Cambodia, Timor, and Ideology

Chris Green’s comments and queries appended to an article of mine on ZNet afford an opportunity to try, once again, to explain a few simple and quite important things that are evidently very hard to understand, perhaps because of the enormous power of the doctrinal system, even among those who recognize its power and are committed to resist it. I’ll repeat a few crucial facts before turning to the comments and queries. Apologies for the repetition, and the length, but it seems necessary. I’ll be glad to stop doing it after many years of effort (of mine, and Ed Herman’s) if some simple, clear, and quite significant facts are finally understood.

Four topics arise in this connection: (1) Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years, (2) Cambodia immediately before these years, (3) Cambodia immediately after these years, and (4) East Timor. It should be evident why these topics arose dramatically in the 1970s. And apart from the first, they still do, for reasons to which I’ll return. 

Of the four topics, the last three were of great significance at the time. The first of the four, in contrast, was of far less significance. The reasons are very clear, and consistently suppressed. In the last three cases, there was a great deal that we could have done to bring the horrors to an end, since the US played a crucial role in perpetrating them. In the case of Cambodia under the KR, in contrast, no one had any proposal as to what could be done. And when the Vietnamese did end the atrocities just as they were peaking, they were harshly punished, topic # (4). It follows that the last three were of vastly greater significance. That should be clear with no further comment. 

We therefore learn a lot about ourselves – our society, our culture, our moral values — from the fact that the first was virtually the sole topic of attention, indeed massive attention, and much outrage, real or professed. The others were ignored or the facts were denied. These conclusions are documented in extensive detail in the joint writings of Edward Herman’s and mine in 1977-78 that elicited the recent discussions, once again. It should be stressed again that we discussed all four topics, focusing particularly on a detailed and very explicit comparison of (1) and (4), Cambodia under the KR and East Timor, a very natural and appropriate comparison as we discussed. There is a huge industry seeking (and failing) to find some error in our account of (1), but hardly a word on our discussion of the far more significant topic (4), East Timor. That alone is highly revealing, as is the fact that the pattern continues until the present.


Side comment: The reason for the failure to find problems in our discussion of (1), despite impressive efforts, is quite simple, as I already explained: first, it was reviewed before publication by leading Cambodia scholars, and second, its focus was quite narrow. As we repeatedly and explicitly explained, we were drawing no conclusions about the reality of what was happening under the KR, but were keeping to a narrower though quite instructive topic: how the range of evidence available, which we reviewed, reached the public after it passed through the doctrinal filters. That of course is quite independent of what the reality might have been, by simple logic. Hence claims about the reality, true or false, are almost entirely irrelevant to what we wrote: again, simple logic. About the closest we came to expressing our own judgment of the reality was to suggest that attention should be paid to the conclusions of State Department Intelligence, recognized by serious analysts to be the most knowledgeable source – conclusions that we quoted and that were ignored in mainstream commentary.


Returning to the main theme, what was true in the late ‘70s remains largely the case today. Topics (2), (3), (4) remain of far greater significance than (1) (Cambodia under the KR). It’s fine to learn about Cambodia under the KR if one happens to be interested in the topic, just as it’s fine to learn about the crimes of the Mongols. And it’s very easy to do so, since the topic has been intensively investigated. There is an abundance of rich and careful and very serious scholarship. As Cambodia scholars have observed, we know more about Cambodia under the KR than about all the rest of Cambodian history combined. In contrast, there is almost nothing about the far more significant topics (2) and (3), Cambodia before and after the KR. Just to illustrate, the most important study of the horrendous US bombing campaign targeting rural Cambodia in the early 1970s, by Owen Taylor and Ben Kiernan, appeared in the US only once, to my knowledge, when I had it posted on ZNet. Similarly, the post-KR period, when the US and UK turned to direct military and diplomatic support for the KR, is scarcely known.

The fourth case, East Timor, is a little different. There are two aspects to consider: first, what actually happened from the Indonesian invasion in 1975 until the vicious occupation was finally called off by President Clinton in September 1999?; and second, how did the US and its allies react to the crimes, judged to be genocidal when finally investigated by a Truth Commission? The second aspect is almost entirely concealed. There has been almost no inquiry, though enough has leaked out to know that the US authorized the invasion and provided critical military and diplomatic support from the first moment, joined by its allies. Evidently it is considered too ugly a story to investigate, although – or perhaps because — its significance can hardly be in doubt. 

On the first aspect, there have by now been valuable studies. The most careful and important is the book Independence of East Timor, by Clinton Fernandes, an Australian scholar and former Indonesia analyst for Australian Intelligence, by far the best informed source. His book is virtually unknown in the US. I’ve cited it a few times. Maybe there is something elsewhere, but surely not much. 

To this day the US crimes in East Timor are not only ignored, but denied. Typical is the reference to East Timor by Samantha Power, Obama’s new UN Ambassador, in her highly praised best-seller on US failure to respond to crimes of others; crucially, only of others. East Timor is mentioned, and the US is criticized for looking away. In fact, Washington looked right there, carefully and intensely, from the first moment, continuing to support the crimes until the final paroxysm in late 1999, when Clinton terminated them with a phrase, as could have been done for 25 years. More crucial facts that pass in silence.

Of the four topics, the last three remain very important today, because they tell us a great deal about US policy and about the reigning intellectual and moral culture in the West, obviously topics of great significance, which bear quite directly on contemporary events, and future ones. In contrast, while it is fine to learn about Cambodia under the KR, there is little further significance. Finally, of the four topics, only one receives attention – in fact, enormous attention at the time and since: the one of least significance, Cambodia under the KR. 

The reasons for these dramatic and revealing facts are entirely obvious: the crimes in Cambodia under the KR can be attributed to an enemy (as long as we refuse to look at the earlier years), and we could do nothing about them, while in the other three cases the crimes are substantially ours and we could have done a great deal about them. Therefore the first must be the focus of extensive inquiry and the target of endless and passionate outrage, while the latter must be suppressed, ignored, or simply denied. Furthermore, the pattern is far more general, as has been documented to the skies. 

The lessons are clear, important, and evidently quite difficult to comprehend, given the extraordinary power of the western doctrinal systems. 

The comments that follow below in reply to Chris Green on ZNet keep solely to Cambodia under the KR, by far the least significant case then and now, for the reasons just outlined. Nevertheless, they are worth considering. 

Green: I can see the legitimacy of most of the criticisms of the critics of Chomsky/Herman on Cambodia. But when Zizek makes the claims he does about Chomsky/Cambodia, are they completely torn from thin air or do they have even a slight basis in reality? In the Political Economy of Human Rights vol. II, Chomsky/Herman do accept as plasuible the picture painted by Norodom Siahnouk that KR rule featured "serious repression" along with "constructive social programs" for the poor. Would Chomsky and Herman stand by that statement today?

As I wrote, I would gladly republish what we wrote today, and I presume Herman would too; and 10 years later we in fact did virtually that, reviewing the criticisms in Manufacturing Consent (1988, republished 2002).

The question raised here is, however, a very different one: would we describe Cambodia under the KR today as we did in 1977-78? It’s an odd question for two reasons. One is that we said almost nothing about the matter then, as already explained (once again). Second, those who did actually write about Cambodia at the time would surely revise their accounts today, and have, after the huge flood of information that appeared after the Vietnamese drove out the KR. In fact, current scholarly work on Cambodia under the KR relies almost completely on this evidence. There is, then, no reason to address the question to us, apart from the powerful grip of the doctrinal system.

To respond nevertheless: to the very limited extent that we said anything about what was actually happening, we too would of course revise it. In particular, the cited comment may seem less plausible in the light of the information subsequently available. I say “may seem” because the subsequent information mostly has to do with 1978, when KR atrocities sharply increased, peaking when the Vietnamese invasion terminated them; and Sihanouk’s comment referred to the earlier period, virtually the only one that we covered because when we were writing in 1977 and 1978 the atrocities of 1978 were barely known.

Green: Obviously "serious repression" is a bit of an understatement about what went on under the KR.

We went far beyond “serious repression.” That’s even clear in the excerpts to which the comment alludes.

Green: And I'm wondering if it is fair to say that while Chomsky/Herman recognied that the KR were bad, they perhaps didn't realize how bad they were. Also in another part of the book, they seem to be trying to prove that Khmer peasants didn't experience terror because they didn't greet the Vietnamese inva ders as liberators. I'm writing these things because I think the defense of Chomsky/Herman on Cambodia needs to be a little more thorough and while most of the criticisms of their Cambodia stuff is idiotic and dishonest, there are one or two aspects of them that are not completely without reason. I mean Chomsky/herman use the words "terror" "repression," grizzly reality, "etc. in vague fashion to describe KR rule during their writings in the late 70's but I wonder if they weren't a little too cautious. They didn't really embrace any of the numbers thrown around about the number of KR caused deaths (except perhaps the thousands figure after Jean Lacoutre's article in 76').

We didn’t embrace Lacouture’s figure, nor did he give a figure. That’s a common misreading. We did cite the figure thousands killed, but that was from Nayan Chanda, correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, probably the most respected journalist covering Cambodia in those years. And we didn’t “embrace” that figure. Rather, we cited it along with many others up to many millions killed, comparing the evidence available (including the wide range of figures) with what passed through the media filter. That’s a different task.

Green: I've thought about trying to do a more thorough investigation of the Cambodia/Chomsky thing myself and write something up but I don't have the resources or the time for it. I wonder if Chomsky/Herman's writings during the 70& #39;s about KR rule mesh with the later scholarship of people like Michael Vickery. Maybe I should read Vickery's book before commenting about these things but still I think it is an important matter to explore and not merely concentrate on the East Timor aspect or the genocidal US bombing of Camobdia and the other things. 

The phrase “merely concentrate” is rather strange, since among the four topics discussed, these are the topics that are ignored.

Again, it is fine to explore the specific question of Cambodia under the KR, and very easy to do so, because there is extensive and valuable scholarship. As already mentioned, of the four relevant topics this is the only one that has been intensively studied, then and since; and by any rational measure it was and is the least significant of the four.

Again, the reason for the extreme disparity is hardly obscure. It should be considered seriously, with its manifold implications for topics of great significance, concerning who and what we are. 

1 comment

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