Monday, 8 October 2012

Genocide Denial 2012: Pol Pot Revisited

A few days ago Chris Alcantara, one of my colleagues in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, forwarded me an article by one Israel Shamir in a newsletter called CounterPunch, entitled “Pol Pot Revisited.” You can find it at Chris suggested I might want to reply to Shamir’s genocide denial. Shamir seems to think that all the evidence of genocide and mass atrocities that has accumulated since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 is false.
Stupa filled with skulls of Khmer Rouge victims at Choeung Ek,
retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
Yet every scholar of genocide and of Cambodia that I have ever encountered agrees that the Khmer Rouge perpetrated genocide against ethnic and religious minorities (Chinese, Vietnamese, Muslim Chan) and politicide against ethnic Khmer whom they viewed as their opponents; they also cleared out Phnom Penh, the capital, in order to implement a radical, so-called “peasant,” revolution. Shamir admires the Khmer Rouge for its attack on Phnom Penh, which he thinks was a cesspool of money-grubbing capitalists. He doesn’t mention the horrible deportations of all its residents in the space of three days, the deaths of children, the elderly, and the sick on the forced march to the countryside. He doesn’t mention that both urban and rural ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese were murdered en masse. The Cambodians may be “peaceful and relaxed” in 2012, as he claims -- though I doubt that those who live in poverty and insecurity spend much time being relaxed—but they definitely were not in the late 1970s. The Khmer Rouge were not peaceful; they were cruel and brutal. Their victims were certainly not relaxed: they worked ferociously long hours in the countryside, and in the hours they were not working somehow had to find food to supplement their extremely meager rations without getting into trouble for “stealing” roots and weeds. Child prisoners were neither fed, educated, nor cared for in any way; they died en masse as slave labourers.
Mass graves at Choeung Ek, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Shamir’s piece reads like a leftover from Stalinist days. He says that the memorial of the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, which he visited, “recalled other CIA-sponsored stories of Red atrocities, be it Stalin’s Terror or the Ukrainian Holodomor.” Timothy Snyder says in his recent book, Bloodlands, that about three million people died of starvation in Ukraine in 1932-33. Stalin’s official stole Ukrainians’ crops and exported food overseas while Ukrainians starved.  There’s also plenty of evidence that Stalin’s purges and political terror caused millions to die, though the exact figures aren’t yet known. As well as reading Bloodlands, Shamir should read The Black Book of Communism.
I have a question for the editors of Counterpunch. There’s plenty to criticize about capitalism and globalization. I am sure Shamir is correct in saying that Cambodian women manufacturing T-shirts for the world market earn very little and are not permitted to unionize. I’m also prepared to accept his assertion that Cambodian forests are being denuded of valuable trees. Shamir is also correct that the Americans bombed Cambodia ferociously (and illegally) during their war against the Viet Cong in the early 1970s, that many peasants fled to the capital to avoid the bombing, and that to understand what happened in Cambodia in the late 1970s we have to take the American bombing into account. But why also publish genocide denial? Even if every person who was murdered, tortured to death, or died of starvation or dehydration in Cambodia from 1975 to79 had been a blood-sucking capitalist, it would still be genocide. You’re not allowed to engage in the mass murder of any social group.
Bones of Khmer Rouge victims, retrieved from
Wikimedia Commons
But I also have a question for myself: should I even bother, as I am doing now, to reply to Shamir? Is it better to reply or just ignore such an obvious denial of what every reputable scholar of the field acknowledges as genocide? I certainly can’t reply in this short blog to everything Shamir claims as truth. And it’s all the more surprising that Shamir himself writes what he does, since he knows that former Khmer Rouge members still hold power in Cambodia. Shamir tells us that the Cambodians he met on his short trip there “have no bad memories of [the Pol Pot] period.”  But he tells us this despite acknowledging later in his article that “the present government does not encourage…digging into the past, and for good reason: practically all important officials above a certain age were Khmer Rouge members, and often leading members.”
There’s one interesting little factoid in this piece though.  Shamir tell us that Cambodian factory workers earn about $80.00 per month, which may well be accurate. Then he tells us that “NGO reps earn in one minute the equivalent of a wormer’s monthly salary.” I did the math: at $80.00 per minute times 60 minutes per hour times 40 hours per week, that works out to $192,000 per week for “NGO reps.” A great opportunity for young activists starting out in life with massive student debt!
Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books, 2010.
St├ęphane Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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