Cambodia: Return to Year Zero

The Khmer Rouge slaughtered a fifth of the Cambodian people between 1975 and 1979. John Pilger, who was among the first to alert the world to the Cambodian ‘killing fields’ and their aftermath, describes how the politics of international convenience has built a Trojan Horse for their return.

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

‘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.



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

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.

A sponsored peace: a UN checkpoint in Cambodia announces the advent of a new world order. NIC DUNLOP
A sponsored peace: a UN checkpoint in Cambodia announces the advent of a new world order. NIC DUNLOP

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.