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
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
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
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
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.''
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