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Pol Pot's Death In The Propaganda System

by Edward S. Herman

Z magazine, June 1998

The death of Pol Pot on April 15, 1998 unleashed a media barrage of indignation and sanitized history that illustrates well their role as agents in a system of propaganda. While Pol Pot was undoubtedly a mass killer and evil force, and deserves angry condemnation, the U.S. media's indignation ebbs and flows in accord with the demands of U.S. foreign policy. In the cases of both Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein, periods of U. S. support of these criminals were accompanied by virtual silence on their misbehavior, whereas in times of official hostility the media have shifted to furious but hypocritical indignation, along with carefully modulated history. Today, no longer useful in punishing Vietnam, and with no economic interests anxious to protect his image (as with Indonesia's president Suharto), Pol Pot has resumed his role as an object lesson in the dangers of communism and attempts to create a "utopia of equality."

Media Problems
There are, however, three problems that the media have had to confront in assailing Pol Pot for committing genocide in Cambodia. One is that the Cambodian genocide-a "decade of genocide" according to a Finnish government research inquiry-had two phases, in the first of which-19691975-the U.S. was the genocidist.

In that period, the U.S. Air Force dropped over 500,000 tons of bombs on rural Cambodia, killing scores of thousands, creating a huge refugee population, and radicalizing the countryside. The number of U.S.-caused deaths in the first phase is comparable to, or greater than, CIA and other serious estimates of Pol Pot killings by execution (50,000-400,000). Cambodia experts like Milton Osborne and David Chandler have contended that the devastation hardened Khmer Rouge attitudes and made for vengeful and violent behavior. Furthermore, when the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975, the country was shattered, starvation and disease were already rampant-8,000 people a day were dying in Phnom Penh alone-and these residual effects of phase one were certain to take a toll in the years to follow. In short, focusing solely on Pol Pot and making the U.S. an innocent bystander in the Cambodian genocide requires well-constructed blinders.

A second problem for the media is that following the ouster of Pol Pot by the Vietnamese in December 1978, Pol Pot's forces found a safe haven in Thailand, a U.S. client state, and for the next 15 years or more were aided and protected there by Thai, Chinese, British, and U.S. authorities. The U.S. backed Pol Pot's retention of Cambodia's seat in the UN after his ouster (which was greeted with outrage in the West and was the grounds for intensified economic and political warfare against Vietnam). This support was designed to hurt Vietnam, which had occupied Cambodia and installed friendly Hun Sen government in place of Pol Pot. When Vietnam sought a settlement in the late 1980s, the U.S. insisted strenuously that Pol Pot be included in the "peace process" with "the same rights, freedoms and opportunities" as any other party. In anticipation of a settlement, in the early l990s the U.S. and its allies not only protected Pol Pot's forces from defeat by the Cambodian army, they helped him rebuild his strength and standing. During this period, the U.S. (and UN) refused to allow the Pol Pot regime to be referred to as genocidal. In order to oust the Vietnam-supported government, the U.S. strove to preserve Pol Pot and make him a significant force in the political struggle in Cambodia.

It is obvious that its long, active support of Pol Pot, as well as its role in the first phase of the genocide, makes the U.S. sponsorship of a Cambodia Documentation Center to assemble evidence solely on Pol Pot's crimes, and its recent alleged interest in bringing him to trial, dishonest, hypocritical, and problematic. Wasn't the U.S. support from 1979-1995 legitimizing? Isn't the U.S. implicated in his numerous crimes in cross-border raids, 1979-1998, which killed large numbers of Cambodians?

A third problem for the media is the biased selectivity in the choice of villain and of victims worthy of (crocodile) tears. The obvious comparison, and the one I will explore here, is with Suharto. Suharto came to power in 1965 accompanied by a slaughter of over 700,000 people. This was cold-blooded killing, designed to wipe out a mass movement that was seen as a political threat, without even a vengeance motive. Suharto also invaded East Timor in 1975, and over the years was responsible for the death of perhaps 200,000 of a population of some 700,000. So Suharto was guilty not only of a huge internal slaughter comparable in scale to that of Pol Pot, he also engineered a genocide in a neighboring country.

But of course all Suharto's killing was done with the approval and active support, or acquiescence, of the U.S. government and the West in general. In the case of the internal genocidal effort of 1965-66, the U.S. had already armed and trained the Indonesian military, urged it to act, gave Suharto and his associates lists of people to be killed, and both in private and public exulted in the outcome. He destroyed not only a Communist party, but the only mass-based political organization in the country, one that "had won widespread support not as a revolutionary party but as an organization defending the interests of the poor within the existing system" (Harold Crouch, Army and Politics in Indonesia). The U.S. has never liked mass-based political parties that work in the interests of the poor, whether in Vietnam, Indonesia, Guatemala, or Nicaragua, where 45 years of Somoza family elite rule was fine, but the Sandinista party, trying to apply what the Latin American Studies Association observers at the 1984 election called the "logic of the majority," was intolerable and had to be removed by force.

Suharto also aligned Indonesia with the West in the Cold War, and opened Indonesia's door to foreign investors. His mass murders of 1965-1966 were therefore accompanied by increased IMF and World Bank loans, along with direct U.S. aid; his invasion of East Timor was protected against serious counter-measures in the UN by U.S. diplomats (Moynihan bragged about this in his autobiography), and that illegal occupation has not interfered one iota with U. S. support of this mass murderer.

In contrast with those pursuing a "logic of the majority" or a "utopia of equality," Suharto engaged in a class cleansing by mass murder, and then offered an "open door utopia for investors"-and a looting utopia for himself, his family, and his cronies. It follows from the difference in utopian objective that his victims were not "worthy," and that he is a states-person rather than a villain in the eyes of the Western establishment. But this rests on a blatant elite and immoral double standard, reproduced in the mainstream media.

Into the Black Hole
In discussing Pol Pot's recent death and villainy, how did the mainstream media handle the problem of the first phase of the Cambodian genocide in which the U.S. killed vast numbers and left a devastated country? The answer is: by a virtually complete blackout. Aside from a reference by Peter Jennings on "ABC News" to the "unpleasant" fact that our bombing had helped bring Pol Pot to power, I did not find a single editorial or news reference to the first phase: for the media, Cambodia's problems started in April 1975, and all deaths from starvation and disease, as well as executions, are allocated entirely to Pol Pot and his communist utopian fanaticism. In the New York Times, the Khmer Rouge "emptied the cities and marched Cambodians to the countryside to starve," and troubles and genocide began only with the KR takeover (ed., April 17, 1998).

Many editorialists and commentators did refer to Pol Pot's maoist and Parisian ideological training as influencing his behavior, but not his and the Khmer Rouge's experience under the first phase bombings. An exceptionally sleazy editorial in the Boston Globe (April 17, 1998) states that Pol Pot, "having half-absorbed the history of the French Revolution and the tenets of the French left while a student in Paris, returned to his native land determined to outdo maoism in the name of equality," but the editorial never mentions any on-the-ground events before April 1975 that might have affected Khmer Rouge behavior. Stephen Morris, in an Op Ed in the New York Times (April 17), refers to the bombings, but only to deny their influence, arguing that as the Vietnamese were also bombed heavily but didn't kill on a large scale, this demonstrates that it was communist ideology that explains Pol Pot's killings (although why the Vietnamese, also communists, didn't kill for reasons of their ideology is not explained).

Henry Kissinger, the U.S. foreign policy official who engineered the first phase of the genocide, the "sideshow" to the Vietnam War, and who was therefore responsible for scores of thousands of deaths, was a guest on CNN and NPR, invited to reflect on Pol Pot's crimes. He suggested on CNN that Pol Pot might have been assassinated to prevent a trial that would have implicated others in war crimes. It would never occur to CNN, NPR, or the mainstream media in general, that inviting Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's foreign minister, to discuss the Nixon-Kissinger slaughter of the first phase, would have been a parallel use of sources and equally justifiable morally.

U.S. Support, 1979-1995
The media handled the U. S. "tilt" toward Pol Pot mainly by evasion, essentially blacking out the years 1979- 1995, or vaguely intimating that the U.S. had supported him for reasons of "realpolitik," but quickly moving on without giving details as to the nature and magnitude of support or offering any reflections on the morality of backing "another Hitler." The New York Times' April 17 summary of "Pol Pot's Rise and Fall" lists for "1979-1990: Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge are given refuge at Thai border where they fight back against the Vietnamese." "Given refuge" is dishonest: they were given substantial economic and military aid and political support. The Times' main reporter on Cambodia in early 1998, Seth Mydans, repeatedly blacks out U.S. support, referring to "the decade long civil war that followed" Pol Pot's ouster (April, 13), and a 19-year "guerrilla insurgency in the jungles of western and northern Cambodia" (April 17).

The April 17 Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times editorials on the death of Pol Pot, uniformly moralistic about his crimes and regretful at his escape from justice, all carefully avoid mentioning the long U.S. support of the criminal. The Chicago Tribune not only failed to mention U.S. support, it summarizes the U.S. "linked" history with Cambodia as follows: "After the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule and genocide, the United States and its allies pumped millions of dollars into Cambodia to help rebuild and to hold elections."

The one New York Times exception to an evasion of this issue was an article by Elizabeth Becker, which gives some details on how Carter, Reagan, and Bush aided and protected Pol Pot, and cites Diane Orentlicher on how this would compromise any proposed prosecution. But Becker rationalizes the support of Pol Pot in terms of Cold War imperatives, and she takes the Clinton pursuit of Pol Pot as a war criminal seriously, seeing it "driven in part by misgivings over past American support," based on no evidence whatsoever (but featured in her title "Pol Pot's End Won't Stop U.S. Pursuit of His Circle," April 17).

Suharto and Pol Pot
Pol Pot was described in the editorials and news columns of April 1998 as "crazed," a "killer," "war criminal," "mass murderer," "blood-soaked," and as having engineered a "reign of terror" and "genocide." Suharto has been in the news in 1998 also, as Indonesia is in a financial crisis and has been negotiating with banks and the IMF for loans. But during this crisis, and in earlier years as well, while Suharto is occasionally referred to as a "dictator" and running an "authoritarian" regime, he is often a "moderate" and even "at heart benign" (London Economist), never a "killer" or "mass murderer" or one responsible for "genocide." The linguistic double standard is maintained reliably throughout the mainstream media.

Less obvious but equally interesting is the difference in willingness to identify the responsible parties for the killings of Pol Pot and Suharto. In the case of Pol Pot, there is no uncertainty: editorials and news articles uniformly make him and the Khmer Rouge leadership clearly and unambiguously responsible for the killings of 1975-78. He was the "man who slaughtered two million" (USA Today), "the executioner" (Boston Globe), who "presided over the deaths" of his victims (Washington Post), "the man who drove Cambodia to ruin" (New York Times).

But in the case of the good genocidist, we move to an ambiguous responsibility, which means none at all: "a 1965 coup led to the massacres of hundreds of thousands of supposed communists" (ed., NYT, August 23, 1996), where we have the passive voice and no agent doing the killing; or "a wave of violence that took up to 500,000 lives and led Suharto to seize power from Sukarno in a military coup" (Seth Mydans, August 7, 1996), where the massacre not only has no agent, but is falsely situated before the takeover of power by Suharto.

In a later piece Mydans states that "More than 500,000 Indonesians are estimated to have died in a purge of leftists in 1965, the year Mr. Suharto came to power" (April 8, 1997). Note once again the passive voice, never used in connection with Pol Pot, the word "purge" instead of slaughter or massacre, and the continued failure to identify the agent.

In the case of East Timor, also, the Times regularly employs the passive voice and is uncertain about the source of the killing: "This is one of the world's sadder places, where 100,000 to 200,000 people died from 1974 in a brutal civil war and the consequent invasion through combat, execution, disease, and starvation..." (Steve Erlanger, October 21, 1990). In addition to the lack of clear agent, there is serious misrepresentation of the facts-the civil war was short and left small numbers dead; and the invasion was not "consequent" to a brutal civil war, except in Indonesian propaganda.

This pattern parallels exactly the finding in Manufacturing Consent that in the case of "worthy" victims, like Jerzy Popieluzko in communist Poland, the Times and its confreres are unrelenting in the search for responsibility at the top, but in the case of "unworthy" victims, like the four religious women murdered by "our" client government in E1 Salvador in 1980, the media lose their interest in identifying those in charge.

Another important difference, also, is in the willingness to explain away the killings. With Pol Pot, the background of the first phase of the genocide is completely blacked out in the mainstream account-there is no qualification to his responsibility as a killer because his forces had undergone terrible damage and sought vengeance for the crimes they had suffered (nor should there be); nor are any deaths in Pol Pot's years of rule to be explained by the starvation and disease already pervasive in April 1975. No, the only mentionable background is his Paris training and communist fanaticism.

With Suharto we encounter a whole new world of contextualized apologetics. For many years the main apologetic formula was that the 1965-1966 killings were "a result of a failed coup" (Shenon, NYT, August 27, 1993), which "touched off a wave of violence" (Mydans, August 7, 1996), or followed an "onslaught from the left" (Henry Kamm, June 17, 1979). This formula, invoked repeatedly, suggests that the holocaust was provoked and thus maybe justified by a prior "onslaught." The writers never explain why a failed coup could possibly justify a mass slaughter, but the hint is left hanging. In more recent years, usually in connection with the explanation and rationalization of the continuation of a dictatorship, the media regularly juxtapose political repression with "stability" and "growth": "the signs of his success are everywhere," although Suharto has brought these gains "by maintaining a tight grip on power and suppressing public criticism and political opposition" (Mydans, July 29, 1996). This is the kind of context that the Times would never give to Castro, let alone Pol Pot, but it shows an apologetics that runs deep.

This apologetics, of course, extends to the Suharto invasion and occupation of East Timor. For years, the New York Times has claimed that Indonesia invaded in the midst of a civil war, when in fact that civil war was over well before the invasion. The paper's news coverage of East Timor fell to zero as the Indonesian attacks and killings in East Timor intensified in 1977-1978, and although Indonesia still occupies East Timor in violation of standing UN rulings, the paper's reporters repeatedly refer to East Timor as a "disputed province" and East Timorese resistance as "separatist," thereby internalizing and explicitly legitimizing the aggression-occupation.

David Sanger recently differentiated Suharto and Saddam Hussein, saying "Mr. Suharto is not hoarding anthrax or threatening to invade Australia" ("Indonesian Faceoff," NYT, March 8, 1998). That is, Suharto's invasion, mass killing, and continued illegal occupation of East Timor is given zero weight, and his slaughter of a million people within Indonesia some years back is also not mentioned, although the Times has not forgotten Pol Pot's slaughter of decades back which still calls for criminal prosecution. This tells us all we need to know about how good and bad genocidists fare in the Western propaganda system.

The Unheld Trial
Given the compromised U. S. position as joint Cambodian genocidist and occasional supporter of Pol Pot, why have Clinton and company been keen on bringing Pol Pot to trial? One reason is that, given Pol Pot's ill-health and the likely lags in implementation, a trial was almost surely never going to take place. Thus credit could be gained for the interest in a criminal prosecution, without any unpleasantness that an actual trial might entail. Beyond this, it could be deemed necessary to call for the trial of such an eminent criminal as Pol Pot to sustain the war crimes tribunal now at work on Bosnia, which is designed for service to the U.S. and great powers elsewhere. It may also assuage worries of liberals in congress concerned about U.S. support of repression in Mexico and non-democracy in Saudi Arabia (etc.) to have Clinton tell Latin Americans about how important we regard human rights and democracy. Clinton may not call for the trial of Pinochet while lecturing in Chile, but if he is eager to go after Pol Pot, his heart is clearly in the right place.