Cambodia: media lies exposed
By Tony Iltis
Since fighting between the forces of Cambodia's two prime ministers broke out in Phnom Penh in early July, the establishment media have loudly condemned what they call a "coup" by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, the leader of the Cambodian People's Party, against FUNCINPEC leader Prince Ranariddh.
Distortions and outright lies have been the main currency of this media campaign. Particularly shameless has been the Australian, which even ran a cartoon showing Hun Sen as attempting to conceal a heap of skulls that recalled the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period.
This turned history upside down, since Hun Sen led the Cambodian forces that, with Vietnamese help, overthrew the Khmer Rouge, while FUNCINPEC though the 1980s was part of a military alliance with the Pol Pot forces. Moreover, it was Ranariddh's attempts to re-establish an alliance with the Khmer Rouge that were the immediate cause of the latest fighting (see box, page 20).
The facts have not stopped references to "the killing fields" becoming a media cliché. References to distorted accounts of Cambodian history — myths created by yesterday's propaganda needs — are being supplemented by a new set of myths, such as that of the west, through the 1991-93 United Nations intervention, rescuing Cambodia from the killing fields.
Establishment media accounts of Cambodia's recent past focus on the genocidal rule of Pol Pot's Communist Party of Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) between 1975 and 1979. This regime could be used by Cold War propagandists as the ultimate proof of Communist barbarity and an excuse for the US government having waged war against "Communism" in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).
What actually happened in Cambodia during the '70s contradicts the myths created by this propaganda onslaught:
* Pol Pot's horrific rule was preceded by devastating US aggression. In 1969, the US launched an unprovoked bombing of Cambodia (with whom the US was not at war) which lasted until 1975.
* The Cambodian resistance took the ultra-violent direction that it did in 1975 only because of the destruction and dislocation created by the US war. The Pol Pot holocaust, far from being a justification for the US holocaust, was the direct result.
* Cambodia was liberated from the horrors of Pol Pot, not by intervention from the western "democracies", but by intervention from Communist Vietnam and a force of Cambodian Communists.
* Following the overthrow of Pol Pot, the US and other western powers and China rearmed the Khmer Rouge and installed them in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. They also encouraged the alliance which was formed between the Khmer Rouge and Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC.
To disentangle reality from the myths about Cambodia, it is worthwhile looking further into Cambodia's past. In the 19th century, Indochina was colonised by the French.
Vietnam was France's Indochina colony of primary economic and political importance; Cambodia and Laos were held as strategic buffer states. Consequently, there was a lack of economic and social development.
Much of the peasantry continued living an autarkic, isolated existence until the upheavals of the 1970s. The elite were bureaucrats in the French administration who were drawn partly from the pre-capitalist ruling classes, but more from among educated Vietnamese and Chinese and Vietnamese business people — thus helping to entrench national animosities.
In 1941 Japanese troops occupied Indochina with the cooperation of the pro-Nazi Vichy French administration. The Communist resistance in Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, was recognised as part of the anti-Axis alliance.
In Cambodia, the French crowned a new king to head their puppet administration — Norodom Sihanouk. Much of the western mythology around Cambodia centres on Sihanouk, who is generally portrayed as a god-king loved by his people and a tireless fighter for Cambodia's sovereignty. In fact he has always been an unprincipled opportunist willing to serve any master.
In August 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence but Britain, Japan and the US all intervened to buttress the returning French forces.
In Cambodia the anti-French struggle was taken up by peasant insurgents. Some followed urban elite leaders with modernising, nationalist ideologies, known as Khmer Serei. Others, known as Khmer Issarak, followed peasant military leaders trained by the Vietnamese Communists.
In 1954 the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. At an international conference in Geneva, the US, France, Britain, the USSR and China worked out a partition whereby the Communists retained control of northern Vietnam but the rest of Indochina was under neo-colonial forces.
Vietnam was supposed to be reunited after elections in 1956, but US intervention stopped this from happening. This led to one of the most destructive wars in human history, known in the west as the Vietnam War and in the Indochinese countries as the American War. Sihanouk was retained as ruler of the Cambodian neo-colonial regime.
During the 1950s, the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), formed from the anti-French Issarak movement, was forced to operate underground but ran in Sihanouk's elections as the People's Party.
In the 1960s Cambodia became a one-party state under Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum. The KPRP/People's Party was subjected to intensified repression. Under these conditions the party fell under the leadership of a clique of French-educated intellectuals who renamed it the Communist Party of Kampuchea. These were Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Son Sen and Yun Yat.
Sihanouk's foreign policy was one of shifting alliances with the US, China and Vietnam. Keeping Cambodia out of the US-Vietnam War became Sihanouk's justification for opportunism, a line now part of accepted establishment history.
However, frustrated at their inability to crush the Vietnamese, US leaders Nixon and Kissinger ordered the carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos. In 1970 a US-backed coup replaced Sihanouk with pro-US generals.
An anti-US alliance was formed between Sihanouk and the Communists, although Sihanouk had no forces inside Cambodia. The Communists were divided between Beijing and Hanoi-aligned factions and between factions led by People's Party/Issarak elements and the Pol Pot group, known as the Khmer Rouge.
To gain the upper hand, Pol Pot appealed to anti-urban and anti-modern sentiments that traditionally existed in the more isolated strata of the peasantry and were exacerbated by the US bombing and the perception that the cities were pro-US. The first act of the Khmer Rouge on gaining power was to empty the cities, creating many of the regime's victims.
While the Khmer Rouge attempt to create a pre-technological utopia may have had some support from the peasant base, its main impetus came from the ideology of the Pol Pot clique, which combined Cultural Revolution Maoism, ultra-nationalism and some of the wackier theories they had picked up in Paris. The ultra-nationalist dream of a greater Cambodia covering half of Vietnam had deep roots in the Cambodian elite going back to the Khmer Serei.
Vietnam's initial response to Khmer Rouge attempts at realising this dream was merely to defend their borders.
The crushing of an uprising of anti-Pol Pot Cambodian Communists in 1978 created a shift in Vietnamese policy, as there was no longer the hope that Pol Pot would be overthrown from within and there were now large numbers of Cambodian refugees, including the surviving leaders of the uprising, in Vietnam.
On gaining power with Vietnamese help, the anti-Pol Pot Communists revived the Party's old name, the KPRP (later CPP).
The western policy of maintaining the Khmer Rouge along the Thai-Cambodian border was motivated by a shift in Cold War politics to a de facto alliance between China and the west directed against the USSR and Vietnam. China's policy had been to use the Khmer Rouge to bleed Vietnam, and it served western interests to continue this.
The west also imposed a blockade against the Indochina countries; most of the money from aid agencies' "Cambodia appeals" went to bolster the border camps.
In 1981, the US and its allies stitched together something called the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK), with the pre-Pol Pot elite providing the political figureheads and Pol Pot providing the military muscle. Predictably, the CGDK was headed by Sihanouk.
Despite the devastation of the 1970s, the blockade and the CGDK-Khmer Rouge attacks along the border, the KPRP regime, headed by Hun Sen, managed to begin the reconstruction of Cambodia. Some of the poorer peasantry even gained a higher living standard than ever before.
However, the collapse of the Soviet bloc left Cambodia completely isolated. This was the context of the Paris peace agreement inspired by a US member of Congress, Stephen Solarz, obediently promoted by Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans.
The aim of the Solarz plan was to dismantle the KPRP state and install the CGDK politicians. In return for ending the war and the blockade, Cambodia would be placed under UN occupation for two years, and the CPP would have to run in elections against the western-funded CGDK politicians.
Some US$3 billion was spent by the UN during the occupation. The country was also opened to western capital. With government ministers on salaries of US$30-40 a month, it is little wonder that the military and the public service became infected by corruption.
Since the UN's departure in 1993, Cambodia has been ruled by an uneasy coalition between the former CGDK politicians of Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC and the CPP.
The recent fighting between Hun Sen and Ranariddh stems from attempts by Ranariddh to bring the Khmer Rouge into the Cambodian military and change the balance of forces within the Cambodian state.