Pol Pot's Death
In The Propaganda System
by Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, June 1998
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
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-19691975-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 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
l990s 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 country.
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 states-person 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 1 979- 1
995, 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 "guerrilla insurgency in the jungles of
western and northern Cambodia" (April 17).
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 elections."
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 mainstream media.
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 York Times).
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 misrepresentation 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
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 E1 Salvador
in 1980, the media lose their interest in identifying those in
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 aggression-occupation.
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.
Secrets and Lies