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'where Do I Start?'


new internationalist
issue 242 - April 1993

'Where do I start?'
Very few aid agencies were willing to defy the ‘official’
embargo and get help through to the Cambodian people.
John Pilger remembers how it was done by Oxfam.

Orphanage in Phnom Penh supported by aid agencies.

One of the most informed and courageous voices on Cambodia has belonged to the humanitarian relief agency, Oxfam UK, which in 1979 defied government pressure and went to help the stricken nation following the overthrow of Pol Pot.

That June representatives of the main voluntary agencies were called to the Foreign Office, where they were told that the British boycott of Vietnam now applied to Cambodia. They were warned that the Vietnamese were ‘obstructing’ aid and that if they attempted to fly into Phnom Penh they might be fired upon. This was official deception on a grand scale, setting the tone for British policy to the present day.

At the meeting was Jim Howard, an engineer and then Oxfam’s senior ‘fireman’, a veteran of disaster relief in Biafra, India, the Sahel, Latin America and Asia. Oxfam ignored the Foreign Office ‘warning’. Howard flew to Paris with $30,000 in cash and got in touch with an air charter company, based in Luxembourg, whose Icelandic and Danish pilots had a reputation for flying ‘anything anywhere’. They were prepared to fly a DC8 cargo aircraft to Phnom Penh; Howard set about loading it with drugs, vitamins and powdered milk. On August 19 he sent his passport to the Vietnamese embassy in Paris, where it was stamped and returned to him that afternoon. A few hours later he was airborne.

When the aircraft landed at Bangkok to refuel, a source of obstruction which the Foreign Office had neglected to mention – the Thai regime – refused to allow it to fly on to Phnom Penh. ‘We told them “OK”,’ said Howard, ‘“We’ll fly somewhere else; we’ll fly to Saigon instead”. So they finally let us take off and we circled out over the South China Sea and indeed flew over Saigon, before heading for Phnom Penh. The pilot couldn’t believe his eyes. There was nothing at Phnom Penh airport. We did one low run and went in. There wasn’t even a fork lift. We lifted the supplies down by hand. All the skilled people were dead, or in hiding. But there was willingness and gratitude. We landed at eleven in the morning; by four o’clock that afternoon the milk and antibiotics were being given to the children.’

I was already in Phnom Penh, working by candle light in my room at the Hotel Royale. The afternoon monsoon had been so insistent that rain had poured through the louvres of the french windows and two rats scampered to and fro across the puddles. When Jim Howard walked in I was endeavouring to compile a list of urgently needed items – the very things he had brought – which I intended to give to the Australian ambassador in Bangkok. To illustrate the enormity of what had happened I told him that, down the road, one man was struggling to care for 50 starving orphans. ‘Where do I start?’ he said: words that would make for him, and others at Oxfam, a fitting epitaph.

So began one of the boldest rescue operations in history. Shortly afterwards a barge left Singapore, sailing into the north-eastern monsoon with 1,500 tons of Oxfam seed on board. Deputy director Guy Stringer had put the whole remarkable venture together in a few weeks and with just $75,000.

Back in London Oxfam’s director, Brian Walker, stood his ground calmly against press charges of ‘aiding communists’. But its very presence in Cambodia and the success of its schemes have made it enemies from London to Washington to Bangkok.

At the same time the Cambodian emergency had a profound influence on the way Oxfam saw its responsibilities. Many Oxfam workers believed it was no longer enough to dispense ‘Band Aid charity’ and that the organization should take more literally its stated obligation ‘to educate the public concerning the nature, causes and effects of poverty, distress and suffering’.

In 1988 Oxfam published Punishing the Poor: The International Isolation of Kampuchea by Eva Mysliwiec, Oxfam’s American chief representative in Phnom Penh and the doyenne of voluntary-aid workers in Cambodia. She presented a picture of a people being punished by so-called civilized governments for being on the ‘wrong side’. She identified the roots of their suffering in the US invasion of Indo-China. Her book was distributed throughout the world.

The reaction became an assault in 1990. A US-funded extreme right-wing lobby group, the International Freedom Foundation were among special interest groups presenting an ‘Oxfam file’ to the Charity Commission in London. Oxfam was never told officially who its accusers were or the precise nature of the accusations against them.

In 1991 the Charity Commission censured Oxfam for having ‘prosecuted with too much vigour’ its public-education campaign about Pol Pot’s return. Threatened with a loss of its charity status Oxfam has withdrawn from sale a number of its most popular publications, including Punishing the Poor.

It seems to me that those who are meant to keep the record straight have two choices. They can blow the whistle and alert the world to the betrayal of Cambodia, as Oxfam did, and risk incurring a penalty, be it a smear or a sanction. Or they can follow the advice of Son Sen’s wife, Yun Yat, who was minister of information during the years of genocide. In boasting that Buddhism had been virtually eradicated from Cambodia and that the monks had ‘stopped believing’ (most of them had been murdered), she said: ‘The problem becomes extinguished. Hence there is no problem.’

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