Pol Pot’s Death In The Propaganda System
The death of Pol Pot on April 15, 1998 unleashed a media barrage of indignation and
sanitized history that illustrates well their role as agents in a system of propaganda.
While Pol Pot was undoubtedly a mass killer and evil force, and deserves angry
condemnation, the U.S. media’s indignation ebbs and flows in accord with the demands
of U.S. foreign policy. In the cases of both Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein, periods of U.S.
support of these criminals were accompanied by virtual silence on their misbehavior,
whereas in times of official hostility the media have shifted to furious but hypocritical
indignation, along with carefully modulated history. Today, no longer useful in punishing
Vietnam, and with no economic interests anxious to protect his image (as with
Indonesia’s president Suharto), Pol Pot has resumed his role as an object lesson in
the dangers of communism and attempts to create a "utopia of equality."
There are, however, three problems that the media have had to confront in assailing Pol
Pot for committing genocide in Cambodia. One is that the Cambodian genocide—a
"decade of genocide" according to a Finnish government research inquiry—had
two phases, in the first of which—1969-1975—the U.S. was the genocidist. In that
period, the U.S. Air Force dropped over 500,000 tons of bombs on rural Cambodia, killing
scores of thousands, creating a huge refugee population, and radicalizing the countryside.
The number of U.S.-caused deaths in the first phase is comparable to, or greater than, CIA
and other serious estimates of Pol Pot killings by execution (50,000-400,000). Cambodia
experts like Milton Osborne and David Chandler have contended that the devastation
hardened Khmer Rouge attitudes and made for vengeful and violent behavior. Furthermore,
when the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975, the country was shattered, starvation and
disease were already rampant—8,000 people a day were dying in Phnom Penh
alone—and these residual effects of phase one were certain to take a toll in the
years to follow. In short, focusing solely on Pol Pot and making the U.S. an innocent
bystander in the Cambodian genocide requires well-constructed blinders.
A second problem for the media is that following the ouster of Pol Pot by the
Vietnamese in December 1978, Pol Pot’s forces found a safe haven in Thailand, a U.S.
client state, and for the next 15 years or more were aided and protected there by Thai,
Chinese, British, and U.S. authorities. The U.S. backed Pol Pot’s retention of
Cambodia’s seat in the UN after his ouster (which was greeted with outrage in the
West and was the grounds for intensified economic and political warfare against Vietnam).
This support was designed to hurt Vietnam, which had occupied Cambodia and installed the
friendly Hun Sen government in place of Pol Pot. When Vietnam sought a settlement in the
late 1980s, the U.S. insisted strenuously that Pol Pot be included in the "peace
process" with "the same rights, freedoms and opportunities" as any other
party. In anticipation of a settlement, in the early 1990s the U.S. and its allies not
only protected Pol Pot’s forces from defeat by the Cambodian army, they helped him
rebuild his strength and standing. During this period, the U.S. (and UN) refused to allow
the Pol Pot regime to be referred to as genocidal. In order to oust the Vietnam-supported
government, the U.S. strove to preserve Pol Pot and make him a significant force in the
political struggle in Cambodia.
It is obvious that its long, active support of Pol Pot, as well as its role in the
first phase of the genocide, makes the U.S. sponsorship of a Cambodia Documentation Center
to assemble evidence solely on Pol Pot’s crimes, and its recent alleged interest in
bringing him to trial, dishonest, hypocritical, and problematic. Wasn’t the U.S.
support from 1979-1995 legitimizing? Isn’t the U.S. implicated in his numerous crimes
in cross-border raids, 1979-1998, which killed large numbers of Cambodians?
A third problem for the media is the biased selectivity in the choice of villain and of
victims worthy of (crocodile) tears. The obvious comparison, and the one I will explore
here, is with Suharto. Suharto came to power in 1965 accompanied by a slaughter of over
700,000 people. This was cold-blooded killing, designed to wipe out a mass movement that
was seen as a political threat, without even a vengeance motive. Suharto also invaded East
Timor in 1975, and over the years was responsible for the death of perhaps 200,000 of a
population of some 700,000. So Suharto was guilty not only of a huge internal slaughter
comparable in scale to that of Pol Pot, he also engineered a genocide in a neighboring
But of course all Suharto’s killing was done with the approval and active support,
or acquiescence, of the U.S. government and the West in general. In the case of the
internal genocidal effort of 1965-66, the U.S. had already armed and trained the
Indonesian military, urged it to act, gave Suharto and his associates lists of people to
be killed, and both in private and public exulted in the outcome. He destroyed not only a
Communist party, but the only mass-based political organization in the country, one that
"had won widespread support not as a revolutionary party but as an organization
defending the interests of the poor within the existing system" (Harold Crouch, Army
and Politics in Indonesia). The U.S. has never liked mass-based political parties that
work in the interests of the poor, whether in Vietnam, Indonesia, Guatemala, or Nicaragua,
where 45 years of Somoza family elite rule was fine, but the Sandinista party, trying to
apply what the Latin American Studies Association observers at the 1984 election called
the "logic of the majority," was intolerable and had to be removed by force.
Suharto also aligned Indonesia with the West in the Cold War, and opened
Indonesia’s door to foreign investors. His mass murders of 1965-1966 were therefore
accompanied by increased IMF and World Bank loans, along with direct U.S. aid; his
invasion of East Timor was protected against serious counter-measures in the UN by U.S.
diplomats (Moynihan bragged about this in his autobiography), and that illegal occupation
has not interfered one iota with U.S. support of this mass murderer.
In contrast with those pursuing a "logic of the majority" or a "utopia
of equality," Suharto engaged in a class cleansing by mass murder, and then offered
an "open door utopia for investors"—and a looting utopia for himself, his
family, and his cronies. It follows from the difference in utopian objective that his
victims were not "worthy," and that he is a statesperson rather than a villain
in the eyes of the Western establishment. But this rests on a blatant elite and immoral
double standard, reproduced in the mainstream media.
Into the Black Hole
In discussing Pol Pot’s recent death and villainy, how did the mainstream media
handle the problem of the first phase of the Cambodian genocide in which the U.S. killed
vast numbers and left a devastated country? The answer is: by a virtually complete
blackout. Aside from a reference by Peter Jennings on "ABC News" to the
"unpleasant" fact that our bombing had helped bring Pol Pot to power, I did not
find a single editorial or news reference to the first phase: for the media,
Cambodia’s problems started in April 1975, and all deaths from starvation and
disease, as well as executions, are allocated entirely to Pol Pot and his communist
utopian fanaticism. In the New York Times, the Khmer Rouge "emptied the cities
and marched Cambodians to the countryside to starve," and troubles and genocide began
only with the KR takeover (ed., April 17, 1998).
Many editorialists and commentators did refer to Pol Pot’s maoist and Parisian
ideological training as influencing his behavior, but not his and the Khmer Rouge’s
experience under the first phase bombings. An exceptionally sleazy editorial in the Boston
Globe (April 17, 1998) states that Pol Pot, "having half-absorbed the history of
the French Revolution and the tenets of the French left while a student in Paris, returned
to his native land determined to outdo maoism in the name of equality," but the
editorial never mentions any on-the-ground events before April 1975 that might have
affected Khmer Rouge behavior. Stephen Morris, in an Op Ed in the New York Times
(April 17), refers to the bombings, but only to deny their influence, arguing that as the
Vietnamese were also bombed heavily but didn’t kill on a large scale, this
demonstrates that it was communist ideology that explains Pol Pot’s killings
(although why the Vietnamese, also communists, didn’t kill for reasons of their
ideology is not explained).
Henry Kissinger, the U.S. foreign policy official who engineered the first phase of the
genocide, the "sideshow" to the Vietnam War, and who was therefore responsible
for scores of thousands of deaths, was a guest on CNN and NPR, invited to reflect on Pol
Pot’s crimes. He suggested on CNN that Pol Pot might have been assassinated to
prevent a trial that would have implicated others in war crimes. It would never occur to
CNN, NPR, or the mainstream media in general, that inviting Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s
foreign minister, to discuss the Nixon-Kissinger slaughter of the first phase, would have
been a parallel use of sources and equally justifiable morally.
U.S. Support, 1979-1995
The media handled the U.S. "tilt" toward Pol Pot mainly by evasion,
essentially blacking out the years 1979-1995, or vaguely intimating that the U.S. had
supported him for reasons of "realpolitik," but quickly moving on without giving
details as to the nature and magnitude of support or offering any reflections on the
morality of backing "another Hitler." The New York Times’ April 17
summary of "Pol Pot’s Rise and Fall" lists for "1979-1990: Pol Pot and
Khmer Rouge are given refuge at Thai border where they fight back against the
Vietnamese." "Given refuge" is dishonest: they were given substantial
economic and military aid and political support. The Times’ main reporter on
Cambodia in early 1998, Seth Mydans, repeatedly blacks out U.S. support, referring to
"the decade long civil war that followed" Pol Pot’s ouster (April, 13), and
a 19- year "guerilla insurgency in the jungles of western and northern Cambodia"
The April 17 Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, and Los
Angeles Times editorials on the death of Pol Pot, uniformly moralistic about his
crimes and regretful at his escape from justice, all carefully avoid mentioning the long
U.S. support of the criminal. The Chicago Tribune not only failed to mention U.S.
support, it summarizes the U.S. "linked" history with Cambodia as follows:
"After the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule and genocide, the United States and its
allies pumped millions of dollars into Cambodia to help rebuild and to hold
The one New York Times exception to an evasion of this issue was an article by
Elizabeth Becker, which gives some details on how Carter, Reagan, and Bush aided and
protected Pol Pot, and cites Diane Orentlicher on how this would compromise any proposed
prosecution. But Becker rationalizes the support of Pol Pot in terms of Cold War
imperatives, and she takes the Clinton pursuit of Pol Pot as a war criminal seriously,
seeing it "driven in part by misgivings over past American support," based on no
evidence whatsoever (but featured in her title "Pol Pot’s End Won’t Stop
U.S. Pursuit of His Circle," April 17).
Suharto and Pol Pot
Pol Pot was described in the editorials and news columns of April 1998 as
"crazed," a "killer," "war criminal," "mass
murderer," "blood-soaked," and as having engineered a "reign of
terror" and "genocide." Suharto has been in the news in 1998 also, as
Indonesia is in a financial crisis and has been negotiating with banks and the IMF for
loans. But during this crisis, and in earlier years as well, while Suharto is occasionally
referred to as a "dictator" and running an "authoritarian" regime, he
is often a "moderate" and even "at heart benign" (London Economist),
never a "killer" or "mass murderer" or one responsible for
"genocide." The linguistic double standard is maintained reliably throughout the
Less obvious but equally interesting is the difference in willingness to identify the
responsible parties for the killings of Pol Pot and Suharto. In the case of Pol Pot, there
is no uncertainty: editorials and news articles uniformly make him and the Khmer Rouge
leadership clearly and unambiguously responsible for the killings of 1975-78. He was the
"man who slaughtered two million" (USA Today), "the
executioner" (Boston Globe), who "presided over the deaths" of his
victims (Washington Post), "the man who drove Cambodia to ruin" (New
But in the case of the good genocidist, we move to an ambiguous responsibility, which
means none at all: "a 1965 coup led to the massacres of hundreds of thousands of
supposed communists" (ed., NYT, August 23, 1996), where we have the passive
voice and no agent doing the killing; or "a wave of violence that took up to 500,000
lives and led Suharto to seize power from Sukarno in a military coup" (Seth Mydans,
August 7, 1996), where the massacre not only has no agent, but is falsely situated before
the takeover of power by Suharto.
In a later piece Mydans states that "More than 500,000 Indonesians are estimated
to have died in a purge of leftists in 1965, the year Mr. Suharto came to power"
(April 8, 1997). Note once again the passive voice, never used in connection with Pol Pot,
the word "purge" instead of slaughter or massacre, and the continued failure to
identify the agent.
In the case of East Timor, also, the Times regularly employs the passive voice
and is uncertain about the source of the killing: "This is one of the world’s
sadder places, where 100,000 to 200,000 people died from 1974 in a brutal civil war and
the consequent invasion through combat, execution, disease, and starvation…" (Steve
Erlanger, October 21, 1990). In addition to the lack of clear agent, there is serious
misreprentation of the facts—the civil war was short and left small numbers dead; and
the invasion was not "consequent" to a brutal civil war, except in Indonesian
This pattern parallels exactly the finding in Manufacturing Consent that in the
case of "worthy" victims, like Jerzy Popieluzko in communist Poland, the Times
and its confreres are unrelenting in the search for responsibility at the top, but in the
case of "unworthy" victims, like the four religious women murdered by
"our" client government in El Salvador in 1980, the media lose their interest in
identifying those in charge.
Another important difference, also, is in the willingness to explain away the killings.
With Pol Pot, the background of the first phase of the genocide is completely blacked out
in the mainstream account—there is no qualification to his responsibility as a killer
because his forces had undergone terrible damage and sought vengeance for the crimes they
had suffered (nor should there be); nor are any deaths in Pol Pot’s years of rule to
be explained by the starvation and disease already pervasive in April 1975. No, the only
mentionable background is his Paris training and communist fanaticism.
With Suharto we encounter a whole new world of contextualized apologetics. For many
years the main apologetic formula was that the 1965-1966 killings were "a result of a
failed coup" (Shenon, NYT, August 27, 1993), which "touched off a wave of
violence" (Mydans, August 7, 1996), or followed an "onslaught from the
left" (Henry Kamm, June 17, 1979). This formula, invoked repeatedly, suggests that
the holocaust was provoked and thus maybe justified by a prior "onslaught." The
writers never explain why a failed coup could possibly justify a mass slaughter, but the
hint is left hanging. In more recent years, usually in connection with the explanation and
rationalization of the continuation of a dictatorship, the media regularly juxtapose
political repression with "stability" and "growth": "the signs of
his success are everywhere," although Suharto has brought these gains "by
maintaining a tight grip on power and suppressing public criticism and political
opposition" (Mydans, July 29, 1996). This is the kind of context that the Times
would never give to Castro, let alone Pol Pot, but it shows an apologetics that runs deep.
This apologetics, of course, extends to the Suharto invasion and occupation of East
Timor. For years, the New York Times has claimed that Indonesia invaded in the
midst of a civil war, when in fact that civil war was over well before the invasion. The
paper’s news coverage of East Timor fell to zero as the Indonesian attacks and
killings in East Timor intensified in 1977-1978, and although Indonesia still occupies
East Timor in violation of standing UN rulings, the paper’s reporters repeatedly
refer to East Timor as a "disputed province" and East Timorese resistance as
"separatist," thereby internalizing and explicitly legitimizing the
David Sanger recently differentiated Suharto and Saddam Hussein, saying "Mr.
Suharto is not hoarding anthrax or threatening to invade Australia" ("Indonesian
Faceoff," NYT, March 8, 1998). That is, Suharto’s invasion, mass killing,
and continued illegal occupation of East Timor is given zero weight, and his slaughter of
a million people within Indonesia some years back is also not mentioned, although the Times
has not forgotten Pol Pot’s slaughter of decades back which still calls for criminal
prosecution. This tells us all we need to know about how good and bad genocidists fare in
the Western propaganda system.
The Unheld Trial
Given the compromised U.S. position as joint Cambodian genocidist and occasional
supporter of Pol Pot, why have Clinton and company been keen on bringing Pol Pot to trial?
One reason is that, given Pol Pot’s ill-health and the likely lags in implementation,
a trial was almost surely never going to take place. Thus credit could be gained for the
interest in a criminal prosecution, without any unpleasantness that an actual trial might
entail. Beyond this, it could be deemed necessary to call for the trial of such an eminent
criminal as Pol Pot to sustain the war crimes tribunal now at work on Bosnia, which is
designed for service to the U.S. and great powers elsewhere. It may also assuage worries
of liberals in congress concerned about U.S. support of repression in Mexico and
non-democracy in Saudi Arabia (etc.) to have Clinton tell Latin Americans about how
important we regard human rights and democracy. Clinton may not call for the trial of
Pinochet while lecturing in Chile, but if he is eager to go after Pol Pot, his heart is
clearly in the right place.