1970 that even Lon Nol was “getting increasingly fed up” and was considering how to rid himself of this unfriendly new ally. But he could not, and Thieu actually began to demand that the Cambodians pay for the privilege of having the ARVN troops in their country. Kissinger’s response was to suggest that the Khmers’ other enemy, Thailand, also send troops to prey on the Cambodians. The anguish this aroused in Phnom Penh could probably have been understood anywhere else than in the Nixon-Kissinger White House. The Cambodian chief of staff, General Sak Sutsakhan, told a Filipino officer who was a CIA agent that his government was afraid that Thailand and South Vietnam now really did intend to swallow up Cambodia.


But the attitudes of the White House were contradictory and obtuse. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that those who fashioned “The Nixon Doctrine in Its Purest Form”—Kissinger, Haig, Admiral John McCain (commander in chief, Pacific Forces)—never entertained the idea in 1970 that the North Vietnamese would be able to create a Khmer communist army. Traditional antipathy between the Khmers and Vietnamese was thought to be too strong. And yet when the growth of the Khmer Rouge into main force units was finally recognized in Washington they were always considered in the White House to be the creatures of Hanoi. From Kissinger’s refusal to accept that the Khmer Rouge could seriously distrust the Vietnamese communists stems much of the subsequent, continuing disaster.

In fact the antipathy between the two forces was known by others in Washington from the start. The North Vietnamese dilemma was that a growing Khmer communist organization was necessary to help protect the long new lines of communication they established through Cambodia after the US invasion in 1970. But the stronger such an army grew the more independent it was likely to become. At first the North Vietnamese army behaved well; cables from the CIA station in Phnom Penh remarked on their discipline and the way they helped the peasantry. Nonetheless, tensions between them and their Khmer comrades were evident. One CIA station report called attention to reports of disputes over the prominence with which Ho’s portrait should be displayed. During an assault on Kompong Thom in September 1970 Khmer communist troops were said to have fired from behind on North Vietnamese soldiers. In Takeo at the same time the Cambodians prevented the Vietnamese from creating any sort of political organization of their own, even among the Vietnamese minority.

The Vietnamese attempted to assert both political and military authority over the Khmer Rouge by sending back down the Ho Chi Minh Trail some 5,000 Cambodian communists who had been trained in Hanoi since Geneva, 1954. They immediately began to clash with those like Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Saloth Sar (now known as Pol Pot) who had fought in the maquis during the Sixties. But the result was different from that in Eastern Europe after World War II, when the “Moscow communists” returned and eliminated the “home communists.” In Cambodia the maquis maintained overall control. Nonetheless the Cambodians now claim that the Vietnamese “secretly organized a group of hooligans into a separate Cambodian army as its instrument on Cambodian soil and created a separate Cambodian state administration to attack the Cambodia revolutionary state power.”8

Under the impact of war, the Khmer Rouge grew astonishingly, recruiting many very young people and training them swiftly to use Vietnamese and captured American weapons. By 1972 they were fielding some 50,000 men. They excelled at infantry assault and were adept at digging in and holding ground against superior fire power. Their command and control structure, however, was poor and they still depended on the Vietnamese for transport and supplies. Otherwise they were quite separate, and in fact reports of more serious clashes reached Washington throughout 1972.

Kissinger, however, insisted in his talks with Le Duc Tho that the North Vietnamese should deliver the Khmer Rouge, trussed and bound like the Pathet Lao, to negotiate with Lon Nol. During the first half of 1973 he attempted to make the aid for reconstruction that Nixon had secretly promised Hanoi conditional on a ceasefire in Cambodia.9 The available evidence suggests that the North Vietnamese did attempt to pressure the Khmer Rouge into talks.10 But 1954 was not an encouraging precedent, and instead the Khmer Rouge launched the major assault on Phnom Penh which the North Vietnamese—who sought, like Washington, only a stalemate war in Cambodia—had studiously declined to mount since the summer of 1970.

Hanoi then began to restrict the Khmer Rouge’s arms supplies. This slowed but did not halt the offensive and in fact the Cambodian communists began to fight much more fiercely than ever before. Despite the heavy aerial bombardment to which they were subjected, and even after Congress voted that it should stop on August 15, 1973, they pressed a suicidal attack on Phnom Penh. The bombing, together with the shortages of munitions, stopped them.

No one knows how many men they lost. General John Vogt, then commander of the Seventh Air Force, claims that his planes killed up to 16,000 Khmers—that would mean over 30 percent of their entire army and a much higher proportion of their assault force. Even allowing for normal air force exaggerations their losses were certainly terrible. Why did they refuse to wait until the bombing ended? One reason, as Mr. Carney suggests in his study, was “fear that the Vietnamese would sell them out in a final solution to the war in Vietnam.” In September that year Sihanouk said:

I have no more reason to be optimistic…. I do not expect a quick victory. We do not have enough ammunition. I look back to the treaty we signed with the Pathet Lao, with North Vietnam and with the PRG at the South China Conference in 1970. We promised to fight to the end. Now the Vietnamese sign agreements with Kissinger…. No matter, we will fight on alone….11

If Sihanouk, a worldly anticommunist prince comfortable in Peking, felt thus, it is not difficult to imagine the bitterness of the men and the children in the forests and the fields who were actually required to suffer the consequences of the indifference of the world outside.

They tried to take the capital again in January 1974; and failed for the same reasons as before. But that summer the Chinese, apparently disillusioned by Washington’s lack of interest in negotiating a settlement with Sihanouk, committed themselves publicly to a military solution and supplied the Khmer Rouge with more arms than ever. When they launched another attack on the capital in January 1975 they had, for the first time, ample munitions, including mines with which to block the Mekong and starve the city. Both sides fought with extraordinary bravery, but this time it was the Lon Nol army which was betrayed by its ally. Congress’s refusal to appropriate more aid led to serious ammunition shortages and resulted in the Khmer Rouge victory of April 17. Then, as helicopters swirled Americans out of Vietnam as well, the Khmer Rouge herded the population of Phnom Penh out into the empty (and undefended) countryside from which most of it had fled during the war, and the Third Indochina War immediately began.

The first clashes between the two new governments of Vietnam and Cambodia took place over the offshore islands in the Gulf of Thailand which both countries had always claimed. Prospects of oil had made the claims more urgent to each; the Lon Nol and Thieu governments had argued bitterly over the boundary. By the time the Mayaguez steamed past the island of Poulo Wai on May 12—two weeks after the fall of Saigon—a full-scale island war was underway. (The fact that the US did not warn shipping to stay away remains incomprehensible. Unless, of course, US intelligence agencies were still bound by the Kissinger myth that the Khmer Rouge were Hanoi’s creatures and so failed to detect or report the fighting.) Hanoi later ceded Poulo Wai to the Cambodians but refused to accept the French administrative boundaries as the frontier. The dispute is, if anything, worsening today.

Conflicts over the land border were equally intractable. The Vietnamese had never left the sanctuaries Sihanouk had allowed them in 1965 “when,” in the sarcastic words of Radio Phnom Penh, “they had nowhere to stay in South Vietnam.” Their refusal to depart after the war “shows how ungrateful they are.”12 In June 1975 Pol Pot, the secretary general of the Cambodian Communist Party, flew to Hanoi and to Peking in a vain attempt to find a solution. In May 1976 the Vietnamese sent a delegation to Phnom Penh; the talks broke down completely, according to Phnom Penh, because the Vietnamese presented a new draft map of the frontier “which took away a vast part of Cambodia’s territorial sea.”

The breakdown may also have been associated with the emergence of an even more uncompromising Cambodian leadership. Just what happened in Cambodian politics during 1976 and 1977 is still unclear. But after the death of his friend and mentor Chou En-lai, Sihanouk—who had returned as head of state to Democratic Kampuchea—was removed from even titular office and dropped out of sight. The Cambodian leadership hailed the fall of Teng Hsiaop’ing in China.

Then last April there appears to have been an abortive coup in Phnom Penh; the trickle of foreign visitors on the fortnightly flight from Peking was stopped for a time. There is speculation among those who watch Cambodia that perhaps the remaining “Hanoi-Khmers” made a final desperate effort to win power. Some refugees have referred to fighting among different communist factions. Vietnam now claims that almost all the “Hanoi-Khmers” have been murdered. Last fall Kim II Sung of North Korea congratulated the Phnom Penh leaders on eradicating traitors in their midst and the Phnom Penh radio has now accused Hanoi of attempting “to stage coup d’états to topple Democratic Cambodia through a handful of traitorous forces who were Vietnam’s agents.”

In any case serious border fighting began in April 1977. The Vietnamese say that since then the Cambodians have continually raided across the border and “have perpetrated utterly inhuman crimes, raping, tearing fetuses from mothers’ wombs, disemboweling adults, burning children alive.”13 General Giap visited the border in September and Cambodia claims that Vietnam then began to attack. The main Vietnamese invasion, with tanks, artillery, and air power, began in December and, according to Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese troops behaved far worse than Thieu’s forces back in 1970.

Just how much of Cambodia’s territory the Vietnamese now occupy is unclear and the course of the fighting has been clouded in the propaganda claims of both sides and in the surmises of those speculative “intelligence sources” who work so hard in Bangkok. Many of the Western analyses have stressed Vietnam’s enormous military superiority—its army of over half a million well supplied with air power and tanks. But the Khmer Rouge is also formidable. By the end of the last war they numbered around 70,000 men organized into what the Pentagon called twelve to thirteen “division-brigade equivalents.” They were able to plan, coordinate, and execute multi-unit combat operations and sustain effective, if tenuous, lines of communication. Their nighttime operations were especially successful and they were willing to suffer losses that for most armies would be insupportable. As in the 1840s, they have been using hit-and-run guerrilla tactics against the Vietnamese with considerable success. During the first week of January this year they launched a counterattack in the Ha Tien area and apparently inflicted heavy casualties on Vietnam’s Thirtieth Division, although their claim to have killed 29,000 Vietnamese is hardly credible.


The three works on Cambodia under review were all written and published well before the new war became public. By far the most useful to any understanding of that conflict—or, indeed, of any aspect of modern Cambodia—is Timothy Carney’s study of the origins and ideology of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

Carney is a State Department officer who served three years in the embassy in Phnom Penh during the war and speaks fluent Khmer. Written sources on the origins of Cambodian communism are not numerous but Carney has used them all meticulously and has supplemented them with his own interviews conducted in Phnom Penh. He traces the growth of Khmer Rouge ideology from its beginnings among Khmer students educated in Paris in the Fifties, and examines the economic arguments which young Cambodian Marxists, such as Khieu Samphan, made in the late Fifties and early Sixties for collectivization and for moving the population out of the cities and into agriculture. He carries the story through the increasingly bloody feud between the Khmer Rouge and the Sihanouk government and the tactical alliance against Lon Nol that the two sides made after Sihanouk’s overthrow in March 1970.

Carney’s research demonstrates the absurdity of the claims of his one-time employer, Henry Kissinger, that Hanoi controlled the Khmer Rouge. He discusses in detail the recruitment policies of “Angka Loeu” or “organization,” as the Khmer Rouge leadership is known in Cambodia, and shows how betrayal by their allies and the terrible American bombing seem to have caused a radical hardening of their attitudes in 1973. Carney’s essay is a superb piece of cool professional reporting, free of rhetoric and bias. It should be read by all those who profess concern at what is happening in Cambodia today.

In fact, however, the most widely read work will be the Reader’s Digest book, Murder of a Gentle Land. This is based on several hundred interviews conducted principally by Anthony Paul, the Digest’s Far East roving editor, in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. The interviews were taped, with the help of an interpreter from Bangkok, and before the book was written Paul played some of them to me. They seemed carefully done. Paul recorded a great many horror stories—about the forced march from Phnom Penh; the appalling rigors of life in the new work camps; the destruction of all traditional social relationships, including the family; the use of murder, and the threat of murder, as a means of control. He considers these stories have a consistency that—even allowing for the natural tendencies of refugees to exaggerate—confirms their basic truth. Father Françcois Ponchaud, the author of Cambodge Année Zéro, and probably the man who has made the most thorough study of the refugees from Democratic Kampuchea, agrees with him. So do I.

But Paul’s reporting is accompanied by a commentary which can only be described as puerile. For example, instead of the careful political analysis presented by Carney, the authors suggest that the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge may result from the alleged impotence of Khieu Samphan, now Kampuchea’s head of state.

Numerous psychiatrists consider that chronic impotence…is the product of profound hostility…. Perhaps some of the deathly hostility Angka Loeu was to visit upon the Cambodian people, such as the savage slaughter of women and children as well as men, the ferocious assault on the Khmer traditions of love, courtship and family, the draconian punishment of extra-marital sex, was spawned by the hostility of the unloved and unloving Khieu.

The book, moreover, makes almost no reference to the destruction that the Nixon Doctrine imposed upon the country, and its readers are given scarcely a hint that Khmer agriculture and society were almost totally devastated during the five years of war that preceded the Khmer Rouge victory. A book which fails to consider how and why the Khmer Rouge grew, and grew vicious, while this “gentle land”—never so gentle as the popular myth the authors seek to preserve—was callously abused by the North and South Vietnamese and American governments, is seriously deficient.

Nonetheless, the Reader’s Digest view has been enormously influential in creating the image of Cambodia current in the West today. The lurid stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities that are so frequently retold often ring true but are rarely accompanied by serious historical inquiry. The Reader’s Digest set the tone for the hearings on human rights in Cambodia which were held by Congressman Donald Fraser last year.14 When Gareth Porter, co-author of Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, questioned the Reader’s Digest figure of 1.2 million deaths under the Khmer Rouge, Congressman Stephen Solarz rudely asserted that he supposed Porter also disputed that six million Jews were killed.

Porter had aroused fury when he questioned the validity of one particular source in which Barron and Paul place faith and which has had extraordinary notoriety in the United States. In September 1976 Famiglia Cristiana, a popular magazine distributed by the Italian church, published what purported to be an interview with Khieu Samphan at the conference of nonaligned countries in Colombo.15 In it the Cambodian head of state said that a million Cambodians had died during the war. He was then asked what had happened to war criminals since and replied “the traitors remaining in Cambodia have been executed.”

“How many Cambodians are left in Cambodia?”

“The present population of Cambodia is five million.”

“Before the war it was seven million. If one million died in combat what happened to the rest?”

“It is incredible how you Westerners care about what happened to war criminals. In any case, if you want an accurate account you must consider the number of Cambodians who left for Thailand, France, the United States and other countries.”

Famiglia Cristiana is not a paper which usually has a large impact outside Italy, but this article has been widely cited as evidence from the horse’s mouth that one million people have been massacred. But there are problems. First of all, the original text has almost always been misquoted, by Barron and Paul among others. The precise question and answer sequence has been compressed and slightly altered, to dramatize the exchange; the fact that the paper also quoted Khieu Samphan as saying that the massacre stories were an “ignominious calumny” has been ignored. Second, Khmer Rouge leaders have frequently maintained that the population of Cambodia today is 7.7 million or more; the figure of only 5 million has never been cited. 16

A third objection has been raised by journalists who were at Colombo. They say that none of them was ever able to get anywhere near Khieu Samphan, and they wonder how Paola Brianti, the Italian freelance journalist who sold the story to Famiglia Cristiana, managed to do so. Two reporters have asserted flatly that she could not have gotten the interview and that it is a fake. However, when I telephoned her in Rome, Ms. Brianti explained to me, through an interpreter, that she had been able to see Khieu Samphan on the strength of a previous meeting in Peking with leng Sary, the Khmer Rouge foreign minister. She sticks by her story.

But even if her article reflects faithfully the words of Khieu Samphan, it seems remarkable that such an abrupt and ambiguous exchange should have been so widely taken as serious evidence for the character of the government. Last year, for example, William F. Buckley cited the dramatized version of this interview to support his call for a new invasion of Cambodia, and Barron and Paul find in it part of the confirming evidence for their calculation that at least 1.2 million Cambodians have died as a result of Khmer Rouge rule since the end of the war.

Hildebrand and Porter published their book in 1976; in some ways it is a mirror image of the Reader’s Digest work. During the war the authors worked for the Indochina Resource Center, one of the most diligent antiwar groups in Washington. Porter is the author of A Peace Denied, a fine study of the failure of all attempts to reach peace in Vietnam. In 1975 the authors placed small credence in the early atrocity stories which came from Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge victory and they wrote this book partly to offset the refugee accounts that had begun to circulate in the West. Their book has been as widely ignored by the American press as the Reader’s Digest book has been widely publicized. Yet it deserves consideration. Its most useful sections describe the destruction caused by the war. The authors show convincingly how the country’s traditional agricultural system was smashed by over 539,000 tons of bombs, and they praise the new system of increasing the number of harvests by collective work that the Khmer Rouge claimed to have set up in the areas they controlled. They emphasize the difficulties that the victors faced in April 1975—the enormous social problems created by the floods of war refugees, by spreading disease, and in particular by the vast misery of the swollen population of Phnom Penh.

The authors do not like the term apologia, but their book is an extremely sympathetic, indeed approving, account of the precise ways in which the Khmer Rouge dealt with those problems. 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. They dismiss the widely held idea that the victors emptied Phnom Penh either to control its population more easily or to eradicate the hated capital of their enemy. Rather they conclude that the evacuation was prompted by a concern for the most basic and urgent needs of the population. Whereas there was no way of feeding the people in the cities, they argue, there was food in the countryside.

That there was a food crisis in Phnom Penh seems certain. Long Boret, the last premier in the Lon Nol government, stated that there was only an eight-day rice supply left when the Americans evacuated on April 12 and USAID figures on the rice supply bear this out. Starvation was spreading. The authors are unable to show, however, that the immediate, forced expulsion of some 2.5 million people 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 in the fields.

Neither Murder of a Gentle Land nor Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution provides an adequate description or analysis of Khmer Rouge policies.17 Hildebrand and Porter’s use of evidence can be seriously questioned. At the congressional hearings last May, for example, Porter described as “documentation” a letter by one W.J. Sampson in the London Economist of March 26, 1976. Sampson, who said he was an economist stationed in Phnom Penh until March 1975, wrote:

After leaving Cambodia I visited refugee camps in Thailand and kept in touch with Khmers. We heard about the shooting of some prominent politicians and the lynching of hated bomber pilots in Phnom Penh…. Only one refugee reported elimination of collaborators and this at third hand. I feel that such executions could be numbered in hundreds or thousands rather than in hundreds of thousands.

Porter and others have claimed that Sampson is a neglected authority, “likely” as Porter put it, “to be more accurate than those which assume a policy of full-scale purge.” But, as it turned out, nothing was known of him, and at the May hearing Porter had to agree with Congressman Solarz that Sampson could in theory be “a psychotic.” Anxious to know more about Sampson’s views, I spoke to him and his wife in Brussels in two long telephone calls. He works for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and was about to leave for a new assignment in New Guinea. He and his wife evidently shared strong emotions about the wanton destruction of the war itself, and criticized the US and the Lon Nol governments. But although Sampson agreed that disease was a real threat, he did not think the evacuation of Phnom Penh could be explained by the shortage of food; he considered there were ample supplies of fish and vegetables in and near the city. To the Khmer Rouge, he told me, Phnom Penh was “Sodom and Gomorrah. They wanted people out.”

I asked Sampson how many he believed had died since April 1975. He said he thought 10 percent of the 2.5 million evacuated from Phnom Penh would have died while on the roads. He no longer wanted to give an estimate of executions but said that altogether “deaths over and above the normal death rate would not be more than half a million.” Mr. Sampson thus seems an unconvinced and unconvincing witness on behalf of Khmer Rouge moderation. Neither side of the propaganda battle has carefully examined all of the sources that it wishes to exploit.

A far more useful source of analysis and information is Cambodge Année Zéro, by Françcois Ponchaud, to be published in English translation next summer by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Here the reader finds both an awareness of the US depredations that the Reader’s Digest book ignores and a vivid account of the widespread brutality and killing that Hildebrand and Porter dismiss in their book. Ponchaud, after long experience in Cambodia, originally welcomed the prospect of a revolutionary change. After leaving in 1975 and talking to refugees in Thailand, he was forced to conclude that a horrifying system was being imposed on the Khmers. The English edition of his book will make it clear, as his French text does not, that his research was based not only on government radio broadcasts and on ninety-four written statements by refugees but also on his own careful questioning of most of these refugees as well as hundreds of others.

Indeed, Father Ponchaud says he has by now talked to well over a thousand Cambodian refugees, seeing them not only in Thailand but also in France, where some 10,000 of them now live. He describes in detail how he checks their stories against one another, discounting those which seem exaggerated or false. His research appears more thorough than any yet undertaken, and he contradicts those who argue that “executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent….”18 On the contrary, Ponchaud estimated last autumn that the number executed was “certainly more than one hundred thousand”—including not only a large proportion of the old regime’s military personnel, civil servants, and teachers but also many of the educated class and of those who dared to express their aversion to the regime’s brutal methods. These killings, his interviews showed, took place in many parts of Cambodia.

At the end of February, Ponchaud gave the following summary of his most recent research:

The estimate that more than 100,000 Khmers have been executed must now be taken as an absolute minimum. It is possible that two or three times as many people have been executed. The number who have died because of the lack of food and of medical and sanitary facilities, and from the frantic pace of work, may well be more than two million. I have had reports of villages in which a third, a half, or even nine-tenths of the population have died.

I recently interviewed forty refugees who fled during 1977 from the provinces of Battambang, Kompong Thom, Siem Reap, Oddar Mean Chey, Kompong Cham, Kratie, Koh Kong, and Pursat. There was general agreement that while 1975 had been hard and 1976 harder, 1977 was terrible. The collectivization program has brought increasing misery. Even less food is available for communal use than previously. Work at night has become a general practice. Some Chinese medicines, principally quinine, have been distributed.

A number of popular revolts have sporadically broken out, I was told, but were bloodily repressed—at Odambang in Battambang, at Phnowkrom in Siem Reap, and at Anpel Prong in Oddar Mean Chey. I have also had reports that several attempts at coups d’état failed in January, April, and August of last year. These were said to have been followed by general purges in the Party apparatus. Several thousand cadres, even some of very high rank, are reported to have been executed and replaced by new officials including a good many women. Following a period of apparent calm and investigation last summer, the reports indicate, a new wave of executions took place at Banan in Battambang and at Baray in Kompong Thom. At Phun Prasat Andat in Battambang, 118 wives and children of Lon Nol military personnel are said to have been killed.

It is important, however, that the disastrous experience of Kampuchea not be seized on as a reason for intervention by the Vietnamese. This could certainly mean the extinction of the Khmer people whose future was already in grave jeopardy by the end of 1977.

To understand the fanaticism of the Khmer Rouge, it is also useful to consult their own recent explanations of what they are doing, notably in Pol Pot’s five-hour speech on the Phnom Penh radio last autumn and his subsequent press conference in Peking. These two statements give one of the fullest accounts the Khmer Rouge have yet offered of their history and outlook. Some of Pol Pot’s rhetoric comes straight from Mao, but he also emphasizes the theme that the war and the revolution have unleashed a vast anger accumulated during long years of persecution of the Khmers. He leaves no doubt that he includes persecution by the Vietnamese. In talking of the new national anthem, he said, “Its essence is the blood of our entire people, of those who fell for centuries past. The blood call has been incorporated into the national anthem…. This blood has been turned into class and national indignation.”

Pol Pot made no mention of food shortages or famine as the motive for evacuating Phnom Penh—his explanation is in fact closer to that of Barron and Paul than to that of Hildebrand and Porter. He said the decision to clear the city was made “before the victory was won, that is in February 1975, because we knew that before the smashing of all sorts of enemy spy organizations, our strength was not enough to defend the revolutionary regime.” In light of this, arguments about the precise quantities of food available in the city in April 1975 become somewhat academic.

Pol Pot not only asserted that the evacuation was one of the most important factors in guaranteeing the success of the revolution; he gave a picture of a regime continually occupied with the destruction of its internal enemies. “Judging from the struggles waged from 1976 to 1977, the enemy’s secret agent network lying low in our country was very massive and complicated. But when we crushed them it was difficult for them to stage a comeback. Their forces were scattered in various cooperatives which are in our grip. Thus we have the initiative in our hands.” Even so, “in our new Cambodian society there also exist life-and-death contradictions as enemies…are still planted among us to carry out subversive activities against our revolution.”


Much more so now than in October. The oldest enemy of all has at least eight divisions dug into forward positions well inside Democratic Kampuchea. Cambodia’s basic claim, which reflects exactly its historical fears, is that Hanoi wishes to force it into an Indochinese federation “so that Vietnam can annex Cambodia in a set period of time.”19 Hanoi has replied that such a notion is “the product of the imagination of the blind who have committed unfriendly anti-Vietnamese acts…[and] is also aimed at stirring up national hostility among the Cambodian people.”20 Both sides have tried to increase the hostility. Hanoi’s ghastly descriptions of Cambodian atrocities have been followed by reminders from Phnom Penh that “the Vietnamese have always despised and looked down on the Cambodian people.”

The vitriol in each side’s accusations has grown fiercer and fiercer each week, and the tone of the Vietnamese accusations has indeed suggested that they may be laying the ideological basis for the removal of the “infantile” and “reactionary” Phnom Penh regime. Hanoi radio declared on February 15 that “the world press has widely reported the massive executions ordered by the Cambodian authorities in order to suppress the Cambodian peoples’ dissatisfaction, and it is most enraging to see that on the bodies of those murdered…there are inscriptions reading ‘convicted for [sympathy] with Vietnam.’ ”

The Vietnamese have also warned, “if they do not quickly bring themselves to a halt on this criminal path, the leaders in Phnom Penh must surely understand where it will lead them.”21 And “the Vietnamese people severely warn the Cambodian authorities…they must bear all the responsibility for the consequences from their criminal actions.” To add substance to these threats, General Giap has recently visited the border.

The Cambodians claim that the Vietnamese have already set up local “puppet” administrations staffed by “hooligans”—selected, presumably, from among the thousands of Cambodians who have fled to Vietnam since April 1975. In February the North Vietnamese made a peace proposal suggesting international supervision of a new demilitarized zone along both sides of the disputed border. Although that was not dismissed out of hand by Phnom Penh, the Phnom Penh radio declared that while Hanoi uttered “sweet words,” “Vietnam still continues to infiltrate repeatedly and commit barbarous aggression against Cambodia.” Prudently, Phnom Penh has rushed to restore full diplomatic relations with Bangkok so that Henri Mouhot’s prophecy of Cambodia devoured from both east and west should not be fulfilled.

The Khmer Rouge have incurred by their policies such widespread odium that a Vietnamese attempt to remove the regime might be welcome to some in the West—even though this could, as Ponchaud points out, mean the end of the Khmer nation. But Hanoi would presumably have to take account of the country with most invested in Kampuchea. At the moment Hanoi’s polemics against Peking are increasing and recently the Vietnamese described the Chinese as “imperialists and international reactionaries” and denounced them for arming the Cambodians.22 The attitude of the Chinese government to the Khmer leadership has in fact been unclear since Pol Pot denounced Teng Hsiao-p’ing when he was down. And there is one “hooligan” in whom the Chinese have, in the past, demonstrated strong confidence: Sihanouk.

After Sihanouk was stripped of his title, chief of state, on the death of Chou En-lai, nothing was heard of him and some of his friends feared for his life. Then President Tito, an old friend, insisted last year that his ambassador to Phnom Penh be allowed to assure himself that the prince was still alive. The Yugoslav was apparently taken from the virtual house arrest under which the few foreign diplomats are confined, driven through the empty city, into which loads of young peasants are trucked for a day’s work, and given a glimpse of Sihanouk planting vegetables in his garden. After Pol Pot visited China last October Sihanouk’s name was resurrected on the Phnom Penh radio. In January the man who symbolized his country’s independence for almost a quarter of a century was exploited to whip up national feeling against the Vietnamese; his name was attached to a statement denouncing the invasion.

The Chinese then sent Teng Yengchao, Chou’s widow, to Phnom Penh—reportedly on a vain effort to act as mediator between the two sides. The choice of ambassador was presumably deliberate; she, like Chou, was always friendly with Sihanouk—during his years of exile in China she used to accompany him on trips to the seaside. It is hard to believe that she did not attempt to improve his position with his Khmer Rouge enemies or to meet him during her trip. The Hanoi radio then began to refer to the simple Sixties when the Vietnamese dealt easily with the prince, and, in Vientiane, Vietnamese diplomats suggested to correspondents that they could well tolerate his return. 23

The ironies implicit in such a possibility, however remote—and however dangerous for the helpless Sihanouk himself—do, in the real sense of the phrase, take one’s breath away. But for the contempt with which Henry Kissinger dismissed him, Sihanouk—who always understood the nature of the Khmer Rouge—might have been able to avert the dark savagery which has been visited upon his people since April 1975. But it is impossible to know what sort of reception his return to power, especially as a Vietnamese “puppet hooligan,” would have in Democratic Kampuchea today. Older people would presumably still be able to revere him, but the young, who have been nurtured on hatred for his “feudalism,” would find it much harder, and almost all the refugee stories agree that it is the young who rule the country today. They are the “medieval butchers” who would be responsible for carrying out the new and bloody purges which the ubiquitous Bangkok intelligence sources insist are now accompanying the war with Vietnam.24

When three Scandinavian ambassadors to Peking returned from a visit to Kampuchea last month they said it was only the young they saw in the empty capital, only young people working the fields outside. They refused “to draw any conclusions on what has happened to the old,” but one of them said of Kampuchea today, “It was like an absurd film. It was like a nightmare. It is difficult to believe that it is true.” 25 But even more difficult to deny.

This Issue

April 6, 1978