In Defense of Henry Kissinger: Cambodia and Pol Pot
The truth is the collective Cambodian political culture makes the war criminal Henry Kissinger look like Mother Theresa.
By Nate Thayer
February 15, 2016
Henry Kissinger has gotten a bad rap for the horrific crimes against humanity, war crimes, and mass murder that is the signature of modern Cambodian history.
Kissinger didn’t do it. It was Cambodians who killed Cambodians.
Those that suggest otherwise are complicit with mass murderers, and the nuanced complexities that contributed to Cambodian leaders killing millions of their own people who did not deserve to die.
The mass murder that killed more than a quarter of the Cambodian population in the past generation was not the result of the loathsome actions of Henry Kissinger. It was Pol Pot, and the Cambodian political culture which abetted, supported, and fought alongside him, before and since Pol Pot did what he did during his 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days in power, that are responsible for the unspeakable suffering that has rained on the country for 45 years.
That very phrase—“Cambodians killing Cambodians”—grates the very soul and self-identity of most Cambodians, who deny to this day that any Cambodian—including Pol Pot—could have been behind the mass murder, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture which targeted millions and killed at least 1.7 million under Pol Pot’s rule in power between 1975 and 1979.
In addition, at least another one million died in the wars that preceded and succeeded Pol Pot’s tenure. They were killed by Cambodians, too. Then there are the uncountable tens of thousands who have been killed for political reasons by an uninterrupted series of Cambodian governments that succeeded and preceded Pol Pot.
Cambodians blame all their ills on the dark, nefarious hand of foreigners. It is an epic self-delusion that prohibits them from holding their own leaders responsible for the country being a collapsed mafia state—the last rogue nation-state in Asia.
It is the corruption and extraordinary self-serving greed in the hearts of the Cambodian leadership that is at the soul of Cambodia’s failed political culture that has been the dirty little secret that Cambodians refuse to confront. The structure of Cambodia’s political culture, subservient to and built on patronage to the powerful family cabals of political leaders, incompetent technocrats, wealthy companies, armed thugs, nepotism, and other personal interests of the leadership that has zero concern for the future of Cambodia as a stable country (or at least the courage to confront evil staring them in the face) that has eviscerated the rule of law, equal opportunity, access to justice, and economic opportunity, which is the root of the problem.
This has relegated the country, in 2016, to the last running sore of Asia. It has nothing to do with foreigners or foreign intervention or foreign plots.
Cambodia’s suffering and Cambodia’s failure is the fault of Cambodians.
The truth is the collective Cambodian political culture makes the war criminal Henry Kissinger look like Mother Theresa.
But numerous useful idiots, politically motivated minions of long collapsed ideologies, clueless half-interested observers, wide-eyed third world travellers who have read too many Noam Chomsky books in college, and misguided sympathizers for Cambodia’s very real suffering are under the misimpression that somehow Cambodia’s collapse is someone’s fault other than Cambodian leaders themselves.
That includes people running for president of the United States.
This week, U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said “Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, over — through Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in who then butchered some 3 million innocent people – one of the worst genocides in the history of the world.” For context, Sanders’ has not a single foreign policy advisor on his campaign staff. That is frightening for someone seeking to be leader of the Free World (and I am a fan of Bernie, save when he makes ignorant, goofy, uninformed declarations like the above).
So here is hoping to put to bed as utter poppycock the erroneous sound bite synopsis by Bernie Sanders of Cambodian history .
This week, Cambodian ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman, Sok Ey San, lauded Sander’s comments, saying Henry Kissinger was responsible for the mass murders in Cambodia under Pol Pot. “If we look at the history of Cambodia, Mr. Sanders is correct. Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk and was a puppet for the US. The US government dropped a lot of bombs on Cambodia, and after that, the Khmer Rouge regime was able to take over. Why did the US government, like other world powers, drop bombs on Cambodia and destroy Cambodian economics and culture?”
No, Mr. Sok Ey San, Sanders is not correct. And, you Sir, are the mouthpiece for a gaggle of ex-Pol Pot loyalists who were complicit in the mass murder of your own people.
For 800 years, a series of Cambodian governments have invited a host of foreign countries to prop up their rule after being offered a quid pro quo to either rip-off their citizens to line their personal pockets, sell off Cambodian sovereignty in exchange to hold on to a piece of power, as unskilled, inferior maneuvers to outwit their more properly organized neighboring sovereign nations, or to murder their own citizenry in the interest of maintaining short-term personal power.
The current dictator in chief, Hun Sen, has ruled Cambodia for 31 years, making him the world’s longest serving head of state. He did not gain or retain that status by generating popular support from his people.
Hun Sen was a Pol Pot military commander and loyalist.
Hun Sen joined the communist party ruled by Pol Pot in 1969, prior to the overthrow of Sihanouk and the start of U.S. bombing. He was a loyal cadre of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and remained a senior military officer well after hundreds of thousands were executed, died of starvation, or succumbed to overwork from forced labour and disease. It was only when Hun Sen himself was next on the list of Pol Pot’s targets, that he fled to Vietnam. He was later, in 1979, installed in power as a puppet leader by the Vietnamese communists. Since he took power himself, Hun Sen has murdered hundreds of opposition figures, imprisoned any critics that prove a threat to his rule, executed political opponents, launched coup d’etats to overthrow elected governments that deposed him, and maintained a decades long policy of systematic torture, killing, political assassination, and land confiscation.
This is all while Cambodia has been a failed nation-state entirely dependent on foreign aid to prop up his rule and provide the rudimentary services that every government should provide its citizenry.
Hun Sen has also blamed the Americans for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, with one hand outstretched to beg for American money and the other arm shaking his fist blaming the U.S. for the failures of his own government.
Let’s get this out-of-the-way: Henry Kissinger is a war criminal. This is not a defense of Kissinger or Kissinger’s nefarious plots in Cambodia and elsewhere in the world.
It is an objection to the Cambodian government, and its larger political culture, being given a free pass to blame the countries problems on foreigners.
The dominant trope—forwarded mostly by now grown up foreign adults who have since reached adulthood and come to their senses—is that it was the U.S. bombing of Cambodia between 1969 and 1973 that made Cambodians have to kill nearly ¼ of their own people.
But Henry Kissinger had exactly nothing to do with creating the Khmer Rouge; had exactly nothing to do with creating the genocide in Cambodia that took place after Pol Pot seized power on April 17, 1975; and is not responsible for the failed state that is Cambodia in 2016.
Kissinger is a supine European commie pinko compared to Cambodia’s modern collective, competing political leadership.
Let’s be more precisely clear: Cambodians killed Cambodians. The violence and sociopathic predilection to impose suffering in mainstream Cambodian political culture is astonishing.
For 800 years, Cambodians have tried to blame their sad failure to establish a functioning nation-state on foreigners. Cambodians blaming their own problems on foreigners has, like a pinball machine, bounced around from the Thais to the Vietnamese to the French to the Americans to the Chinese to the United Nations and back again.
This is the fact: The failure of Cambodians to run their own affairs and create a functioning nation-state was and is not caused by foreigners. It is because Cambodians have proved themselves incompetent in running the affairs of their own country that serves the interests of their people for centuries.
The bombing of Cambodia was horrific.
But it was far less than the bombs dropped on neighboring Laos and Vietnam. After the rightful American defeat in Indochina in 1975, neither of those countries went on to commit mass murder.
That is because mass murder, war crimes, crimes against humanity, human rights abuses, and torture are as Cambodian as Apple Pie is to the United States.
Here is another harsh truth: In 2016, Cambodia is of no value to any country anywhere.
It is a headache and an impediment to regional progress—the last running sore of Asia. No country really cares anymore. If Cambodia’s leaders are not careful, they might well find themselves selling trinkets on the highway as cars zoom by between Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City as the rest of Asia gets on with business of getting with the program and helping improve the lives of their people.
Outsiders used to care about Cambodia—not because they gave a whit about Cambodia–but because, in olden times, Cambodia had strategic value for the larger cold war and regional power struggles. It was a hot theater in the larger cold war. It is no longer. The real politick is that no country really puts the interests of another before its own. That is the job of the other country’s leaders.
It is past time that someone slapped collective Cambodian political ‘leaders’ upside the head and said: “Get it together, you knuckleheads. This is how the world works. You get the government you deserve. If you don’t like it, do something about it, because no foreign savior is going to intervene and save your butts this time. We don’t care anymore.” Cambodia is of no strategic, political or economic consequence to any other country in the world, including its neighbors.
Cambodian leaders and their apparatchiks are a rapacious and corrupt and incompetent mafia of thugs who subordinate the common good for personal gain. The only time when Cambodia has operated as a functional country in the last umpteen centuries has been when it was controlled by their more properly organized neighbors or larger foreign powers. And every time Cambodia has been controlled by Cambodians, they have spun the country into horrific suffering and deprivation.
These are the harsh but true facts.
MODERN CAMBODIAN HISTORY
Here is a brief synopsis of recent Cambodian history: In the 12th century, the Cambodian rulers turned portions of Cambodia over to Thai powers as a counterweight to try to stave off Vietnamese designs on Cambodia. That didn’t work, so they then turned portions of Cambodia over to Vietnam as a counterweight against Thai advances. That didn’t work out so well, either. Then Cambodia essentially disappeared from the map in the mid 19th century. Then the French showed up and took control of an area they renamed Indochina which comprised modern-day Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The French recreated geographical sovereignty for a newly mapped Cambodia–literally salvaged it from the dustbin of history. And Cambodia was given a second chance. The report card has not been promising.
The French enjoyed their colonial powers until the Japanese showed up in the early 1940’s during World War 2. Well, actually, the Thais did, too, and seized much of Western Cambodia. The Japanese then took short-lived control over Cambodia until they lost the World War. Then the French took back control and installed who they thought would be a malleable Cambodian King, Norodom Sihanouk, then 18 years old. The French were mistaken. Sihanouk was a wily politician and wangled independence for Cambodia a year prior to the 1954 signing of the Geneva Conventions, which turned Vietnam and Laos back over to control of their own people.
Sihanouk did a heroic job keeping competing enemies at bay for 17 years. While war raged around him in Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia remained mostly at peace until March 1970. It was then that Sihanouk’s Prime Minister, the wack-a-doodle military general Lon Nol, overthrew him while the King was on a trip to Moscow.
Lon Nol was entirely propped up by the Americans, but there is no evidence the Americans engineered the coup. Lon Nol came to power because Cambodia is a country where all the top elite leaders are plotting in the wings to overthrow the leader du jour. There is no such thing as a strategic friend or loyalist in Cambodia. They are short-term tactical allies who are destined to be crushed when the time is right.
The one constant in Cambodian politics is rival leaders and factions plotting against each other, poised to overthrow the current leader so that they could install their own cabal of rapacious cronies to rip off the country to steal their personal own piece of the pie.
Cambodia has a pathological inferiority complex that makes it too painful to look in the mirror.
Every problem faced by the country is the fault of foreigners. If it is not the Americans, it is the Vietnamese. If it is not the Vietnamese, it is the Chinese. If it is not the Chinese, it is the Thais. Foreigners are behind every embarrassing failure the country has ever suffered—and the list is very, very long.
But it is Cambodian leaders themselves who have never given a whit about their own people.
In March of 1970, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge had less than 5000 troops under arms. In 1970, Cambodia was in the unique position of having pretty much zero conditions that would give traction to a communist movement.
Most every farmer owned their own land, so there was no issue of a landlord class exploiting the peasant population for a communist movement to organize.
Cambodia was a disproportionately large geographical country in relation to its population of an estimated 6 million people. The rice harvests, in some areas produced a remarkable 3 crops a year, meaning there were no issues of a shortage of food. There were no starving Cambodians.
Cambodia had no manufacturing or industrial sector so there was no opportunity to exploit worker discontent from oppression from capitalist masters.
So, for communists, there was no one to recruit, hence a dormant communist recruiting ground.
When the then military commander and Prime Minister, Lon Nol, deposed King Sihanouk in a coup in March 1970, the King was very, very angry. He moved to Beijing where he promptly announced he was putting his full support into an alliance with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s 5000 people under arms who, at the time, posed no threat and were impotent.
After Lon Nol took power, horrific atrocities were committed against ethnic Vietnamese residents of Cambodia. Cambodia’s predilection for horrific violence and xenophobia reared its ugly head immediately after Lon Nol seized power. 300,000 ethnic Vietnamese were identified, targeted, and systematically killed or forced in an exodus out of the country by the Lon Nol government.
Here is where history gets dicey. It is very much against the rules to speak of negative things regarding the monarchy.
But it is balderdash that Cambodia was a neutral country prior to 1970. Prior to 1970, Sihanouk had already sold out the country to foreigners, although in a very adept way. The then Prince Sihanouk had already cut deals with the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and the Americans to allow each of them to use Cambodian territory to fight out the larger war which had exploded in Vietnam and Laos.
He had approved a secret deal with Vietnam to allow them to occupy and seize control of Eastern Cambodia as a supply route from the North to their Viet Cong allies in South Vietnam. The Vietnamese had convinced Sihanouk—prior to him being overthrown—to agree to a secret deal to allow the North Vietnamese to smuggle weapons through Cambodian territory to their proxy partners the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
Sihanouk had made a secret deal with China to allow the main Cambodian port at Sihanoukville to receive Chinese ships supplying arms to the North Vietnamese, which were transported over land through Cambodia to Vietnam. In 1966, Sihanouk cut a deal with Zhou En-lai of the People’s Republic of China that allowed North Vietnam and the Southern Viet Cong to seize military control of eastern Cambodia and to use the port of Sihanoukville for the delivery of military material by China to supply them.
The Americans did not neglect to notice the Vietnamese led armed movement that had spread to Cambodia and this pissed off Nixon and Kissinger. So Sihanouk gave secret approval to the United States to bomb eastern Cambodia where these shenanigans were occurring.
“We were doing it with the acquiescence of the Cambodian government, which never once protested against it, and which, indeed, encouraged us to do it,” said Kissinger.
Kissinger is correct.
That didn’t work out so well for Cambodia (or, in the longer view, the U.S).
So began the secret, illegal bombing campaign by the U.S. against Cambodia—not after Sihanouk was overthrown, but rather one year earlier in March of 1969.
But U.S. bombs were not directed at Cambodians. They were directed at Vietnamese who had already taken over full control of Eastern Cambodia by agreement with King Sihanouk, who had cut a deal with foreigners (in this case Vietnamese) to try to stay out of the smoldering cauldron of war that surrounded the Cambodian “Island of Peace”.
Sihanouk was an excellent, skilled, and adept leader. But it was Sihanouk who gave the green light to the Americans to militarily object to the Vietnamese who were using Cambodia as a supply route and sanctuary for weapons supplied by the Chinese through Cambodia.
Operation Menu was the codename of a covert United States Strategic Air Command bombing campaign conducted in eastern Cambodia from 18 March 1969 until 26 May 1970. The targets of these attacks were People’s Army of Vietnam sanctuaries and the Viet Cong. There are no exact figures of Cambodians killed by Operation Menu, but the Department of Defense estimated that the six areas bombed in Operation Menu (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack, Dessert, and Supper) had a non-combatant population of 4,247. Area 353 (Breakfast), was 25 square kilometres (9.7 sq mi) and had a population of 1,640 people.
Popularly known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it was largely jungle, and largely uninhabited.
Operation Freedom Deal followed Operation Menu. B-52 bombing was expanded and continued until August 1973. An official United States Air Force record of U.S. bombing activity over Indochina from 1964 to 1973 was declassified by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000. The report details the bombing of Cambodia where the U.S. bombed Cambodia along the South Vietnam border from 1965 under the Johnson administration through Nixon ordered B-52 bombings until 1973.
But the U.S. bombing was far from the first foreign intervention at the request of Cambodian leaders on to Cambodian soil at that time.
“In April–May 1970, many North Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia in response to the call for help addressed to Vietnam not by Pol Pot, but by his deputy Nuon Chea” according to Soviet archives as compiled by Dmitry Mosyakov in “The Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communists: A History of Their Relations as Told in the Soviet Archives.” “North Vietnamese leader Nguyen Co Thach recalled “Nuon Chea has asked for help and we have liberated five provinces of Cambodia in ten days.”
I knew Pol Pot.
And I knew all his top cohorts that comprised the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea—otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge.
I interviewed them all extensively for many dozens of hours over a number of years. Not once did a single Khmer Rouge leader ascribe responsibility to the United States for generating popular support for their political movement. Nor once did they blame Kissinger or Nixon for the destruction of Cambodia.
Instead, they focused their considerable vitriol on the Vietnamese.
Both Pol Pot and his deputy, Nuon Chea, resided for prolonged periods in Hanoi, who both armed and trained the extremist Cambodian communists. The indigenous Cambodian communist forces in Cambodian were protected by the North Vietnamese army.
SIHANOUK AND THE KHMER ROUGE
But when overthrown by his own Prime Minister and army commander, Lon Nol, on March 18, 1970—which was approved by Sihanouk’s own ‘elected’ legislature, Sihanouk was enraged, and he put his own personal ego and power interests ahead of his country’s interests.
Widely viewed as a God-King by most Cambodians, with one foot in Celestial heavens and one foot ruling Cambodia on earth, he called for all Cambodians to join with the then largely irrelevant Khmer Rouge to fight against the now evil Lon Nol government. The largely peasant population (85% of the country at the time) responded in droves and within months the Khmer Rouge forces under arms swelled to over 100,000. Sihanouk said the “patriotic” struggle was to save Cambodia from the jaws of foreign intervention.
The titular government in exile run by Sihanouk, who was in Beijing, in Cambodia, was in fact under the full command control of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in Cambodia itself. Sihanouk knew this but didn’t want the Cambodian people to know, so he didn’t tell them.
Sihanouk himself admitted that when the Khmer Rouge gained power they “will spit me out like a cherry pit.”
NIXON, KISSINGER AND CAMBODIA AFTER 1970
The evil Sociopath Nixon and his sidekick the War Criminal Kissinger were focused on the war next door in Vietnam in 1970. Neither cared a whit about Cambodia, except for the North Vietnamese were using Cambodia as a very effective sanctuary to transport arms and troops to Southern Vietnam..
The number of deaths of Cambodian civilians caused by the war between 1970 and 1975 remains unclear, but higher estimates reach 500,000. Of those, an estimated 30,000 to as high as 150,000 were caused by U.S bombing.
War is a very unpleasant event. Many good, innocent people die.
But there is a big difference between targeting ones enemies and collateral damage.
Cambodians targeted their enemies–most of whom were civilians.
I spoke with Craig Etcheson today, who has been investigating the Khmer Rouge genocide and the calamity which has been Cambodia for 30 years, as well as chief of investigations for war crimes against the Pol Pot regime for the United Nations.
“I have conducted thousands of interviews with Cambodians who lived through that period of Cambodian history,” Etcheson said. “I can count on one hand the number of people who described first-hand knowledge of civilian deaths from U.S. bombing.”
Scientific investigations have exactly determined that between 1.7 and 1.8 million Cambodians died during the three years, eight months, and 20 days that Pol Pot ruled Cambodia.
In fact, the bombing of Cambodia had ended by 1973—two years before the Khmer Rouge took power.
CAMBODIA AFTER POL POT
The tide of history was unstoppable and two weeks before North Vietnam captured Saigon, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. There were about 7 million people in the country then. Three years, eight months, and twenty days later, Pol Pot’s nauseating experiment with deluded grandeur ended. An estimated 1.8 million people died during that period—not from the policy or actions of Henry “The War Criminal” Kissinger, but precisely as a direct result of the state policies of the very Cambodian Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Every one of them died from the failed social, economic, and political policies of Cambodia’s rulers.
The country was saved from a Kafkaesque implosion by—and here is the rub—the Vietnamese, who were and are Cambodia’s most historical, hated, and intractable enemies.
There have been numerous governments in Cambodia in the last century. For a half a century, Cambodian governments and leaders have not been overthrown by foreign powers. They have been deposed by the inevitable implosion of their internal Machiavellian client patron relationships that is the superstructure of maintaining power in modern Cambodian political culture.
Sihanouk, Lon Nol, Pol Pot, the Rannariddh/Hun Sen government which emerged from UN organized elections, and Hun Sen’s dictatorship which seized power in a coup overthrowing it, have all been organized through tenuous, complex, and ever-changing coalitions of disparate internal power bases.
No Cambodian government has had any loyalty to a foreign power or ideology.
They have been and remain driven by the self-delusion that they are a unique political culture who have superior innate abilities which trump having to integrate into, or play by the rules of, how the rest of the rest of the recognized nations and properly organized world operate.
No modern Cambodian government has been loyal to any foreign power, just as no contemporary government has shown any priority to providing for the basic interests—education, rule of law, health care, transportation and other infrastructure—of the long-suffering Cambodian population. None of these Cambodian governments have had any commitment to providing for the common good of the citizenry and none of the governments have been able to provide even the most basic services to their people.
Cambodia is in fact a failed nation-state, dependent on begging for foreign donor assistance while diverting the overwhelming chunk of money by selling off national assets and resources that in any properly organized government would go to the state coffers into lining the pockets of the cabal of corrupt elite who run the country as their personal mafia fiefdom.
The power elite, in truth, have all failed in attempts to organize what they think is a more-clever-than-anyone-else-grouping of short-term tactical external and internal allies who are invariably permanent strategic enemies.
The result of the collapse of each of these governments is, of course, no surprise—except to Cambodians who are near incapable of taking responsibility for and reflecting upon the failures of their political culture.
The failure of Cambodia for 800 years is the fault of Cambodians.
It is not caused, created by, or the fault of the Thais, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Americans, the French, or the Russians, the Thais and so on.
CAMBODIA SINCE HUN SEN
The current crop of failed leaders who, like former Khmer Rouge military officer Hun Sen, were also Khmer Rouge loyalists to Pol Pot, include most of the current government running Cambodia, including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Defence Minister, the Interior Minister, the Agricultural Minister, the Culture Minister and so on, as well as thousands of generals in the military, security services, the provincial governors, district leaders, sub-district leaders, and village heads. They were all Khmer Rouge.
Let’s be honest. Cambodia is among the world’s most badly governed and politically corrupt nations. This year’s U.S. State Department Human Rights report concluded: “Corruption was considered endemic and extended throughout all segments of society, including the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government” made possible by a “culture of impunity.”
Today, the World Food Program feeds about 1.8 million of the country’s 14 million people. Health services are all but non-existent.
When the French seized power in the 1850’s, Cambodia had effectively ceased to exist. It was the French who carved out on the map and re-created Cambodia as a country again, and kept it treading water until 1953, when power was relinquished to Cambodians.
Despite the epic and commendable efforts of the skilled King Sihanouk after 1953, the country descended into chaos because of incompetence, corruption, and nefarious plots by Cambodian elites, who cared far more for personal gain and stealing the national assets of the country to line their personal pockets then they did for the concept of common good and a cohesive national good.
Sihanouk did an excellent job of staving off the Cambodian predilection for creating self-disaster, but he was doomed to disaster. It was his own top government loyalists who overthrew him in 1970—not foreigners.
Kissinger may well be a war criminal, but not regarding U.S policies in Cambodia.
It is the Cambodian leadership who are war criminals–not to mention the not-during-war criminals–and have been for most of modern Cambodian history. Claiming otherwise, or blaming their failures on foreigners, doesn’t change history.
It just ensures history repeats itself because mass murderers think they can do it and get away with it.