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Cambodia's Anguish: Made in the USA
By Robert Scheer
Published July 8, 1997 in the Los Angeles Times

As I write this, the Phnom Penh airport remains closed, and reports of intense if sporadic fighting are a bloody reminder that Cambodia is once again torn by civil war. Crowded streets I strolled down two weeks ago are now battle zones, and a population that has suffered unspeakable crimes is once again forced to flee the capital in terror.

A country saturated with 7 million land mines, whose people lived through Pol Pot's reign of terror, will now be subjected to even more torn limbs and senseless death while the world powers that created this nightmare feign horror.

Optimism born of the reported capture of Pol Pot by dissident Khmer Rouge troops has given way to the dread thought that this genocidal maniac retains an unyielding hold on the political imagination of the country he tortured. Dead or alive, free or captured, Pol Pot is the main source of contention in the disintegration of the fragile coalition that has ruled Cambodia since the 1993 U.N.-supervised election.

First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh, the less-than-savvy son of ailing nominal leader Norodom Sihanouk, thought he could negotiate with Pol Pot's captors to surrender their infamous prisoner while recruiting them as allies in the battle for power. His chief rival in the ruling coalition, Hun Sen, the second prime minister, resisted, insisting that the remaining Khmer Rouge leadership be treated as war criminals. He cited infiltration by Khmer Rouge troops into the capital as justification for this week's fighting.

It's convenient to dismiss all of this as the crazy antics of politics as practiced in a small very poor Asian nation, which has been the tenor of most U.S. media coverage. Convenient, but false, since the plight of the Cambodians is the direct consequence of three decades of U.S. policy.

It did not have to be this way. The Cambodia I first visited in 1965 was peaceful in a storybook sense: A royal kingdom carved out of the lush jungle, it was led by a then young and popular saxophone-playing Prince Sihanouk, who naively presumed that his country could remain neutral while the U.S. waged war next door in Vietnam.

Well, Kissinger and Nixon showed him. In 1969, they unleashed the awesome might of B-52 carpet bombing against a people still tilling the soil with water buffalo. Fourteen months and 3,500 sorties later, "Operation Breakfast," the secret code name for the bombing, had totally destabilized Cambodia.

Sihanouk was overthrown with the connivance of the CIA, which had long resented his independent if quirky spirit. But as in Vietnam with the CIA coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S. could not come up with a viable Cambodian ruler to suit its purposes. Sihanouk was replaced by an inept Lon Nol, a U.S. puppet who could not hold power. The legacy of U.S. policy, including the 600,000 dead and many more maimed and homeless as a result of the bombing, created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge's seizure of power in 1975. Over the next four years, Pol Pot's leadership left one out of five Cambodians dead.

But Pol Pot made the mistake of repeatedly attacking Vietnam, by then united under Hanoi's rule, and the Vietnamese army invaded in 1979, putting Hun Sen into power. Instead of applauding the Vietnamese for ending the genocide, the Carter administration followed the lead of the Chinese Communists, who continued to back their protege, Pol Pot. For the next 13 years, the U.S. and China insisted that Pol Pot, who killed 2 million Cambodians, had the right to name Cambodia's legitimate representative at the U.N.

It was during this period that the Hun Sen government dug up the "killing fields," exposing to a shocked world Pol Pot's heinous crimes. Yet the man himself was being protected and financed by the U.S. and China as a leader of an anti-Hun Sen coalition based in Thailand.

The U.S. only broke with the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot refused to participate in the 1993 election, which created the coalition government that is now falling apart. But it was too late. Too much damage had already been done to the fabric of Cambodian political life.

The current chaos is the direct result of policies pursued by foreigners who this summer are probably observing the consequences of their meddling from the safe distance of their vacation homes.

What does corporate consultant Henry Kissinger think when he watches the pictures of dead children on the streets of Phnom Penh paying the price of a civil war that he initiated three decades ago? Or is Cambodia not one of the countries that he is paid millions of dollars to think about these days?

Copyright 1999 Robert Scheer