Bikini was just the beginning, bombs still threaten the islanders


The Marshall Islanders survivors group (with John Pilger) keep alive the lessons of the past – and sound a warning for the future. © Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

I was recently in the Marshall Islands, which lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. Whenever I tell people where I have been, they ask, ‘Where is that?’

When I mention Bikini, their reference is the swimsuit. Few seem aware that the bikini was named after the nuclear explosions that destroyed life on Bikini atoll; its Paris designer hoped his ‘unique creation’ would ‘cause an explosion right round the world’. Sixty-seven nuclear bombs – each of them massive – were exploded in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958: the equivalent of more than one Hiroshima every day for 12 years.


As my aircraft banked low over Bikini lagoon, the emerald water beneath me disappeared into a vast black hole, a deathly void. This is the crater left by the 1954 Hydrogen bomb known as Bravo. When I stepped out of the plane, my shoes registered ‘unsafe’ on a Geiger counter. Palm trees stood in unworldly formations. There were no birds.

I trekked through the jungle to the bunker where, at 6.45 on the morning of 1 March 1954, the button was pushed on the most powerful force on earth. That morning, the sun had risen; then it rose again as apocalypse. Now claimed by the undergrowth, the concrete bunker is like a capsule to modern times. There are cartons of Milkmaid powered milk, packets of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a sign that is beyond irony: ‘Please leave this property as you find it. Thank you for kindness and understanding.’

The explosion vaporized an entire island, its fall-out spreading over a vast area. There was a ‘miscalculation’, according to the official history; the wind ‘changed suddenly’. These were the first of many lies, as declassified documents and the victims’ testimony have since revealed.

Abacca Anjain-Maddison holds a photo of her uncle, John Anjain, the mayor of Rongelap, which was irradiated by the 1954 Bravo H-bomb.

Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

Gene Curbow, a meteorologist assigned to monitor the test site, said, ‘They knew where the radioactive fall-out was going to go. Even on the day of the shot, they still had an opportunity to evacuate people, but [people] were not evacuated; I was not evacuated… The United States needed some guinea pigs to study what the effects of radiation would do.’

The secret of the Marshall Islands was Project 4.1. Official files describe a scientific programme that began as a study of mice and became a study of human beings exposed to the radiation of a nuclear weapon. Most of the women I interviewed had suffered from thyroid cancer; many in their communities did not survive.

The US Navy returned the population of Rongelap atoll, which is downwind of Bikini, even though the food was unsafe to eat and the water unsafe to drink. As a result, reported Greenpeace – which eventually sent a ship to rescue them – ‘a high proportion of their children suffered from genetic effects’.

Most of the women I interviewed had suffered from thyroid cancer; many in their communities did not survive

Archive film refers to them as ‘amenable savages’. A US Atomic Energy Agency official boasts that Rongelap is ‘by far the most contaminated place on earth’, adding, ‘It will be interesting to get a measure of human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment.’

Holding a photograph of herself as a child, with terrible facial burns and most of her hair missing, Nerje Joseph told me, ‘We were bathing at the well. White dust started falling from the sky. I reached to catch the powder. We used it as soap to wash our hair. A few days later, my hair started falling out.’

Lemoyo Abon said, ‘Some people were in agony. Others had diarrhoea. We were terrified. We thought it must be the end of the world.’

Human radiation experiments

As a nine-year-old, Tony de Brum witnessed the Bravo bomb. He became foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an indefatigable voice demanding justice for his people. Clutching the evidence, he stood up at the United Nations in 2005 and said, ‘United States government documents clearly demonstrate that its scientists conducted human radiation experiments with Marshallese citizens. Some of our people were injected with or were coerced to drink fluids laced with radiation. Other experiments involved the resettling of people on islands highly contaminated to study how human beings absorbed radiation from the food and environment.’

The Marshall Islands were, until 1986, a Trust Territory administered by the United States with a legal obligation to ‘protect the inhabitants against the loss of their land and resources’ and to ‘protect their health and well-being’. In 2004, the US Cancer Institute reported to Congress that future Marshallese generations were likely to contract 530 cancers.

Locals can get their radiation levels tested here – but they won't get treatment.

Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

The US relinquished direct control of the islands only after the Marshallese had agreed to accept a mere $150 million as compensation for their suffering and to allow the huge US base on Kwajalein atoll, with its ‘mission to combat communist China’ and known as the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Facility.

Commanding the Pacific all the way to Asia and China, the base continues to subject the islanders to the testing of weapons of mass destruction. Missiles are launched at night, or fired into the lagoon from California. Following each ‘shot’, islanders fall sick with a ‘mystery illness’. The Environmental Protection Agency says fish in the bay cannot be eaten; fish was once the staple. The cost of firing one missile is $100 million, or two-thirds of the compensation paid to the islanders.

My plane touched down on Kwajalein next to the base golf course. I was directed to a ‘holding pen’ and told to ‘listen up’. There was a large TV screen showing the US Air Force channel, and the weather across America’s military empire. In Guantánamo, the concentration camp, it was ‘fair and warm, expecting a pleasant change’.

I took a boat across the bay to Ebeye island, where many of the workers on the base live. At the end of each day, having mowed the lawns, swept the jogging track, watered the golf course and waited tables in the Pizza Hut, they are ferried back to their poverty.

Missiles are launched at night, or fired into the lagoon from California. Following each ‘shot’, islanders fall sick with a ‘mystery illness’

Ebeye is a slum of refugees from all over the Marshalls. Some 12,000 people live on a strip of land less than a mile long. The rubbish tip is the highest point on the island. White gravestones with black crosses are lapped by the ocean, as if the dead are trying to escape. There is dengue, tuberculosis, polio, the highest rate of diabetes in the world and a reported case of leprosy.

On the day I left, the Marshall Islands Journal reported that a missile test was planned that week, though ‘it may not work’ and people should not go near the ‘debris impact area’.

In 2014, President Obama announced that the US was ‘creating the world’s largest marine reserve in the Pacific, banning fishing and other commercial activities across pristine sea dotted with coral atolls’.

In fact, as part of Obama’s military build-up in the Pacific, known as the ‘pivot to Asia’, the US has taken control of nine million square miles of ocean – an area double the size of the mainland United States. Under cover of a marine reserve, a ‘marine range complex’ will be run by the Pentagon, with torpedoes, underwater mines and numerous other detonations. Bikini was just the beginning.

From this month's guest editor: John Pilger


The coming war on China

I am delighted to be back in the New Internationalist as guest editor. This issue’s keynote and supporting articles are the result of two years’ work on a documentary film about the shift of the world’s economic power east, to China, and the US reaction to this challenge to its dominance. Losing its economic prowess, Washington has turned almost obsessively to its military might; and the prospect of nuclear war is no longer unthinkable. What I found in Asia, the Pacific and the US, was not only evidence of great risk and folly, but extraordinary resistance to a coming war among island people on the frontline: the Marshalls, Okinawa, Jeju: faraway places of which we may know little but which offer an inspiring example as they face the most powerful military machine. This NI is both a tribute to them and a warning, and will, I hope, raise an issue we all need to understand and act upon.

The coming war on China


© US Navy

When I first went to Hiroshima in 1967, the shadow on the steps was still there. It was an almost perfect impression of a human being at ease: legs splayed, back bent, one hand by her side as she sat waiting for a bank to open. At a quarter past eight on the morning of 6 August, 1945, she and her silhouette were burned into the granite. I stared at the shadow for an hour or more, unforgettably. When I returned many years later, it was gone: taken away, ‘disappeared’, a political embarrassment.

I have spent two years making a documentary film, The Coming War on China, in which the evidence and witnesses warn that nuclear war is no longer a shadow, but a contingency. The greatest build-up of American-led military forces since the Second World War is well under way. They are on the western borders of Russia, and in Asia and the Pacific, confronting China.

The great danger this beckons is not news, or it is news buried and distorted: a drumbeat of propaganda that echoes the psychopathic campaign embedded in public consciousness during much of the 20th century.

Like the renewal of post-Soviet Russia, the rise of China as an economic power is declared an ‘existential threat’ to the divine right of the United States to rule and dominate human affairs.

To counter this, in 2011 President Obama announced a ‘pivot to Asia’, which meant that almost two-thirds of US naval forces would be transferred to Asia and the Pacific by 2020.

Today, more than 400 American military bases encircle China with missiles, bombers, warships and, above all, nuclear weapons. From Australia north through the Pacific to Japan, Korea and across Eurasia to Afghanistan and India, the bases form, says one US strategist, ‘the perfect noose’.

A study by the RAND Corporation – which, since Vietnam, has planned America’s wars – is entitled War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable. Commissioned by the US Army, the authors evoke the Cold War when RAND made notorious the catch cry of its chief strategist, Herman Kahn – ‘thinking the unthinkable’. Kahn’s book, On Thermonuclear War, elaborated a plan for a ‘winnable’ nuclear war against the Soviet Union.

Today, his apocalyptic view is shared by those holding real power in the US: the Pentagon militarists and their neoconservative collaborators in the executive, intelligence agencies and Congress. The current Secretary of Defense, Ashley Carter, a verbose provocateur, says US policy is to confront those ‘who see America’s dominance and want to take that away from us’.

Today, more than 400 American military bases encircle China with missiles, bombers, warships and nuclear weapons.

Charles Gatward: The Coming War on China, Darmouth Films

'Punish' China

In Washington, I met Amitai Etzioni, distinguished professor of international affairs at George Washington University. The US, he writes, ‘is preparing for a war with China, a momentous decision that so far has failed to receive a thorough review from elected officials, namely the White House and Congress.’

This war would begin with a ‘blinding attack against Chinese anti-access facilities, including land and sea-based missile launchers… satellite and anti-satellite weapons’. The incalculable risk is that ‘deep inland strikes could be mistakenly perceived by the Chinese as pre-emptive attempts to take out its nuclear weapons, thus cornering them into “a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma” [that would] lead to nuclear war.’

In 2015, the Pentagon released its Law of War Manual. ‘The United States,’ it says, ‘has not accepted a treaty rule that prohibits the use of nuclear weapons per se, and thus nuclear weapons are lawful weapons for the United States.’

In China, a strategist told me, ‘We are not your enemy, but if you [in the West] decide we are, we must prepare without delay.’ China’s military and arsenal are small compared to America’s. However, ‘for the first time,’ wrote Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists, ‘China is discussing putting its nuclear missiles on high alert so that they can be launched quickly on warning of an attack… This would be a significant and dangerous change in Chinese policy… Indeed, the nuclear weapon policies of the United States are the most prominent external factor influencing Chinese advocates for raising the alert level of China’s nuclear forces.’

'I don't want it to be a fair fight. It it's a knife fight, I want to bring a gun'

Professor Ted Postol was scientific adviser to the head of US naval operations. An authority on nuclear weapons, he told me, ‘Everybody here wants to look like they’re tough. See, I got to be tough… I’m not afraid of doing anything military, I’m not afraid of threatening; I’m a hairy-chested gorilla. And we have gotten into a state, the United States has gotten into a situation where there’s a lot of sabre-rattling, and it’s really being orchestrated from the top.’

I said, ‘This seems incredibly dangerous.’

‘That’s an understatement.’

Andrew Krepinevich is a former Pentagon war planner and the influential author of war games against China. He wants to ‘punish’ China for extending its defences to the South China Sea. He advocates seeding the ocean with sea mines, sending in US special forces and enforcing a naval blockade. He told me, ‘Our first president, George Washington, said if you want peace, prepare for war.’

In 2015, in high secrecy, the US staged its biggest single military exercise since the Cold War. This was Talisman Sabre; an armada of ships and long-range bombers rehearsed an ‘Air-Sea Battle Concept for China’ – ASB – blocking sea lanes in the Straits of Malacca and cutting off China’s access to oil, gas and other raw materials from the Middle East and Africa.

It is such a provocation, and the fear of a US Navy blockade, that has seen China feverishly building strategic airstrips on disputed reefs and islets in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Last July, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China’s claim of sovereignty over these islands. Although the action was brought by the Philippines, it was presented by leading American and British lawyers and can be traced to then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In 2010, Clinton flew to Manila. She demanded that America’s former colony reopen the US military bases closed down in the 1990s following a popular campaign against the violence they generated, especially against Filipino women. She declared China’s claim on the Spratly Islands – which lie more than 7,500 miles (12,000 kilometres) from the United States – a threat to US ‘national security’ and to ‘freedom of navigation’.

Handed millions of dollars in arms and military equipment, the then government of President Benigno Aquino broke off bilateral talks with China and signed a secretive Enhanced Defense Co-operation Agreement with the US. This established five rotating US bases and restored a hated colonial provision that American forces and contractors were immune from Philippine law.

Under the rubric of ‘information dominance’ – the jargon for media manipulation on which the Pentagon spends more than $4 billion – the Obama administration launched a propaganda campaign that cast China, the world’s greatest trading nation, as a threat to ‘freedom of navigation’.

CNN led the way, its ‘national security reporter’ reporting excitedly from on board a US Navy surveillance flight over the Spratlys. The BBC persuaded frightened Filipino pilots to fly a single-engine Cessna over the disputed islands ‘to see how the Chinese would react’. None of the news reports questioned why the Chinese were building airstrips off their own coastline, or why American military forces were massing on China’s doorstep.

The designated chief propagandist is Admiral Harry Harris, the US military commander in Asia and the Pacific. ‘My responsibilities,’ he told The New York Times, ‘cover Bollywood to Hollywood, from polar bears to penguins.’ Never was imperial domination described as pithily.

Malleable media and obsequious partners

Harris is one of a brace of Pentagon admirals and generals briefing selected, malleable journalists and broadcasters, with the aim of justifying a threat as specious as that with which George W Bush and Tony Blair justified the destruction of Iraq.

In Los Angeles in September, Harris declared he was ‘ready to confront a revanchist Russia and an assertive China… If we have to fight tonight, I don’t want it to be a fair fight. If it’s a knife fight, I want to bring a gun. If it’s a gun fight, I want to bring in the artillery… and all our partners with their artillery.’

These ‘partners’ include South Korea, an American colony in all but name and the launch pad for the Pentagon’s Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system, known as THAAD, ostensibly aimed at North Korea. As Professor Postol points out, it targets China.

In Sydney, Australia, Harris called on China to ‘tear down its Great Wall in the South China Sea’. The imagery was front-page news. Australia is America’s most obsequious ‘partner’; its political elite, military, intelligence agencies and the dominant Murdoch media are fully integrated into what is known as the ‘alliance’. Closing the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the motorcade of a visiting American government ‘dignitary’ is not uncommon. The war criminal Dick Cheney was afforded this honour.

Although China is Australia’s biggest trader, on which much of the national economy relies, ‘confronting China’ is the diktat from Washington. The few political dissenters in Canberra risk McCarthyite smears in the Murdoch press. ‘You in Australia are with us come what may,’ said one of the architects of the Vietnam War, McGeorge Bundy. One of the most important US bases is Pine Gap near Alice Springs. Founded by the CIA, it spies on China and all of Asia, and is a vital contributor to Washington’s murderous war by drone in the Middle East.

In October, Richard Marles, the defence spokesperson of the main Australian opposition party, the Labor Party, demanded that ‘operational decisions’ in provocative acts against China be left to military commanders in the South China Sea. In other words, a decision that could mean war with a nuclear power should not be taken by an elected leader or a parliament but by an admiral or a general.

This is the Pentagon line, a historic departure for any state calling itself a democracy. The ascendancy of the Pentagon in Washington – which Daniel Ellsberg has called a silent coup – is reflected in the record $5 trillion the United States has spent on aggressive wars since 9/11, according to a study by Brown University. The million dead in Iraq and the flight of 12 million refugees from at least four countries are the consequence.

‘I state clearly and with conviction,’ said Obama in 2009, ‘America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.’ Under Obama, nuclear warhead spending has risen higher than under any president since the end of the Cold War. A mini nuclear weapon is planned. Known as the B61 Model 12, it will mean, says General James Cartwright, former vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that ‘going smaller [makes its use] more thinkable’.

Peaceful resistance

The Japanese island of Okinawa has 32 military installations, from which Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq have been attacked by the United States. Today, the principal target is China, with whom Okinawans have close cultural and trade ties.

In 1959 a US fighter plane crashed into Miyamori School, Okinawa, killing a number of children.

There are military aircraft constantly in the sky over Okinawa; they sometimes crash into homes and schools. People cannot sleep, teachers cannot teach. Wherever they go in their own country, they are fenced in and told to keep out.

A hugely popular Okinawan movement has been growing since a 12-year-old girl was gang-raped by US troops in 1995. It was one of hundreds of such crimes, many of them never prosecuted. Barely acknowledged in the wider world, the resistance in Okinawa is a vivid expression of how ordinary people can peacefully take on a military giant, and threaten to win.

Their campaign has elected Japan’s first anti-base governor, Takeshi Onaga, and presented an unfamiliar hurdle to the Tokyo government and the ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to repeal Japan’s ‘peace constitution’.

The resistance leaders include Fumiko Shimabukuro, aged 87, a survivor of the Second World War, when a quarter of Okinawans died in the American invasion. Fumiko and hundreds of others took refuge in beautiful Henoko Bay, which she is now fighting to save. The US wants to destroy the bay in order to extend runways for its bombers. As we gathered peacefully outside the US base, Camp Schwab, giant Sea Stallion helicopters hovered over us for no reason other than to intimidate.

Fumiko Shimabukuro (right), an Okinawa World War Two survivor, is now fighting to save a bay from US bombers. With her is Eiko Ginoza.

Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

Across the East China Sea lies the Korean island of Jeju, a semi-tropical sanctuary and World Heritage Site declared ‘an island of world peace’. On this island of world peace has been built one of the most provocative military bases in the world, less than 400 miles (650 kilometres) from Shanghai. The fishing village of Gangjeong is dominated by a South Korean naval base purpose-built for US aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and destroyers equipped with the Aegis missile system, aimed at China.

A people’s resistance to these war preparations has become a presence on Jeju for almost a decade. Every day, often twice a day, villagers, Catholic priests and supporters from all over the world stage a religious mass that blocks the gates of the base. In a country where political demonstrations are often banned, unlike powerful religions, the tactic has produced an inspiring spectacle.

The world is shifting east, but the astonishing vision of Eurasia from China is barely understood in the West

One of the leaders, Father Mun Jeong-hyeon, told me, ‘I sing four songs every day at the base, regardless of the weather. I sing in typhoons – no exception. To build this base, they destroyed the environment, and the life of the villagers, and we should be a witness to that. They want to rule the Pacific. They want to make China isolated in the world. They want to be emperor of the world.’

South Korean woodcarver and Catholic priest, Father Mun Jeong-hyeon, leads a daily protest against the building of a naval base that the US will use to target China.

Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

I flew to Shanghai for the first time in more than a generation. When I was last in China, the loudest noise I remember was the tinkling of bicycle bells; Mao Zedong had recently died, and the cities seemed dark places, in which foreboding and expectation competed. Within a few years, Deng Xiaoping, the ‘man who changed China’, was the ‘paramount leader’. Nothing prepared me for the astonishing changes today.

I met Lijia Zhang, a Beijing journalist and typical of a new class of outspoken mavericks. Her best-selling book has the ironic title Socialism Is Great! She grew up during the chaotic and brutal Cultural Revolution and has lived in the US and Europe. ‘Many Americans imagine,’ she said, ‘that Chinese people live a miserable, repressed life with no freedom whatsoever. The [idea of] the yellow peril has never left them… They have no idea there are some 500 million people being lifted out of poverty, and some would say it’s 600 million.’

China today: a tourist snaps the bull of capitalism in front of Shanghai’s Bund hotel, bedecked with communist flags.

Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

She described modern China as a ‘golden cage’. ‘Since the reforms started,’ she said, ‘and we’ve become so much better off, China has become one of the most unequal societies in the world. There are lots of protests now: typically, land being grabbed by officials for commercial development. But farmers are more aware of their rights; and young factory workers are demanding a better wage and conditions.’

The world is shifting east

China today presents perfect ironies, not least the house in Shanghai where Mao and his comrades secretly founded the Communist Party of China in 1921. Today, it stands in the heart of a very capitalist shopping district; you walk out of this communist shrine with your Little Red Book and your plastic bust of Mao into the embrace of Starbucks, Apple, Cartier, Prada.

Would Mao be shocked? I doubt it. Five years before his great revolution in 1949, he sent this secret message to Washington. ‘China must industrialize,’ he wrote. ‘This can only be done by free enterprise. Chinese and American interests fit together, economically and politically. America need not fear that we will not be co-operative. We cannot risk any conflict.’

Mao offered to meet Franklin Roosevelt in the White House, and his successor Harry Truman, and his successor Dwight Eisenhower. He was rebuffed, or wilfully ignored. The opportunity that might have changed contemporary history, prevented wars in Asia and saved countless lives was lost because the truth of these overtures was denied in 1950s Washington ‘when the catatonic Cold War trance,’ wrote the critic James Naremore, ‘held our country in its rigid grip’.

Eric Li, a Shanghai venture capitalist and social scientist, told me, ‘I make the joke: in America you can change political parties, but you can’t change the policies. In China you cannot change the party, but you can change policies. The political changes that have taken place in China this past 66 years have been wider and broader and greater than probably in any other major country in living memory.’

Beijing journalist and outspoken maverick, Lijia Zhang.

Beijing journalist and outspoken maverick, Lijia Zhang.

For all the difficulties of those left behind by China’s rapid growth, such as workers from the countryside living on the edge in cities built for conspicuous consumption, and those Tiananmen brave-hearts still challenging ‘the centre’, the Party, what is striking is the widespread sense of optimism that buttresses the epic of change.

The world is shifting east; but the astonishing vision of Eurasia from China is barely understood in the West. The ‘New Silk Road’ is a ribbon of trade, ports, pipelines and high-speed trains all the way to Europe. China, the world’s leader in rail technology, is negotiating with 28 countries for routes on which trains will reach up to 400 kilometres an hour. This opening to the world has the approval of much of humanity and, along the way, is uniting China and Russia; and they are doing it entirely without ‘us’ in the West.

We – or many of us – remain in thrall to the US, which has intervened violently in the affairs of a third of the members of the United Nations, destroying governments, subverting elections, imposing blockades. In the past five years, the US has shipped deadly weapons to 96 countries, most of them poor. Dividing societies in order to control them is US policy, as the tragedies in Iraq and Syria demonstrate.

Protesters on Jeju, South Korea.

Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

‘I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being,’ said Barack Obama, evoking the national fetishism of the 1930s. This modern cult of superiority is Americanism, the world’s dominant predator. Accompanied by a brainwashing that presents it as enlightenment on the march, the conceit insinuates our lives.

In September, the Atlantic Council, a US geopolitical thinktank, published a report that predicted a Hobbesian world ‘marked by the breakdown of order, violent extremism [and] an era of perpetual war’. The new enemies were a ‘resurgent’ Russia and an ‘increasingly aggressive’ China. Only heroic America can save us.

There is a demented quality about this war-mongering. It is as if the ‘American Century’ – proclaimed in 1941 by the American imperialist Henry Luce, owner of Time magazine – has ended without notice and no-one has had the courage to tell the emperor to take his guns and go home.

John Pilger

Interview with John Pilger

NI: What’s The War You Don't See about?

JP: The film asks: ‘What is the role of the media in rapacious wars like Iraq and Afghanistan? Why do so many journalists beat the drums of war and not challenge the spin and lies of governments? And how are the crimes of war reported and justified when they are our crimes?’ It’s a film about truth and justice.

In the opening sequence, I refer to David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister during much of the First World War, who had a private chat with the editor of The Guardian, CP Scott, at the height of the carnage. ‘If people really knew the truth,’ said Lloyd George, ‘the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.’ My film is about people’s right to know.

It has always seemed odd to me that as journalists we examine people’s professional lives, but not our own. We treasure our myths. Edmund Burke called the press a ‘fourth estate’ that would check the other great institutions of democracy. It was a quintessentially liberal view. It was also romantic nonsense – honourable exceptions aside. Up till the arrival of the corporate press at the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were often fiercely independent and saw themselves as voices of ordinary people. The media – press and broadcasting – has long since become an extension of the established order, and frequently its mouthpiece and valet.

These days, we surely owe it to the public to come clean about the pressures and seductions, crude and subliminal, that subvert our independence. War – the industrial killing of people and the destruction of their society – is the ultimate test. One of my favourite quotations is Claud Cockburn’s: ‘Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.’ I suggest some of us might engrave that on our bathroom mirrors.

What led you to do a film on this theme? Was there a specific trigger for it?

What war does: a child injured in a bomb blast, Peshwar, Pakistan. The bombing was in retaliation for a US drone attack.

The first trigger was the sight of children burned almost to death by Napalm B – which keeps on burning beneath the skin – then finding out that such an atrocity was not an aberration. It was realizing the racism in colonial warfare, and how apologetic reporting perpetuates this.

You’ve said ‘the media is not covering war. It is promoting war.’ Are there any media outlets whose activities have especially shocked or outraged you?

Well, you get crude examples of war promotion on Fox television in the United States. However, Fox has the virtue of leaving us in no doubt where it stands; and that’s true of most of the Murdoch empire. Murdoch himself has said that war is OK. Too bad about the innocents; war is necessary, says the great baron. Certainly, it is necessary for the arms corporations which are a pillar of the US war economy. The more insidious and perhaps more powerful war promoters are in the respectable media, such as the New York Times and the BBC. Two important studies following the invasion of Iraq received little media attention. Cardiff University found that the BBC overwhelmingly promoted the Blair government’s war agenda; and Media Tenor, based in Berlin, found that of the world’s principal broadcasters, the BBC gave just three per cent of its pre-invasion coverage to anti-war voices. Only CBS in the United States was worse. Censorship by omission is, in my view, the most virulent form of warmongering. ‘When the truth is replaced by silence,’ said the Soviet dissident poet Yevtushenko, ‘the silence is a lie.’

Do you think the reporting of war is actually worse now than it was at the beginning of your career? Is the modern ‘embedding’ of journalists a major factor?

It’s not worse, it’s just better organized – though in many respects it’s far less successful. The last British war completely free of state censorship was the Crimea, which produced some of the greatest war reporting of all time: William Howard Russell’s exposé of the disaster of the charge of the Light Brigade. He and his editor at The Times, John Delane, were almost charged with treason for telling the truth. This changed completely during the First World War, when journalists saw their job, wrote Philip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle, as telling ‘only tales of gallantry’. The modern idea of ‘embedding’ is similar. More than 700 journalists were embedded with US and British forces during the invasion of Iraq. They told good action stories and showed us a little of the obligatory ‘bang-bang’ but they managed to pass over or obscure the truth that the brutal conquest and plunder of a defenceless country was under way. That said, the reporting on the worldwide web was an important antidote; look at Dahr Jamail’s powerful, independent reporting from Fallujah and the independent filmmaking that gave civilians a voice. We show some remarkable examples in The War You Don't See.

Mikhaela Reid

You have talked about ‘wars of perception’ in which the news media plays a major role. What do you mean by this?

The term belongs to General David Petraeus, the current US commander in Afghanistan, who wrote in the 2006 US Counterinsurgency Manual that what mattered was not so much military superiority as persuading the public at home that you were winning, regardless of the reality. In other words, the public is the true enemy of governments that pursue unpopular colonial wars which can only be ‘won’ if the public is successfully deceived. This owes much to Edward Bernays, who is said to have invented the term ‘public relations’ soon after the First World War. Bernays’ dictum was that the facts didn’t matter as much as the success of ‘false reality’, and that the manipulators of public thinking belonged to an ‘invisible government that is the true ruling power in our country’. Of course, none of this can succeed without the media as its transmitter and amplifier. And these days it hasn’t really succeeded. Some 77 per cent of the British public is opposed to the colonial adventure in Afghanistan, and most were against the invasion of Iraq.

What do you think can be done to improve the coverage of war, so that the public gets a picture of what is really going on?

The truth of war is grotesque. It is trees hanging with the body parts of children. It is people going insane before your eyes.

The answer is: tell the obvious truth; and the truth of war is the grotesque. It is trees hanging with the body parts of children. It is people going insane before your eyes. It is terrified soldiers with their trousers full of shit. It is human damage that runs through countless families: civilians and soldiers. That’s war. The coverage of war should be this eyewitness but it should also try to tell us the why. That means journalists not colluding but investigating. One of the most revealing documents released by Wikileaks was a 2,000-page Ministry of Defence document that equated investigative journalists with terrorists. That reflects the lethal stupidity that runs like a current through the war-making industry. It says they are afraid of the truth.

Should we be giving more space to local reporters who are from the regions where the wars are being fought?

Only if they try to tell the why of a war, not dispense sentimentalized tales about soldiers from local families – which the military relish.

You have also talked about ‘a war against journalism’. What do you mean by this?

Journalism ought to be about telling as much of the truth as possible in the circumstances. And governments can be expected to wage a constant war on truth-tellers, be they whistleblowers or fearless reporters. That’s why the Pentagon recently set up a department to fight ‘cyberwar’. To the military propagandists, cyberspace is unconquered and, worse, populated by mavericks they can’t control. This is only partly true, of course, but there are enough good journalists writing exclusively for the web to justify the war-makers’ alarm.

Do you draw a distinction between the corporate media world of Murdoch, CNN and the BBC and independent media in terms of which stories are told and the ways in which they are told?

Yes, but mostly in style. Look at Andrew Marr’s recent interview with Tony Blair to mark, or celebrate, Blair’s self-serving memoirs. Marr didn’t ask a single probing question about Blair’s record on Iraq and allowed Blair to promote an attack on Iran. That’s not much different from an interview conducted in the Murdoch media, which I doubt would be as compliant. Look at the BBC’s coverage of the day of the invasion of Iraq; it’s an echo chamber: the message is that Blair is vindicated. Fox did the same in America for Bush.

US General Tommy Franks telling it like it isn't to journalists at Bagran airbase, Afghanistan.

Do you see any glimmers of hope in the way important issues are being discussed in the mass media?

There are some superb reporters in the mainstream – Patrick Cockburn in The Independent has been a most honourable exception in Iraq. Ian Cobain of The Guardian has brilliantly exposed the torture and injustice of the so-called War on Terror.

On the web, there is some exciting new journalism – not to be confused with top-of-the-head blogging. Look at some of the work posted on Tom Feeley’s excellent Information Clearing House and on ZNet. In Britain, Media Lens has broken new ground with the first informed and literate analysis and criticism of the liberal media. This is the new fifth estate.

Is there another issue on which you think the public is currently being massively deceived?

The major deception in Britain today is the political/media consensus that there is an economic crisis requiring a devastation of public finances and people’s lives. If you look back on the coverage of the ‘crash’ in the autumn two years ago, the shock of it forced the media to tell the truth: corrupt banks and an unregulated financial sector were rightly identified as the source of the problem, and that was the news. Within a year, journalists were back ‘on message’ and the assumptions of the media echoed the nonsense of the political élite that ‘we are all in this together’: a deception so gross it insults the nation’s intelligence. Britain is not on the edge of bankruptcy: this is one of the world’s wealthiest economies; the richest 10 per cent control $6,300 billion with an average per household of $6.3 million. An equitable rate of tax would see off the so-called deficit in no time. In any case, the ‘deficit’ is ideological: the product of an almost cultish obsession of central banks and financiers with shifting the wealth of nations to the very top and keeping it there. At the end of the Second World War, Britain was officially bankrupt yet the Labour government created some of the country’s greatest public institutions, such as the National Health Service. None of this would be a mystery to a media that saw itself as an agency of people, not power.

What is the good news?

The good news is that much of direct and indirect propaganda is not working.

The good news is that much of direct and indirect propaganda is not working. As I say, most people oppose colonial wars. There is a critical public intelligence that runs counter to the authority of the media in all its wondrous digital forms. Perhaps people sense the historical moment: that their social democracy is being appropriated by insatiable corporatism, regardless of which party is in power. In many countries – Greece, France, Spain – this is well understood and is being translated into direct action. In Britain, it is still a seed beneath the snow. But that will change; it has to.

John Pilger was interviewed by Vanessa Baird.

The War You Don't See has its première at the Barbican, London on 7 December and at the Curzon Soho, London on 13 December. It will go to air on ITV on 14 December at 10.35 pm. For further details go to

Why did Chávez lose?

The _War on Democracy_ was made before the recent referendum in Venezuela. Had I had a later opportunity, I would have added a question to my interview with Hugo Chávez, asking him why he thought at least three million of his supporters abstained and caused him narrowly to lose the vote. I think his response might have been surprising that people may have wanted to punish him for not getting rid of corruption and crime and not redistributing wealth, as his vision of socialism promised. And I would agree with that.

Chávez has been able to use oil revenue to make some extraordinary changes among the majority of Venezuelans; but this also has allowed him to leave the rapacious privileges of the wealthy minority untouched. It’s ironic that he is attacked for threatening the freedoms of this minority when he has done no such thing and, I believe, has no interest in doing so.

The Venezuelan rich have got richer under during his time as president, and corruption, and crime have deepened. Crime is an endemic problem of poverty and inequality; corruption is an endemic problem of the same poverty and inequality, and many of Chávez's reforms have been designed to fight it by building a parallel administration that circumvents the old corrupt élites and their ways; but this is a long, hard struggle.

I think he would have won the referendum had the changes been better explained and had not made it all seem like a loyalty test. Of course, had he won, the private media in Venezuela – a 'wild west' of journalism bitterly opposed to the government – would have cried foul and continued in its abuse of perhaps the most democratically mandated leader on earth as a dictator. And the Western media would have echoed this. What they find so intolerable is that here is a government that has dared to go against an ideology that says there is no alternative. Venezuela has shown there is an alternative, however imperfect its progress.

The _War on Democracy_, by *John Pilger* and *Chris Martin*, is available from all good retailers.

The crusaders

In free societies, wrote George Orwell, ‘unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban’. One of the least discussed, some would say most suppressed issues of the contemporary world is the part played by the media in promoting the ideology and propaganda of Western power. The roots of this propaganda, which can influence how we in the developed world see ourselves and other societies, go back more than 60 years to a largely forgotten history.

In the United States in the 1930s, revolution was in the air as working men and women rallied to a view of life very different from that which had brought about the Great Depression. ‘Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business,’ said the populist John Dewey. Millions of people rounded on capitalists as the source of their hardship and of inequality. The response of the American establishment was a propaganda crusade of extraordinary intensity. A series of ‘Americanization’ campaigns was launched, depicting strikes and demonstrations as unpatriotic, trade unions as the enemy of workers and social democracy ‘infected’ by communism. This reached a crescendo in the 1950s with the inquisition known as McCarthyism, which singled out as heretics those who questioned ‘free enterprise’ and ‘the American way of life’ – a slogan invented by a public relations agency.

The scale of the crusade, wrote the editor of _Fortune_ magazine, was ‘staggering’. By 1954, business-sponsored propaganda consumed half the resources devoted to school textbooks. Alex Carey, the social scientist who pioneered the study of Americanization, described the three most significant political developments of the 20th century as ‘the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy’.

Monocultures of the mind

Today, most of humanity is subjected, in one form or another, to corporate propaganda. While the clichés have changed – ‘the American way of life’ has become ‘globalization’ – the essential aim is the same: to expand the power of capital, mostly Western and American capital, into most aspects of our lives so that almost everything is a commodity and the only value is measured by cost and consumption. Unlike the 1930s, the modern crusade has been institutionalized in totalitarian bodies with prodigious power: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, whose manipulative ‘loans’, ‘bail-outs’ and ‘treaties’ ensure foreign ownership of everything from education to water to living organisms. Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva has described this as a form of brainwashing, a ‘monoculture of the mind’.

The media is the main carrier of the crusade’s propaganda. For example, media language has systematically appropriated positive concepts, emptying them of their dictionary meaning and refilling them. ‘Reform’ now means regression, even destruction, and those who promote _laissez-faire_ capitalism are ‘reformers’. Selling off public enterprises (such as Britain’s integrated railways) is ‘breaking up monopolies’. ‘Restructuring’ is the transfer of income from production to speculation. ‘Deregulation’ is the shift of power from the national welfare to international banks and a local corporate élite. And ‘market economics’ means capitalism for the majority and socialism for the rich and powerful: an ingenious system under which the poor are persecuted and the rich given billions in public subsidies, such as minimal corporate tax and a range of opportunities to avoid tax.

This reversal of political language has an incessant message: there is no alternative to the single-ideology state, with its almost identical competing pro-business parties. Political lobby journalists and commentators, conservatives and liberals alike, work assiduously to obfuscate this truth, promoting personality differences between essentially likeminded politicians. The real divisions are to be found outside government and they have never been greater. They reflect the unprecedented disparity between the poverty of the majority of humanity and the power and privilege of a corporate and militarist minority, headquartered in Washington, with a branch office in Whitehall. Their goal is to control the world’s resources. One of the reasons these mighty pirates have such a free reign is that the Anglo-American intelligentsia – journalists, academics, writers, the ‘people with a voice’ – are quiet or complicit or ‘twittering’, as one critic said of English mainstream novelists, and often rich as a result.

As I write this, a BBC reporter casually describes the American ideologue Milton Friedman as ‘the respected ... perhaps the world’s greatest economist’. There is no qualification, no suggestion of who this important figure really is. As head of the infamous Chicago School, Friedman inspired the policies of Reagan and Thatcher, the blueprint for the extremes of ‘globalization’, using Chile under the fascist Pinochet as his ‘laboratory’.

History without memory

One of the most pervasive myths is that we live in an ‘information age’. We actually live in a media age, in which most of the available information is repetitive, politically safe (that is, it reflects the one true path) and is limited by invisible boundaries. Certainly, media technology, such as the ‘digital revolution’, may appear to offer more choice and greater horizons, yet the media itself is actually shrinking in terms both of its ownership and editorial agenda or world view. According to a comprehensive study by the leading British voluntary agencies, television in Britain, reputedly the best, has so drastically cut back its serious content that little more than three per cent of its overall output is devoted to the rest of humanity, and most of that is on the minority channels.

Consider the coverage of the Middle East. While Palestinian grievances may be acknowledged, Israel’s news agenda dominates; the Israeli military, a colonial oppressor employing a terrorist and homicidal strategy, is still ‘the security forces’. Britain and America bomb Iraq day after day, killing civilians, illegally, with scant media reporting. Until recently, there was no recognition of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children, as a direct result of Anglo-American designed sanctions. This followed the 1991 attack, known as the ‘Gulf War’, that saw the slaughter of as many as 200,000 Iraqis: a fact that went largely unreported in what was generally agreed to be a bloodless victory for military technology. In Kosovo in 1999, the justification for raining cluster bombs on Yugoslavia, killing 1,500 civilians, and precipitating the stampede of Kosovar Albanians was a ‘genocide’ evoking ‘World War Two and the Holocaust’ (Tony Blair). There was no genocide. Last year, international forensic teams found that 2,700 people on both sides had died over a year-long period, the victims of a civil war not unlike that in Ireland in the 1970s. This passed virtually unreported.

It is time we journalists analyzed the often subtle pressures that manipulate us. Humanity is too often reported in terms of its usefulness to Western strategic and corporate interests. The culpability of ‘our’ governments is too often minimized. Regardless of the innovation of media supplements in newspapers and media studies courses, this subject remains a taboo, or is skirted defensively.

A barely recognized danger is the growth of public relations almost as a substitute for real journalism. Max Clifford, the famous celebrity PR man, says the public relations consultant ‘is filling the role investigative reporters should fill but no longer can because [of] cost-cutting’. According to _PR_ Week, the amount of ‘PR generated material’ in the British media is ’50 per cent in a broadsheet newspaper in every section apart from sport’. What often passes for news in the financial pages, is ‘packaged’ by PR consultants paid by investment firms.

In the Australian press during the 1980s, the cheerleaders of what was known as economic rationalism – Thatcherism – were the financial page writers, who relentlessly misrepresented _laissez-faire_ ideology as economic necessity. Their specious message, rather like that of a cult, was that there was no other way.

‘History without memory,’ says Time magazine, ‘confines Americans to a sort of eternal present.’ As the rest of us are drawn into this eternal present, the memory struggles to rescue the truth that rights come not from something called consumerism or from technology, but from a long and painful history of struggle. The great demonstration in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organization was reported as a new phenomenon. On the contrary, there have been many Seattles in the developing world, the ‘south’. Last year, an estimated million people demonstrated against globalization in some 30 countries. When this is reported in the ‘global’ media, the images invariably are of confused street conflict.

Those who teach journalism have a responsibility to make young journalists aware of the nature of insidious propaganda and of censorship by omission, and to provide them with survival kits and navigation routes through the system, warning them about the pitfalls, such as the seduction of the Murdoch mantra of ‘giving the public what it wants’ – code for giving the public no choice. The late James Cameron called journalism the first draft of history; if the propaganda of power is accepted and reported uncritically, if circus journalism and me-ism is allowed to dominate, journalists contribute to the shaping of history as an instrument of power, exacerbating human divisions and conflict.

However, if they recognize and expose propaganda, they give their readers, viewers and listeners the opportunity to shape their own history. The great muckraker Claud Cockburn offered this advice: ‘Never believe anything until it is officially denied.’

*John Pilger* is currently working on a television documentary about globalization. His website is: [](

_In the Name of Justice: the television reporting of John Pilger_ by Anthony Hayward has just been published by Bloomsbury.

Cambodia: Return to Year Zero

[image, unknown]

‘It is my duty,’ wrote the correspondent of The Times at the time of liberation of the Nazi death camp at Belsen, ‘to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind.’ That was how I felt in the summer of 1979. During 22 years as a journalist, most of them spent in transit at places of uncertainty and upheaval, I had not seen anything to compare with what I saw then in Cambodia.

My aircraft flew low, following the unravelling of the Mekong River west from Vietnam. Once over Cambodia, there appeared to be no-one, no movement, not even an animal, as if the great population of Asia had stopped at the border. Nothing seemed to have been planted nor was growing, except the forest, and the mangrove and lines of tall wild grass. On the edge of towns this grass would follow straight lines, as though planted. Fertilized by human compost – by the remains of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children – those lines marked common graves in a nation where as many as a million-and-a-half people, one fifth of the population, were ‘missing’.

We made our approach into what had been the international airport at Phnom Penh. At the edge of the forest there appeared a pyramid of rusting cars like objects in a mirage. The pile included ambulances, a fire engine, police cars, refrigerators, washing machines, generators, television sets, telephones and typewriters. ‘Here lies the modern age,’ a headstone might have read, ‘abandoned 17 April 1975, Year Zero.’ From that date, anybody who had owned such ‘luxuries’, anybody who had lived in a city or town, anybody with more than a basic education or who had acquired a modern skill, anybody who knew or worked for foreigners, was in danger. Many would die.

Year Zero was the dawn of an age in which, in extremis, there would be no families, no sentiment, no expression of love or grief, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no books, no learning, no holidays, no music: only work and death. ‘If people can build Angkor Wat,’ said Pol Pot in 1977, ‘they can do anything.’ In that year he killed probably more of his people than at any time since he took power.

In my first hours in Phnom Penh I took no photographs; incredulity saw to that. I had no sense of people, of even the remnants of a population; the few human shapes I glimpsed seemed incoherent images, detached from the city itself. On catching sight of me, they would flit into the refuge of a courtyard or a cinema or a filling station. Only when I pursued several, and watched them forage, did I see that they were children. One child about ten years old – although age was difficult to judge – ran into a wardrobe lying on its side which was his or her shelter. In an abandoned Esso station an old woman and three emaciated children squatted around a pot containing a mixture of roots and leaves, which bubbled over a fire fuelled with paper money: thousands of snapping, crackling, brand-new bank notes lay in the gutters sluiced there by the afternoon rains, from the destroyed Bank of Cambodia.

Only work and death in Year Zero: refugees from a land that banned love, grief, hospitals, schools, books, holidays and music.

During the coming weeks one sound remained in my consciousness day and night: the soft, almost lilting sound of starving, sick children approaching death. In the eight months since the Vietnamese liberation, only three relief planes had come from the West. By the end of October, the tenth month, UNICEF and the Red Cross had sent 100 tons of relief; or as the Red Cross in Geneva preferred to call it, ‘more than’ 100 tons. In effect nothing. Few geopolitical games have been as cynical and bereft of civilized behaviour as that which isolated and punished the people of Cambodia. It is a game that still beckons a second holocaust in Asia.

A friend of the moon
One of my good friends is Chay Song Heng, who spent three and a half years as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. Heng pretended to be an idiot so that the guards would not suspect him of being educated and kill him. Confined to a rice-growing ‘co-operative’ and banned from speaking all but compliances, he imagined he was ‘a friend of the moon’. He studied the lunar phases and kept a mental record of the hours, days, months and years. When liberation came on 25 December 1978 he said, ‘can you imagine, I was only two days wrong!’

Heng is a translator and interpreter of English. His weekly government salary is enough to buy one can of Coca-Cola, so he takes classes in one of Phnom Penh’s ‘England language streets’. He is a diminutive man, who walks with a bounce, although I have now and then seen him tremble and his eyes reflect acute anxiety. ‘In the Pol Pot years,’ he said, ‘I used to walk to the corner of the paddy in the evening. There I would practise my English. I would say to myself – well, mumble actually, in case I was overheard – “Good morning, Heng, and how are you this morning?” and I’d reply, “I’m quite well thank you, apart from the difficulty of living. I am a captive in my own country, and I am condemned for nothing. But they have neither my brain, nor my soul”.’

Once I drove in Phnom Penh with Heng. Every bridge leading into the city had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, except one which is now the city’s artery and its monument to Year Zero. ‘On the morning of 17 April 1975,’ said Heng, ‘the Khmer Rouge came down our street, banging on the doors, ordering us to get out. The whole city was being evacuated, pushed out. My mother, father and I got to the bridge at five o’clock, and it took us two hours to cross it with guns in our backs. During the night a woman gave birth to twins; when the guards told us to get up and move on, the new babies were left in the grass to die. The mother died later, I was told.’

Heng is one of the few people to have retained his real name. Most people have a number of aliases, or entirely new identities. Everybody remembers the moment when a list of names was read out by the Khmer Rouge. You waited for your name, and to hear it was to prepare for death. Heng was a government servant. Once, as we spoke, he had just heard the news that 50 people had been taken off two trains by the Khmer Rouge. A list was compiled on the spot and government servants were shot dead.

The sustaining of Pol Pot
The United Nations has played a pivotal role in Pol Pot’s possible return. Although the Khmer Rouge government ceased to exist in January 1979, its representatives continued to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the UN. Their right to do so was defended and promoted by the US as part of its new alliance with China – Pol Pot’s principal underwriter and Vietnam’s ancient foe – and as part of its cold war with the Soviet Union and its revenge on Vietnam. In 1981 President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbignew 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, known as KEG, in Thailand. KEG’s job was to ‘monitor’ the distribution of Western humanitarian supplies sent to the refugee camps, including the Khmer Rouge. By the late 1980s KEG had become the Working Group, supplying battle plans and intelligence to a Cambodian ‘resistance’, headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and dominated by the Khmer Rouge. From 1983 Britain’s SAS trained the ‘resistance’ forces in mine-laying and explosives.

When the Vietnamese withdrew unconditionally from Cambodia in 1989, the pressure was kept up. The US and China demanded that the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh share power with the Khmer Rouge coalition. Under pressure from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, the coalition and the Hun Sen government signed ‘peace accords’ in Paris in November 1991. The Khmer Rouge was now legally back in Cambodia. The ‘peace process’ provided Pol Pot with a Trojan Horse back to power.

At their compound directly behind Prince Sihanouk’s royal palace in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge have the look of men who cannot believe their luck. ‘So nice to see you again,’ they declare to a respectful press corps. ‘Yes, yes... everything is fine. Yes, of course, we shall consider your request for an interview...’

The unthinkable is being normalized in Cambodia. In an interview with the UN’s Australian commander, Lieutenant General John Sanderson, I referred to the ‘genocide’ committed by the Khmer Rouge. ‘Genocide is your term!’ he came back. I reminded him that actually, no, it wasn’t. In 1979 the UN Human Rights Commission described Pol Pot’s crimes as ‘the worst to have occurred anywhere in the world since Nazism’: and, in 1985, the UN Special Rapporteur on Genocide ruled that what the Khmer Rouge had done was ‘genocide... even under the most restricted definition’. Still, the General would not utter such an ‘inappropriate’ word. He was, he said, ‘committed to impartiality’.

Ramshackle and precarious, life in Phnom Penh has yet to benefit from the peace process.

Semantic games
For me, standing in the noonday heat outside the Khmer Rouge compound in Phnom Penh, all the disingenuous semantic games and the contortions of intellect and morality that have driven the campaign of recent years to make the Khmer Rouge respectable, and the ‘peace process’ appear to work, take on a vivid obscenity.

Today, in their air-conditioned offices and quarters that stand at the scene of their crime, the Khmer Rouge are courted. Among them is Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot’s chief representative on the Supreme National Council (SNC), which the UN set up as Cambodia’s interim authority until elections in May. The Khmer Rouge cannot be outvoted, and the SNC can do nothing without their agreement. Khieu Samphan was president of Pol Pot’s terror state between 1976 and 1979, and contributed much of the ‘theory’ that led to the ‘agrarian revolution’ that wiped out a fifth of the population.

This is the price Cambodians must pay – runs the argument of the ‘world community’ – if ‘free and fair’ elections are to be held and a government in Phnom Penh made acceptable to the UN (in other words Washington and Beijing). A proportional voting system will almost certainly produce a coalition made up of the present Phnom Penh administration, together with FUNCIPEC, the acronym of the party led by Prince Rannariddh, Sihanouk’s son, and the KPNLF led by Son Sann. The latter two were allied to the Khmer Rouge for ten years, and in some respects still are: they owe them numerous debts.

UN officials have been prevented from entering Khmer Rouge areas and registering people to vote. Those who have tried have found themselves staring into a B40 rocket launcher: others have been taken prisoner. At the Phnom Penh headquarters of the UN Transitional Authority (UNTAC), an air of almost obsessive unreality prevails. The Japanese diplomat in charge, Yasushi Akashi, regularly implores the Khmer Rouge to ‘refrain’ from preventing the UN getting on with the ‘mission’. In return, Akashi is abused in racist language on Khmer Rouge radio.

Few of the UN bureaucracy seem to understand, or want to understand, the implications of a peace process that has allowed the Khmer Rouge to grow stronger by ignoring it, while their principal opponents, the Hun Sen government, have grown weaker by respecting it. Apart from a few defectors, not a single Khmer Rouge soldier has come forward to lay down his weapons. In striking contrast, most of the 100,000-plus militia of the Hun Sen government has been wound up. While UN personnel are barred from moving more than 400 yards from Khmer Rouge military headquarters in Pailin, General Sanderson has confirmed that UN forces have ‘prevented the Phnom Penh army from significantly building up the counter-offensive’.

Having invested itself with the sanctity of ‘organizing democracy’ in Cambodia, the UN bureaucracy has made clear that the elections will be held, regardless of the conditions under which people will vote or whether they will vote at all. Yet the prerequisite of any election – people’s security – hardly exists in a country that has never had an election and is still at war. For example, there has been no serious attempt to begin clearing the minefields. One of the cruellest, and truest, jokes I heard was that ‘people will vote with their legs’. The UN continues to deny development aid to Cambodia: a fraction of the $880 million pledged at a UN conference in Tokyo last June has found its way into ‘reconstruction’. The unstated reason is that this might strengthen the Phnom Penh government which, having lost its Soviet bloc support, cannot afford to pay its civil servants, teachers, nurses and soldiers.

At Tokyo, the Americans pledged $60 million, of which about $2 million has been spent building a strategic road and facilities across the Thai border into the KPNLF headquarters at Thmar Pouk. This contravenes the Paris accords, of which the US is a sponsor. The American road is now controlled by the Khmer Rouge, who operate road blocks at strategic junctions.

Déjà vu
The recolonization of Cambodia is well under way. The UN’s American financial adviser, Roger Lawrence, has charge of the Central Bank of Cambodia and ‘represents’ Cambodia at meetings of the Washington-dominated World Bank and IMF. Thus, Cambodia is being eased into the world of ‘structural adjustment programmes’, which will ensure that it has a ‘free market’ and ‘growth’ economy favouring foreign market investors, such as the Thais, Singaporeans and, of course, Japanese, who are already ‘investing’ in the country with the finesse of pirates falling on buried treasure.

Since I was last here in 1990 the changes are quite astonishing. The 21,000 UN troops and officials, their vehicles, their villas and their camp followers give a sense of déjà vu. Is this the honky-tonk Phnom Penh of the early 1970s, just before the Khmer Rouge took power? A memo distributed to UN personnel says: ‘Please try not to park your Landcruiser outside brothels’. UN personnel have their own generators and clean water; but, without development aid, nothing can be done about the water supply, which is fed by the sewers and leaves tens of thousands of children dying from intestinal diseases. (Drugs are available, on the ‘free market’.)

There is little work for people who cannot serve foreigners. Young men are blinded with flash burns from welding iron gates for UN villas. They lie on bamboo mats in agony with damp rags on their faces, until their next shift. At a diplomatic cocktail party in the Cambodiana Hotel, a ‘luxurious’ monstrosity beside the Mekong, the talk is, as ever, about the iniquities of corruption in Phnom Penh. No irony is noted.

During the 1980s, when the UN operated a blockade against Cambodia, a former senior Foreign Office official, John Pedler, met many of the world’s foreign policy makers, as a representative of Britain’s Cambodia Trust. He wrote to me: ‘Specifically, I was told in Washington at the top career level that “the President will not accept the Hun Sen government”, and “we are working for a messy sort of situation with a non-Hun Sen government, but without the Khmer Rouge who will continue to lurk in the jungles”, in other words, for a state of affairs that will favour the destabilization of Hanoi.’

This is the ‘better result’ that Washington’s ideologues have long sought in Indo-China. And if, following ‘free and fair’ elections, a pro-Washington, anti-Vietnam, IMF-sponsored, urban-dominated regime does not survive, and Pol Pot materializes, those responsible can at least say they tried to bring peace to this ‘impossible country’. ‘The main thing,’ says Gareth Evans, the Australian foreign affairs minister sometimes credited with dreaming up the UN plan, ‘is to accentuate the positive... to keep our fingers crossed.’

What can be done? One solution, according to Cambodia specialist Raoul Jennar, is to give the UN a fresh mandate to isolate the Khmer Rouge. Jennar believes a new interim Cambodian authority, set up by the UN and presided over by Prince Sihanouk, should set about rehabilitating the country over a two-year period. Then a referendum would ask people what kind of regime they wanted and a constituent assembly would be elected.

My own view is that the UN, reborn of the ‘new world order’, has limited credibility, other than as a means of imposing the will of the great powers. However, if individual governments are serious about preventing another holocaust in Asia, as I believe a number are, they should be pressed to provide urgently the resources to rebuild Cambodia’s infrastructure and its newly constituted national army.

What is most shameful is that a peaceful solution was entirely possible. All the ‘great powers’ had to do in 1979 was to ensure that the Khmer Rouge withered on the vine. Even now it would, I believe, take just one government’s unilateral action to end the silence and bring others along. But the likelihood is that if the genocidists are to be brought to trial Cambodians will first have to resist them by force. When that happens, the rest of us should, for once, be on the right side.

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