The Long Secret Alliance:
Uncle Sam and Pol Pot
by John Pilger
Covert Action Quarterly Fall 1997
The US not only helped create conditions
that brought Cambodia's Khmer Rouge to power in 1975, but actively
supported the genocidal force, politically and financially. By
January 1980, the US was secretly funding Pol Pots exiled forces
on the Thai border. The extent of this support-$85 million from
1980 to 1986-was revealed six years later in correspondence between
congressional lawyer Jonathan Winer, then counsel to Sen. John
Kerry (D-MA) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the
Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Winer said the information
had come from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). When copies
of his letter were circulated, the Reagan administration was furious.
Then, without adequately explaining why, Winer repudiated the
statistics, while not disputing that they had come from the CRS.
In a second letter to Noam Chomsky, however, Winer repeated the
original charge, which, he confirmed to me, was "absolutely
Washington also backed the Khmer Rouge
through the United Nations, which provided Pol Pot's vehicle of
return. Although the Khmer Rouge government ceased to exist in
January 1979, when the Vietnamese army drove it out, its representatives
continued to occupy Cambodia's UN seat. Their right to do so was
defended and promoted by Washington as an extension of the Cold
War, as a mechanism for US revenge on Vietnam, and as part of
its new alliance with China (Pol Pot's principal underwriter and
Vietnam's ancient foe). In 1981, President Carter's national security
adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said, "I encouraged the Chinese
to support Pol Pot." The US, he added, "winked publicly"
as China sent arms to the Khmer Rouge through Thailand.
As a cover for its secret war against
Cambodia, Washington set up the Kampuchean Emergency Group (KEG)
in the US embassy in Bangkok and on the Thai-Cambodian border.
KEG's job was to "monitor" the distribution of Western
humanitarian supplies sent to the refugee camps in Thai land and
to ensure that Khmer Rouge bases were fed. Working through "Task
Force 80" of the Thai Army, which had liaison officers with
the Khmer Rouge, the Americans ensured a constant flow of UN supplies.
Two US relief aid workers, Linda Mason and Roger Brown, later
wrote, "The US Government insisted that the Khmer Rouge be
fed ... the US preferred that the Khmer Rouge operation benefit
from the credibility of an internationally known relief operation."
In 1980, under US pressure, the World
Food Program handed over food worth $12 million to the Thai army
to pass on to the Khmer Rouge. According to former Assistant Secretary
of State Richard Holbrooke "20,000 to 40 000 Pol Pot guerrillas
benefited." This aid helped restore the Khmer Rouge to a
fighting force, based in Thailand, from which it de stabilized
Cambodia for more than a decade.
Although ostensibly a State Department
operation, KEG's principals were intelligence officers with long
experience in Indochina. In the early 1980s it was run by Michael
Eiland, whose career underscored the continuity of American intervention
in Indochina. In 1969-70, he was operations officer of a clandestine
Special Forces group code-named "Daniel Boone," which
was responsible for the reconnaissance of the US bombing of Cambodia.
By 1980, Col. Eiland was running KEG out of the US embassy in
Bangkok, where it was de scribed as a "humanitarian"
organization. Responsible for interpreting satellite surveillance
photos of Cambodia, Eiland became a valued source for some of
Bangkok's resident Western press corps, who referred to him in
their reports as a "Western analyst." Eiland's "humanitarian"
duties led to his appointment as Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
chief in charge of the South east Asia Region, one of the most
important positions in US espionage.
In November 1980, the just elected Reagan
administration and the Khmer Rouge made direct contact when Dr.
Ray Cline, a former deputy director of the CIA, secretly visited
a Khmer Rouge operational headquarters inside Cambodia. Cline
was then a foreign policy adviser on President-elect Reagan's
transitional team. Within a year, according to Washington sources,
50 CIA agents were running Washington's Cambodia operation from
Thailand. The dividing line between the international relief operation
and the US war became more and more confused. For example, a Defense
Intelligence Agency colonel was appointed "security liaison
officer" between the United Nations Border Relief Operation
(UNBRO) and the Displaced Persons Protection Unit (DPPU). In Washington,
sources revealed him as a link between the US government and the
The UN as a Base
By 1981, a number of governments, including
US allies, became decidedly uneasy about the charade of continued
UN recognition of Pol Pot as legitimate head of the country This
discomfort was dramatically demonstrated when a colleague of mine,
Nicholas Claxton, entered a bar at the UN in New York with Thaoun
Prasith, Pol Pot's representative. "Within minutes,"
said Claxton, "the bar had emptied." Clearly, something
had to be done. In 1982, the US and China, supported by Singapore,
invented the Coalition of the Democratic Government of Kampuchea,
which was, as Ben Kiernan pointed out, neither a coalition, nor
democratic, nor a government, nor in Kampuchea. Rather, it was
what the CIA calls "a master illusion." Cambodia's former
ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was appointed its head; otherwise
little changed. The Khmer Rouge dominated the two "non-communist"
members, the Sihanoukists and the Khmer People's National Liberation
Front (KPNLF). From his office at the UN, Pol Pot's ambassador,
the urbane Thaoun Prasith, continued to speak for Cambodia. A
close associate of Pol Pot, he had in 1975 called on Khmer expatriates
to return home, whereupon many of them "disappeared."
The United Nations was now the instrument
of Cambodia's punishment. In all its history, the world body has
withheld development aid from only one Third World country: Cambodia.
Not only did the UN-at US and Chinese insistence-deny the government
in Phnom Penh a seat, but the major international financial institutions
barred Cambodia from all international agreements on trade and
communications. Even the World Health Organization refused to
aid the country. At home, the US denied religious groups export
licenses for books and toys for orphans. A law dating from the
First World War, the Trading with the Enemy Act, was applied to
Cambodia and, of course, Vietnam. Not even Cuba and the Soviet
Union faced such a complete ban with no humanitarian or cultural
By 1987, KEG had been reincarnated as
the Kampuchea Working Group, run by the same Col. Eiland of the
Defense Intelligence Agency The Working Group's brief was to provide
battle plans, war materiel, and satellite intelligence to the
so-called "non-communist" members of the "resistance
forces." The non-communist fig leaf allowed Congress, spurred
on by an anti-Vietnamese zealot, then - Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-NY),
to approve both "overt" and "covert" aid estimated
at $24 million to the "resistance " Until 1990, Congress
accepted Solarz' specious argument that US aid did not end up
with or even help Pol Pot and that the mass murderers US-supplied
allies "are not even in close proximity with them [the Khmer
While Washington paid the bills and the
Thai army provided logistics support, Singapore, as middleman,
was the main conduit for Western arms. Former Prime Minister Lee
Kuan Yew was a major backer of the US and Chinese position that
the Khmer Rouge be part of a settlement in Cambodia. "It
is journalists," he said, "who have made them into demons."
Weapons from West Germany, the US, and
Sweden were passed on directly by Singapore or made under license
by Chartered Industries, which is owned by the Singapore government.
These same weapons were captured from the Khmer Rouge. The Singapore
connection allowed the Bush administration to continue its secret
aid to the "resistance," even though this assistance
broke a law passed by Congress in 1989 banning even indirect "lethal
aid" to Pol Pot. In August 1990, a former member of the US
Special Forces disclosed that he had been ordered to destroy records
that showed US munitions in Thailand going to the Khmer Rouge.
The records, he said, implicated the National Security Council,
the president's foreign policy advisory body.
In 1982, when the US, Chinese, and ASEAN
governments contrived the "coalition" that enabled Pol
Pot to retain Cambodia's UN seat, the US set about training and
equipping the "non-communist" factions in the "resistance"
army These followers of Prince Sihanouk and his former minister,
Son Sann, leader of the KPNLF, were mostly irregulars and bandits.
This resistance was nothing with out Pol Pot's 25,000 well-trained,
armed and motivated guerrillas, whose leadership was acknowledged
by Prince Sihanouk's military commander, his son, Norodom Ranariddh.
"The Khmer Rouge'' he said, are the "major attacking
forces" whose victories were "celebrated as our own."'
The guerrillas' tactic like that of the
Contras in Nicaragua, was to terrorize the countryside by setting
up ambushes and seeding minefields. In this way, the government
in Phnom Penh would be destabilized and the Vietnamese trapped
in an untenable war: its own "Vietnam." For the Americans
in Bangkok and Washington, the fate of Cambodia was tied to a
war they had technically lost seven years earlier. "Bleeding
the Vietnamese white on the battlefields of Cambodia" was
an expression popular with the US policy-making establishment.
Destroying the crippled Vietnamese economy and, if necessary overturning
the government in Hanoi, was the ultimate goal. Out of that ruin,
American power would again assert itself in Indochina.
The British-who have had special military
forces in Southeast Asia since World War II, also played a key
role in supporting Pol Pot's armed force. After the "Irangate"
arms-for-hostages scandal broke in Washington in 1986, the Cambodian
training became an exclusively British operation. "If Congress
had found out that Americans were mixed up in clandestine training
in Indochina, let alone with Pol Pot," a Ministry of Defense
source told Simon O'Dwyer-Russell of the London Sunday Telegraph,
"the balloon would have gone right up. It was one of those
classic Thatcher-Reagan arrangements. It was put to her that the
SAS should take over the Cambodia show, and she agreed."'
Pol Pot's Washington Impunity
Shortly after the start of the Gulf War
in January 1991, President Bush described Saddam Hussein as "Adolf
Hitler revisited.'' Bush's call for "another Nuremberg"
to try Saddam under the Genocide Convention was echoed in Congress
and across the Atlantic in London.
It was an ironic distraction. Since the
original Fuhrer expired in his bunker, the US has maintained a
network of dictators with Hitlerian tendencies-from Suharto in
Indonesia to Mobutu in Zaire and a variety of Latin American mobsters,
many of them graduates of the US Army School of the Americas.
But only one has been identified by the world community as a genuine
"Adolf Hitler revisited," whose crimes are documented
in a 1979 report of the UN Human Rights Commission as "the
worst to have occurred anywhere in the world since Nazism.'' He
is, of course, Pol Pot, who must surely wonder at his good fortune.
Not only was he cosseted, his troops fed, supplied, and trained,
his envoys afforded all diplomatic privileges, but-unlike Saddam
Hussein-he was assured by his patrons that he would never be brought
to justice for his crimes.
These assurances were given publicly in
1991 when the UN Human Rights Subcommission dropped from its agenda
a draft resolution on Cambodia that referred to "the atrocities
reaching the level of genocide committed in particular during
the period of Khmer Rouge rule." No more, the UN body decided,
should member governments seek to "detect, arrest, extradite
or bring to trial those who have been responsible for crimes against
humanity in Cambodia." No more are governments called upon
to "prevent the return to government positions of those who
were responsible for genocidal actions during the period 1975
Such guarantees of impunity for the genocidists
were also part of the UN "peace plan" drafted by the
permanent members of the Security Council: that is, by the United
States. To avoid offending Pol Pot's principal backers, the Chinese,
the plan dropped all mention of "genocide," replacing
it with the euphemism: "policies and practices of the recent
past.'' On this, Henry Kissinger, who played a leading pan in
the mass bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, was an important
Western propaganda prior to the UN "peace
process" in Cambodia concentrated on the strength of the
Khmer Rouge, so as to justify their inclusion. UN officials and
American and Australian diplomats talked about 35-40,000 Khmer
Rouge. "You will understand," they would say, "we
can't leave a force as powerful as that outside the tent."
As soon as the Khmer Rouge had been welcomed back to Phnom Penh
and, in effect, given a quarter to a third of the countryside,
they refused to take part in the elections. The tune then changed.
They were now "finished," chorused Western diplomats.
They were "weakened beyond hope."
In the meantime, the Khmer Rouge was establishing
itself as the richest terrorist group in history by selling off
tracts of Cambodia's forests, as well as its precious stones,
to the Thai, whose government was a signatory to the "peace
accords." No one stopped them. They established four large
new bases inside Thailand, complete with a field hospital. Thai
soldiers guarded the road that led to them. The "they are
finished" line remains in vogue to this day Undoubtedly,
they have been numerically diminished by defections and attrition,
but their number was always a false measure of their true strength.
It seems the State Department believes they are far from finished.
On July 10 this year, the spokesperson
Nicholas Burns let slip that Khmer Rouge strength ran into "thousands.
The real threat from the Khmer Rouge comes
from their enduring skill at deception and infiltration. Before
they seized power in 1975, they had honeycombed Phnom Penh. This
process is almost certainly under way again. As one resident of
Phnom Penh said recently, "They're everywhere." The
"trial" of Pol Pot this year was a wonderful piece of
Khmer Rouge theater cum-media-event, but was otherwise worthless
as an indication of the organizations strength and immediate aims.
The truth is that no one on the outside can really say what these
are, and that alone is a measure of the organization's strength
and resilience. The Cambodian leader Hun Sen, for one, clearly
retains a respect for the veracity and menace of their ambitions.
The media relish Pol Pot as a unique monster.
That is too easy and too dangerous. It is his Faustian partners
in Washington, Beijing, London, Bangkok, Singapore, and elsewhere
who deserve proper recognition. The Khmer Rouge have been useful
to all their converging aims in the region. Eric Falt, the UN's
senior spokesperson in Phnom Penh at the time of that manipulated
organization's "triumph" in Cambodia, told me with a
fixed smile, "The peace process was aimed at allowing [the
Khmer Rouge to gain respectability." Unfortunately, many
ordinary Cambodian people share his cynicism. They deserve better.