Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

How Thatcher gave Pol Pot a hand

From 2000.

By John Pilger, New Statesman

Almost two million Cambodians died as a result of Year Zero. John Pilger argues that, without the complicity of the US and Britain, it may never have happened.

On 17 April, it is 25 years since Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. In the calendar of fanaticism, this was Year Zero; as many as two million people, a fifth of Cambodia’s population, were to die as a consequence. To mark the anniversary, the evil of Pol Pot will be recalled, almost as a ritual act for voyeurs of the politically dark and inexplicable. For the managers of western power, no true lessons will be drawn, because no connections will be made to them and to their predecessors, who were Pol Pot’s Faustian partners. Yet, without the complicity of the west, Year Zero might never have happened, nor the threat of its return maintained for so long.

Declassified United States government documents leave little doubt that the secret and illegal bombing of then neutral Cambodia by President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger between 1969 and 1973 caused such widespread death and devastation that it was critical in Pol Pot’s drive for power. “They are using damage caused by B52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda,” the CIA director of operations reported on 2 May 1973. “This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of young men. Residents say the propaganda campaign has been effective with refugees in areas that have been subject to B52 strikes.” In dropping the equivalent of five Hiroshimas on a peasant society, Nixon and Kissinger killed an estimated half a million people. Year Zero began, in effect, with them; the bombing was a catalyst for the rise of a small sectarian group, the Khmer Rouge, whose combination of Maoism and medievalism had no popular base.

After two and a half years in power, the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese on Christmas Day, 1978. In the months and years that followed, the US and China and their allies, notably the Thatcher government, backed Pol Pot in exile in Thailand. He was the enemy of their enemy: Vietnam, whose liberation of Cambodia could never be recognised because it had come from the wrong side of the cold war. For the Americans, now backing Beijing against Moscow, there was also a score to be settled for their humiliation on the rooftops of Saigon.

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