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Counterpunch Clueless on Cambodia

Counterpunch Clueless on Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge killed between 1 – 1.5 million people according to historical estimates.

Every so often an article comes to my attention that is so repugnant, so disingenuous, and so morally outrageous that it requires me to temporarily drop any and all projects that I may have been currently working on so that I may prioritize a response. Such was the case with a recent post on the far-left publication Counterpunch by Israel Shamir. In it, the author outright denies the Cambodian genocide, overtly defends Pol Pot, and disregards the absurd communist policies implemented by the murderous Khmer Rouge as “horror stories” invented by the West.

First a background on my own personal biases: I typically enjoy Counterpunch and its content. I used to work as a research assistant for a writer who occasionally wrote for them. That said, I find it very unprofessional that Counterpunch’s editors decided to run a story that is so flagrant and shotty in terms of quality journalism, fact-checking, and historical facts. The writer, Mr. Shamir (a pen-name apparently), has a pretty interesting background as well, with allegations of holocaust denial and anti-semitism (which he denies).

The article reads as if Mr. Shamir took a short holiday in this impoverish country — which I personally have called my home since January — and then felt he had enough information to write a revisionist tale of half-truths, semi-truths, and outright fabrications. Indeed, his article, “Dispatch From Cambodia: Pol Pot Revisited” is a masterclass in deception.

In trying to describe contemporary Cambodia’s collective memory of the Khmer Rouge period (1975 — 1979), Shamir writes that “Cambodians have no bad memories about that period.”

Odd, because it was not too long ago when Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the infamous S-21 prison warden was testifying under oath at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECC) or the “Tribunals” in Cambodian parlance, about how any person sent to the prison was to “be smashed.” He detailed torture practices, interrogation techniques, and methods of killing.

Shamir claims that the Khmer Rouge taught the rural peasants to read and write. He ignores the fact that most of the people slaughtered during this time were intellectuals.

Additionally, a few weeks ago, The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt described some of the more gruesome details of the Khmer Rouge era which were divulged at the Tribunals.

The court heard that beatings with rattans, the use of pincers to pull nails, noses and ear lobes, electrocution and suffocation were common after Cambodians were forced into the countryside amid fears by paranoid ultra-Maoists that the cities had become nerve centers for enemies of the Khmer Rouge.

At Sre Ambel, laborers toiled in fields until their legs were eaten away by salt water. But far more grisly forms of torture persisted, including disembowelment and acts of cannibalism. One prisoner had his feet nailed to a board and was ordered to sing while he was beaten. Others had their gall bladders removed, which were then taken to the kitchen. Children aged as young as two or three were swung by their feet and their heads smashed into a tamarind tree.

The packed public gallery also heard how one man was stripped naked to the waist and held by two Khmer Rouge soldiers while a third used a knife to rip open his stomach, his entrails were pulled out and the liver removed while he was still alive.

But Shamir is defiant. He wrties:

The Pol Pot the Cambodians remember was not a tyrant, but a great patriot and nationalist, a lover of native culture and native way of life. He was brought up in royal palace circles; his aunt was a concubine of the previous king. He studied in Paris, but instead of making money and a career, he returned home…

Shamir implies that Pol Pot returned home after finishing school to lead the peasant masses. In reality, Pol Pot — whose real name was Saloth Sar — flunked out of school in France. Continuing his narrative on the Khmer Rouge leader, Shamir writes, “[Pol Pot] held city dwellers in contempt; they did nothing useful, in his view.” This is true. The difference is that the writer would make it seem as if this were a positive thing for Cambodians. The capital city Phnom Penh was forcibly depopulated, its inhabitants forced into collectives in the countryside. Many died of starvation; others were sent to prisons where they were tortured and killed.

Later, Shamir says  that “the Cambodians I spoke to pooh-poohed the dreadful stories of Communist Holocaust as a western invention.” I’m unsure exactly who Shamir talked to — he doesn’t provide a quote or a source for any of this nonsense. The Khmer Rouge ultimately killed approximately 1.5 million people according to any legitimate historical source on the subject.

As an ESL teacher in Phnom Penh, I would agree that most students aren’t as aware as they should be about their country’s past. However, ask anyone over 45 years-old in Cambodia and you will hear some horrifying stories. And while it is also true that the country was devastated not only by the Khmer Rouge but also by US bombardment during the war in neighboring Vietnam, it’s incredibly disingenuous to cite that as an excuse for the inane communist dictates and wide-spread terror which the Khmer Rouge inflicted on their own people.

The U.S. government actually supported the Khmer Rouge insofar as they backed their standing as legitimate rulers of Cambodia at the United Nations.

Lastly, Shamir asserts that because there are no pictures at a genocide memorial (dubbed the “Killing Fields” where scores of people were tortured and killed), the death tolls there were probably exaggerated. Such a dubious argument is often propagated by leading Holocaust deniers.

The article was penned on Tuesday, September 18th. By Wednesday, September 19th, the piece had gone viral on various social media websites, including the popular Cambodia expat message board forum Khmer 440. The website’s administrator, Peter Hogan called it “[t]he worst article written about Cambodia. Ever.”

I could not agree more.

Photo: Interesting Fact



Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.