37/ Vickery vs. Morris, 1983
The Editor, New York Times, New York,
12 January 1983
The granting of space on a New York Times feature page (15 December 1982) to Stephen J. Morris (" Aiding Cambodia") is a perfect illustration of a point made by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in their Political Economy of Human Rights; the mainstream media are open to any kind of propagandist who advances the correct ideological line, while serious students, or people with first-hand information may be forced to present their points of view in obscure fringe publications.
Even given this situation, the choice of Morris as spokesman on Cambodia is particularly surprising, for he is not at all a Cambodia, or even Asian, scholar (his area is Russian studies), and to the extent that he has ventured into the Cambodia field on earlier occasions his output has been egregiously incompetent, even scurrilous (see attached copy of his review of Chomsky and Herman in Harvard International Review and my response to it). But the New York Times has done worse, being, so far as I have noticed, the only major news organ to publish a totally faked article on Cambodia (Christopher Jones, " In the Land of the Khmer Rouge," 20 December 1981), and the fraudulent nature of which was clear to any Cambodia specialist with hardly more than a cursory reading.
Of course one must not be a snob, and even non-specialists sometimes make valuable contributions (for example Chomsky and Herman on Indochina), but in Morris' piece there is scarcely a statement which would be accepted by scholars studying contemporary Cambodia. Some of them have been soundly refuted by Joel Charny (NYT letters 21 December 1982), but others require further discussion.
If there was any "rape of Cambodia" at all, it was during the US-sponsored war of 1970-75 and the ensuing Pol Pot period. All such ravishing then ended, and Cambodia has progressed very satisfactorily under its new Vietnam-supported government which in no way resembles " colonialism", however defined. The American "memory of Vietnam", resentment against a country which defeated the U.S. onslaught, may indeed have played a role since 1979, in hindering aid for the recovery of the Cambodian people and encouraging collusion in the rehabilitation of the Pol Pot forces.
However evil the Pol Pot regime, and whatever disagreement may exist among students of the question, it is impossible to speak of the extermination of two million-the evidence being the size of the surviving population compared with the generally accepted figure for the population in 1975. Any precise figure is probably impossible to determine, but all such extreme estimates have been pulled out of thin air for the purposes of partisan propaganda.
Another figure thrown out by Morris, 700,000 killed in 1979 by Vietnamese-induced starvation, is even more certainly disinformation, as Morris well knows. That estimate was cooked up by the CIA in a disinformation tract which whitewashed Pol Pot's worst massacres in order to make the new Heng Samrin government appear worse, and which I have analyzed in a recently published article (" Democratic Kampuchea : CIA to the Rescue", Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 14,4 (1982) ). Moreover, it is now apparent that there never was large-scale starvation in Cambodia in 1979, nor any danger of it ; and to the extent localized hunger appeared, the Vietnamese and other socialist countries , particularly the USSR, were working to alleviate it well before certain western governments decided that it could make a useful propaganda issue.
This is clear from abundant refugee testimony (which I gathered on the spot in 1980). At least it was clear when it was possible to speak directly to refugees and with sufficient time to examine and compare stories and return for further questioning. A different type of 'refugee stories' which pushed an anti-Vietnamese line were manufactured in the Khmer Serei border camps (now the bases of the Son Sann and Sihanouk groups), and transmitted by people like François Ponchaud to gullible journalists such as William Shawcross ("The End of Cambodia ?", New York Review of Books, 24 January 1980 [see below]), from whose work they have been snatched up eagerly by those suffering from "the memory of Vietnam".
The alleged "puppet regime" of Cambodia is led by men who began fighting for Cambodian independence from France at a time when Pol Pot was still a schoolboy and when Sihanouk was showing a preference for French political tutelage over Cambodian nationalism (see my "Looking Back at Cambodia", in Ben Kiernan and Chantou Boua, Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942 - 1981). They fought again against Lon Nol and his American backers, but in the end were finessed out of leadership positions, and most of their comrades murdered, as a result of the anti-Vietnamese chauvinism which was responsible for the worst massacres in Democratic Kampuchea and which closet Pol Pot Potists like Morris seek to revive.
The opposition which Morris wishes to support not only, as Charny pointed out, suffers from a near total lack of grassroots support, and would not now exist without the indecent scramble of the United States, China and Thailand to rehabilitate Pol Pot after 1979, but no amount of military and economic aid to Son Sann and Sihanouk, as their men in the field admit (I visited their camps in 1980, 81, 82 ), can strengthen them sufficiently to oppose the PRK and Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. They do not try to hide the circumstance that they want such aid for interfactional rivalry, and that only international pressure would be able to push the Vietnamese out of Cambodia by force. What the Son Sann and Sihanouk groups want is an international, preferably U.S.-led, intervention to drive the Vietnamese out, overthrow the PRK, and put them back in the saddle in Phnom Penh.
On one final point I must both take issue with Morris and insist that Charny is overly optimistic. This is the value of the Sihanouk-Son Sann forces, "representing non-totalitarian, nationalist values" (Morris), the "last Cambodian leaders with a shred of credibility" (Charny). I have treated the nature of Sihanoukism in my "Looking Back at Cambodia", Lon Nol and Pol Pot are known to all, and I would say that the least totalitarian regime which Cambodia has had since 1970, perhaps earlier, is the present PRK government in Phnom Penh, which cannot be faulted on nationalism, even if they are closely allied with Vietnam. Why are American, Chinese, and Thai "puppets" more nationalistic ?
As for credibility, the reasons why Sihanouk's overthrow in 1970 was welcomed by all who are now active in Pol Pot's, Heng Samrin's, and Son Sann's forces are still operative, and were epitomized in November 1982 when the courtiers who run his operation in Bangkok, in a caper like the scandals which rocked Cambodia in the 1960s, attempted to sell forest rights within Cambodia to a private Thai firm--a move which finally had to be denounced both by Sihanouk and the Thai authorities. Even Sihanouk himself no longer has the old charisma. Half the present Cambodian population is too young to have a clear memory of him as their leader; and when he visited the largest Cambodian refugee center in Thailand last July 7 I was able to observe that it required several hours of exhortation by camp authorities to get out a respectable crowd to greet him.
Son Sann's officials in the field quite openly despise the Sihanoukists, but the KPNLF, although including many honorable and professionally competent figures, is itself ridden with factional strife and its more corrupt elements seem to have too powerful backing to be removed with impunity (see Far Eastern Economic Review, 5 November 1982, p. 13)
Thus if support for the least totalitarian, constructively nationalist, credible, and humane regime is the issue, we should take Morris' first option and recognize "the Vietnamese puppet regime" (the only modern Cambodian government, including Sihanouk's, which has not tried to massacre its political opponents). For once, however, Morris is correct. Such a step would indeed be a blow to an entire linked pattern of American diplomacy ; and that demands consideration of the reasons why the chosen American goals in so many parts of the world require support for the worst available factions of local leaders.
(The article of the New York Times to which this letter answers has not been found.)