US intervention in Cambodia from bombs to ballots
by David Roberts
Covert Action Quarterly Fall 1997
There was little room for irony in Washington this summer as Congress puffed itself up with outrage over possible foreign influence in the US electoral process. "The American people have the right to know" intoned Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), "and we have the highest duty to determine whether there was a concerted plan by foreign governments to infiltrate our electoral process.''
Applied to the US, the rhetoric is melodramatic and hypocritical; used to describe the US role in Cambodia, it is glaringly inadequate. The legacy of US interference is written in blood and misery across the map of Cambodia. Although the bombing has stopped, and the world has a "new order," the US is still interfering in the domestic affairs of this small nation. And elections are only one part of the strategy.
On the surface, the recent ouster of Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of the UNCINPEC (National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia) royalists, by his coalition partner Hun Sen, head of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), seems a straightforward enough violation of democratic practice; it also appears to have little relationship to Washington. But the surface in Cambodia is shallow indeed and the roots of this coup lie deep and entangled with a history of US interference spanning almost three decades.
Although the US weapons of choice are now dollars and ballots, in the 1970s, they were bombs and troops. Then, as the war in Vietnam spilled across its borders, the US under Nixon and Kissinger launched "secret" and murderous air attacks on Cambodia's eastern border in its effort to wipe out Vietnamese communists. When revelations of this violation of a neutral country reached the anti-war movement and sparked public protest, the US temporarily halted the bombings and deployed a covert army of ground troops. But as soon as the political heat died, the bombers flew again and rained down the equivalent of five Hiroshimas on a country which had no quarrel with the US.
Apart from killing innumerable Cambodians and returning parts of Cambodia to the Stone Age, Washington's military and political intervention had other, long-lasting consequences. In March 1970, just after US ground troops invaded, a ClA-backed coup deposed King Norodom Sihanouk. His pro-Washington replacement, Lon Nol, who ruled from 1970 to 1975, was a weak, corrupt despot rejected by much of the nation. Antagonism to his regime, outrage over US bombing, and the starvation and destruction which flowed from Washington's policies in Southeast Asia breathed new life into Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. From the jungle where it had been banished by Sihanouk in the 1960s, the movement rapidly built popular support.
Out of the inferno of civil war and foreign invasion, the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, gained strength and in April 1975 took power. Declaring "Year Zero," they closed down Cambodia and began dragging the country back to a pre-industrial era devoid of the foreign influence they blamed for the country's woes. In the process, Pol Pot split Cambodian society in two. His "new" people were those the regime distrusted: educated professionals who had lived cozy lives in Phnom Penh and members of the former government. Corrupt and corrupting, they were executed by the thousands. The second group, the "old," were rural peasants whose lives were romantically seen as hard but honest and who were to be more trusted because they were uncorrupted by modern city life and Western influences. To prevent their contamination, Pol Pot ordered the abolition of memory. Money and medicine were abolished. The national bank was blown up. The library, repository of much of Cambodia's precious history, was turned into a pig-sty The Catholic cathedral was razed to the ground, and Cambodia's ancient religion of Buddhism was outlawed.
Then came the genocide. Under the pretext of US bombings, the Khmer Rouge emptied the capital, Phnom Penh, which was swollen with refugees. Leaving behind homes and possessions, up to 1.5 million people were expelled to a countryside devastated by "secret" bombing, invasion, and five years of civil war between the troops of Lon Nol and Pol Pot. One journalist at the time described the evacuation as the greatest caravan of human misery the world has ever seen."
In the three years and eight months that followed, Cambodia entered the darkest period of its history and experienced a unique, horrific auto-genocide. Looking to explain why its impractical, flawed, and intellectually bankrupt revolution had gone asunder, the Khmer Rouge, like so many before them created "enemies within" and accused its terrified victims of being CIA, KGB, or sometimes both. People suspected of "crimes" against the Khmer Rouge organization, who perhaps wore glasses or spoke foreign languages, were often sent to a small converted school in Phnom Penh where Pol Pot's henchmen extracted false confessions and imposed sentences. Of the 20,000 who entered Tuol Sleng, seven survived. One, an artist, Heng Nath, whose work appears on this page, painted recollections of cruelty that beggar belief. The images haunt the tragic, dilapidated school: Scorpions are coaxed from a box next to a woman as her nipples are pinched with pliers; a man suspended up side down in water is electrocuted; prisoners are forced to eat their own excrement. The reign of terror, slavery, overwork and starvation that spread throughout the country claimed between one and two million lives.
Helping Pol Pot
With the regime enjoying tacit economic, political and military support from China, it looked as if the horror would end only when there was no one left alive to blame. By 1977, even as Cambodia descended into chaos, some of Pol Pot's troops along the border with Vietnam had been sporadically murdering, looting, and raping Vietnamese villagers. Then, on Christmas Day 1978, Pol Pot's vast and grisly social experiment came to an abrupt end. The People's Army of Vietnam, in response to growing attacks by Khmer Rouge Eastern Zone cadre, entered Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge was by this stage in such disarray that the People's Army, despite being unprepared for such an operation, pushed Pol Pot's "army of genocide" to Thailand on Cambodia's western border, and deposed the brutal dictator.
With assistance from Vietnam, Pen Sovann and Heng Samrin became heads of Cambodia's defacto government until Hun Sen took over in 1985. At 35, he was the youngest prime minister in the world and was supported politically and economically by Hanoi. Vietnamese civil administrators quickly withdrew, but elements of the army remained to help defend the population from Pol Pot's forces. The People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK- later the CPP) inherited a country in ruin; the nation lacked the most basic infrastructure-money, health care and transportation networks had all but ceased to exist; most of the country's human resources, doctors, teachers, engineers had been slaughtered or died of malnutrition and overwork in the agrarian "experiment" gone grotesquely wrong.
But over the next decade, rather than provide desperately needed aid, the West and China, led by Washington, withheld assistance and instead pumped aid, money, and arms, often through Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conduits, to the Khmer Rouge and its newfound "allies" in the refugee camps in Thailand. Also withheld was formal recognition and a UN seat, without which Cambodia could not get the development aid so crucial to the mammoth task of rebuilding from the ruins of Year Zero. To this date, it retains the ignominious distinction of being the only country in the world to have been denied development aid by the UN. Instead, the world body surrendered to superpower realpolitic while thousands more Cambodians died in floods and famine.
Not satisfied with an aid embargo, Washington continued to demonize and punish both Cambodia and Vietnam. Humiliated by losing to a Third World peasant guerrilla army, Washington saw its chance to extend the war and elicit revenge by isolating Vietnam and punishing poor Cambodia, whose only mistake, as award winning British journalist John Pilger once wrote, was having liberators from the wrong side of the Cold War.
For more than a decade, the Khmer Rouge, protected by Western and Chinese antagonism to the Hun Sen government, continued to wage guerrilla war from its bases on the Thai border. Then, with the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Vietnam backed away from supporting Hun Sen. The Khmer Rouge, however, supplemented continuing international support from the US, China and Thailand with extensive logging and gem mining from its resource-rich control zones on its western border with Thailand. A tortuous peace process-originally blocked by secret US diplomacy because the deal didn't suit Washington's interests-resulted in the establishment of the most comprehensive, intrusive, and expensive UN peacekeeping operation to date. From November 1991, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) employed over 22,000 people including more than 6,000 civilians, and carried out staggeringly successful elections against enormous odds in a hostile, complex, and demanding environment. About a month before the elections, amid claims of UN partisanship, the Khmer Rouge withdrew its participation in the elections. Nonetheless, the polling took place from May 23 to 28, 1993, against a backdrop of intimidation and threats of violence by Pol Pot and his guerrillas.
The charge that elements of the UN were partisan was accurate, but the victim was not the Khmer Rouge. The October 1991 Paris Peace Accords that paved the way for the giant peacekeeping force had been skewed from the beginning. Washington, along with Beijing, had consistently influenced the Accords to marginalize Hun Sen's CPP, which (in various guises) had controlled Phnom Penh since 1979. Both China and the US also insisted on including the Khmer Rouge in any peace plan. Thus, allegations that the UN and US were trying to exclude the Khmer Rouge neither follows precedent, nor explains the covert political machinations that characterized aspects of the peacekeeping operation.
US intervention in the electoral process itself was multifaceted, although not necessarily coordinated. It was guided by Washington's desire to extend the Cold War demonization of Vietnam and Cambodia into the post-Cold War order. Since Vietnam-after ousting the genocidal Pol Pot-had helped install the predecessors of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), Washington extended its animus to Han Sen. While around the world, far worse rulers basked in US warmth, Cambodia became a special target. Again, its involvement was an accident of geography, as it had been in the late 1960s and early 1970s when US bombers illegally flattened its eastern border in pursuit of Vietnamese communists.
The politics of punishment that characterized the 1980s also marked part of the UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia. Unfortunately, the few official government sources corroborating this agenda do so with tantalizing slips of intention, rather than direct admissions. However, information assembled from a wide variety of non-governmental sources, from researchers and aid workers, and from documents leaked from UNTAC show where, how, and by whom US influence over the Cambodian election process was exerted.
The War On Vietnam Prolonged
... more than two decades of US foreign policy in the region using both covert operations and overt pressure. In the 1980s when all foreign aid to Cambodia was embargoed, the US tried to isolate Phnom Penh and Hanoi, to eliminate the CPP and its political predecessors, and to continue punishing Hanoi. The goal, noted journalist John Pilger, was to sweep "away the last vestiges of Vietnam's humiliation of the US, with the aim of overseeing a pro-American anti-Vietnamese, IMF-indebted regime in Phnom Penh"
But even more destructive than under mining reconstruction efforts in this war ravaged country were efforts by Washington-with Western complicity and extensive Chinese military and diplomatic aid- to restore the Khmer Rouge to diplomatic credibility and military prowess. US and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council ensured that the Khmer Rouge, and not the de facto regime in Phnom Penh, held Cambodia's UN seat. Washington also established the Kampuchea Emergency Group and its successor the Kampuchea Working Group which established links with the Khmer Rouge and other groups, and helped funnel information, aid, cash, and weapons 67 Facilitated by representatives who would later join the Info-Ed division in the UN peacekeeping operation, this clandestine operation worked to shore up Pol Pot's forces.
By consistently supporting Pol Pot and torpedoing regional deals that might have ended the conflict and condemned the Khmer Rouge to isolation and ineffectiveness, the US guaranteed continuing conflict and instability. Meanwhile ClA-led disinformation campaigns ensured that Phnom Penh would remain in near virtual diplomatic, political, and economic isolation for over a decade. And when the end of the Cold War appeared inevitable and the tepid as Raul support for the US and China's onerous intervention in Cambodia began to wane, Washington, along with its more powerful allies in Beijing, sought to control any peace deal. "The reason for the inventing of the Peace Process " Vickery reminds us, "was not to marginalize the Khmer Rouge, nor to end a war, but to forestall the danger of a [CPP] victory, or its recognition. The peace deal removed the last of Vietnam's troops-which had been defending Cambodians from the marauding Khmer Rouge-and ensured that the CPP lost more weapons than the guerrillas. While a 70 percent cut across all parties seemed fair in principle, in practice, the Khmer Rouge could conceal its weapons in remote mountain and jungle hideaways while the government had to surrender its arms stored in garrisons. Even Sihanouk took umbrage, advising Hun Sen to "surrender your worst weapons and give your ill-trained, poorly motivated troops to UNTAC for demobilization because otherwise there will be no balance between you and the Khmer Rouge ... [and] there has to be balance before there can be peace."
Ultimately the plan to destroy the CPP failed, but not for want of trying. The 1993 Cambodian elections suggested strongly that Washington, in pursuit of its foreign policy goals, sabotaged free and fair elections, even when run by the United Nations. Having weakened Phnom Penhs position, and compromised Vietnams sup port for its former allies with promises of "normalization" in return for cooperation, the final stages of the operation to punish both Vietnam and Cambodia were little more than war by other means.
If the hypocrisy was not so appalling, Cambodians might be cheered to hear the halls of the US Congress ring with condemnation of foreign interference in an electoral process. But while the scandal in the US surrounding campaign contributions is mainly a melodrama of political posturing, in Cambodia the result of interference in the electoral process is a tragedy of horrific proportion. The unstable coalition the US and others forced on Cambodia has promoted infighting and crushed development.
Again, the Cambodian people are the losers, victims of policies created thousands of miles away by comfortable bureaucrats who have turned a blind eye to consequences of three decades of devastating interference. In the 1970s, the US anti war movement helped stop the bombing that was surely not a secret from those on whom destruction rained.
In mid-l990, Americans who penetrated the mist of media propaganda demanded that President Bush stop aid to the monsters of Pol Pot's creation. But while many Americans joined cause with the Cambodian people, Washington embraced the demon of revenge. US cynicism to ward Cambodia and its own people ironically parallels that of the Khmer Rouge during the Pol Pot regime to the Khmer innocents: "Preserve them, no profit. Kill them, no loss.''