Cambodian genocide denial

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Cambodian genocide denial was the belief expressed by many Western academics that claims of atrocities by the Khmer Rouge government (1975-1979) in Cambodia were much exaggerated. Many scholars of Cambodia and intellectuals, opposed to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, denied or minimized the human rights abuses of the Khmer Rouge, characterizing contrary information as "tales told by refugees" and U.S. propaganda.[1] They viewed the assumption of power by the communist Khmer Rouge as a positive development for the people of Cambodia who had been severely impacted by the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Civil War.

On the other side of the argument, anti-Communists in the United States and elsewhere saw in the rule of the Khmer Rouge vindication of their belief that the victory of communist governments in South-East Asia would lead to a "bloodbath".

Scholar Donald W. Beachler, writing of the controversy about the range and extent of Khmer Rouge atrocities, concluded that "much of the posturing by academics, publicists, and politicians seems to have been motivated largely by political purposes" rather than concern for the Cambodian people.[2]

With conclusive evidence of a large number of deaths—estimated at between one and three million—of Cambodians caused by the Khmer Rouge, denials, deniers, and apologists mostly disappeared, although disagreements concerning the actual number of Khmer Rouge victims have continued.


The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on April 17, 1975 and immediately ordered all the residents to evacuate the city. "Between two and three million residents of Phnom Penh, Battambang, and other big towns were forced by the communists to walk into the countryside... without organized provision for food, water, shelter, physical security or medical care."[3] The evacuation probably resulted in at least 100,000 deaths.[4] The dispossessed urban dwellers were assigned to re-education camps or "New Settlements." Former government employees and soldiers were executed. Soon, according to journalists, Cambodia resembled "a giant prison camp with the urban supporters of the former regime being worked to death on thin gruel and hard labor."[5]

The Khmer Rouge guarded the border with Thailand and only a few thousand refugees were able to make their way to Thailand and safety. As virtually no Westerners were allowed to visit Cambodia, those refugees plus the official news outlets of the Khmer Rouge were the principal sources of information about conditions in Cambodia for the next four years.

The "standard total academic view on Cambodia"

Beachler has described the late 1970s debate about the character of the Khmer Rouge. "Many of those who had been opponents of U.S. military actions in Vietnam and Cambodia feared that the tales of murder and deprivation under the Khmer Rouge regime would validate the claims of those who had supported U.S. government actions aimed at halting the spread of communism. Conservatives pointed to the actions of the Khmer Rouge as proof of the inherent evils of communism and evidence that the U.S. had been right to fight its long war against communists in Southeast Asia..."[2]

Despite the eye-witness accounts by journalists prior to their expulsion during the first few days of Khmer Rouge rule, and the later testimony of refugees; many academics in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia and other countries portrayed the Khmer Rouge favorably or at least were skeptical about the stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities. None of them, however, were allowed to visit Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule and few actually talked to the refugees whose stories they believed to be exaggerated or false.

Some Western scholars believed that the Khmer Rouge would free Cambodia from colonialism, capitalism, and the ravages of American bombing and invasion during the Vietnam War. Cambodian scholar Sophal Ear has titled the pro-Khmer Rouge academics as the "Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia" (STAV). The STAV, which he said included among its adherents almost all Cambodian scholars in the Western world, "hoped for, more than anything, a socialist success story with all the romantic ingredients of peasants, fighting imperialism, and revolution."[6] Author William Shawcross was another critic of the STAV academics. Shawcross's views were endorsed and summarized by human rights activist David Hawk: the West was indifferent to the atrocities taking place in Cambodia due to "the influence of anti-war academics on the American left who obfuscated Khmer Rouge behavior, denigrated the post-1975 refugee reports, and denounced the journalists who got those stories."[7]

The controversy concerning the Khmer Rouge intensified in February 1977 with the publication of excerpts from a book by John Barron and Anthony Paul in Reader's Digest magazine. Based on extensive interviews with Cambodian refugees in Thailand, Barron and Paul estimated that, out of a total population of about 7 million people, 1.2 million Cambodians had died of starvation, over-work, or execution during less than two years of Khmer Rouge rule.[8] Published about the same time was François Ponchaud's book, Cambodia: Year Zero. Ponchaud, a French priest, had lived in Cambodia and spoke Khmer. He also painted a picture of mass deaths caused by the Khmer Rouge. French scholar, Jean Lacouture, formerly a sympathizer of the Khmer Rouge, reviewed Ponchaud's book favorably in The New York Times Book Review on March 31, 1977.

Solarz hearing

On May 3, 1977, Congressman Stephen Solarz led a hearing on Cambodia in the United States House of Representatives. The witnesses were Barron and three academics who specialized in Cambodia: David P. Chandler, who would become perhaps the most prominent American scholar of Cambodia, Peter Poole, and Gareth Porter. Chandler believed that "bloodbath" was an accurate description of the situation and by no means an exaggeration.[9] Porter stated that the tales of Khmer Rouge atrocities were much exaggerated.[10] Porter was the most outspoken of the academics. He had co-authored (with George Hildebrand) Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, a highly positive book about the Khmer Rouge. Porter characterized the accounts of a million or more dead Cambodians as wildly exaggerated. He said, "I cannot accept the premise....that 1 million people have been murdered systematically or that the Government of Cambodia is systematically slaughtering its people."[11] He described the stories by refugees of Khmer Rouge atrocities collected by Barron and others as second-hand and hearsay. Asked for his sources, Porter cited the works of another adherent of the STAV, Ben Kiernan, an editor for a pro-Khmer Rouge publication in Australia. Porter never mentioned having spoken to any Cambodian refugees to evaluate their stories personally.

Solarz, who had visited Cambodian refugee camps and listened to refugees' stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities, characterized justifications and explanations during the hearing about the Khmer Rouge as "cowardly and contemptible" and compared them to the justifications of the murder of Jews by Adolf Hitler during World War II.[12]

Chomsky and Herman

Linguist Noam Chomsky and scholar Edward S. Herman were among the academics who examined the conflicting reports of the situation in Cambodia in 1977. On June 6, 1977, Chomsky and Herman published an article in The Nation which contrasted the views expressed in books by Barron and Paul, Ponchaud, and Porter and Hildebrand, and in articles and accounts by Butterfield, Bragg, Kahin, Cazaux, Shanberg, Tolgraven and others. Chomsky and Herman noted the conflicting information in the various accounts, and suggested that after the "failure of the American effort to subdue South Vietnam and to crush the mass movements elsewhere in Indochina" that there was now "a campaign to reconstruct the history of these years so as to place the role of the United States in a more favorable light". This rewriting of history by the establishment press was served well by "tales of Communist atrocities, which not only prove the evils of communism but undermine the credibility of those who opposed the war and might interfere with future crusades for freedom." They wrote that the refugee stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities should be treated with great "care and caution" because "refugees are frightened and defenseless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocuters wish to hear."[13]

In support of their assertion, Chomsky and Herman criticized Barron and Paul's Murder in a Gentle Land book for ignoring the U.S. government's role in creating the situation, saying, "When they speak of 'the murder of a gentle land,' they are not referring to B-52 attacks on villages or the systematic bombing and murderous ground sweeps by American troops or forces organized and supplied by the United States, in a land that had been largely removed from the conflict prior to the American attack". They give several examples to show that Barron and Paul's "scholarship collapses under the barest scrutiny," and they conclude that, "It is a fair generalization that the larger the number of deaths attributed to the Khmer Rouge, and the more the U.S. role is set aside, the larger the audience that will be reached. The Barron-Paul volume is a third-rate propaganda tract, but its exclusive focus on Communist terror assures it a huge audience."[13]

Chomsky and Herman had both praise and criticism for Ponchaud's book Year Zero, writing that it was "serious and worth reading" and "the serious reader will find much to make him somewhat wary."[13] In the introduction to the American edition of his book, Ponchaud responded to a personal letter from Chomsky, saying, "He [Chomsky] wrote me a letter on October 19, 1977 in which he drew my attention to the way it [Year Zero] was being misused by anti-revolutionary propagandists. He has made it my duty to 'stem the flood of lies' about Cambodia -- particularly, according to him, those propagated by Anthony Paul and John Barron in Murder of a Gentle Land."[14]

A different response appeared in the British introduction to Ponchaud's book.

"Even before this book was translated it was sharply criticized by Mr Noam Chomsky [reference to correspondence with Silvers and the review cited in note 100] and Mr Gareth Porter [reference to May Hearings]. These two 'experts' on Asia claim that I am mistakenly trying to convince people that Cambodia was drowned in a sea of blood after the departure of the last American diplomats. They say there have been no massacres, and they lay the blame for the tragedy of the Khmer people on the American bombings. They accuse me of being insufficiently critical in my approach to the refugee's accounts. For them, refugees are not a valid source... "After an investigation of this kind, it is surprising to see that 'experts' who have spoken to few if any refugees should reject their very significant place in any study of modern Cambodia. These experts would rather base their arguments on reasoning: if something seems impossible to their personal logic, then it doesn't exist. Their only sources for evaluation are deliberately chosen official statements. Where is that critical approach which they accuse others of not having?"[15]

By contrast, Chomsky portrayed Porter and Hildebrand's book as "a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very favorable picture of their programs and policies, based on a wide range of sources." Refuting Chomsky on the question of documentation, researcher Bruce Sharp found that 33 out of 50 citations in one chapter of Porter and Hildebrand's book derived from the Khmer Rouge government and six from China, the Khmer Rouge's principal supporter.[16]

Chomsky and Herman dismissed reports by the "mass media" of extensive Khmer Rouge atrocities and instead cited "analyses by highly qualified specialists...who have concluded that executions [by the Khmer Rouge] have numbered at most in the thousands." They cited the "extreme unreliability of refugee reports."[13]

Veteran Cambodia correspondent Nate Thayer said of Chomsky and Herman's Nation article that they "denied the credibility of information leaking out of Cambodia of a bloodbath underway and viciously attacked the authors of reportage suggesting many were suffering under the Khmer Rouge."[17]

Journalist Andrew Anthony in the London Observer, said later that the Porter and Hildebrand's book "cravenly rehashed the Khmer Rouge's most outlandish lies to produce a picture of a kind of radical bucolic idyll."[18] Chomsky, he said, questioned "refugee testimony" believing that "their stories were exaggerations or fabrications, designed for a western media involved in a 'vast and unprecedented propaganda campaign' against the Khmer Rouge government, 'including systematic distortion of the truth.'"

Beachler cited reports that Chomsky's attempts to counter charges of Khmer Rouge atrocities also consisted of writing letters to editors and publications. He said: "Examining materials in the Documentation Center of Cambodia archives, American commentator Peter Maguire found that Chomsky wrote to publishers such as Robert Silver of the New York Review of Books to urge discounting atrocity stories. Maguire reports that some of these letters were as long as twenty pages, and that they were even sharper in tone than Chomsky’s published words."[19] Journalist Fred Barnes also mentioned that Chomsky had written "a letter or two" to the New York Review of Books. Barnes discussed the Khmer Rouge with Chomsky and "the thrust of what he [Chomsky] said was that there was no evidence of mass murder" in Cambodia. Chomsky, according to Barnes, believed that "tales of holocaust in Cambodia were so much propaganda."[20]

Journalist Christopher Hitchens defended Chomsky and Herman. They "were engaged in the admittedly touchy business of distinguishing evidence from interpretations."[21] Chomsky and Herman have continued to argue that their analysis of the situation in Cambodia was reasonable based on the information available to them at the time, and a legitimate critique of the disparities in reporting atrocities committed by communist regimes relative to the atrocities committed by the U.S. and its allies. Nonetheless, in 1993, Chomsky acknowledged the massive scale of the Cambodian genocide in the documentary film Manufacturing Consent. He said, "I mean the great act of genocide in the modern period is Pol Pot, 1975 through 1978 - that atrocity - I think it would be hard to find any example of a comparable outrage and outpouring of fury."[22]

Murder of Malcolm Caldwell

Malcolm Caldwell was a British academic who wrote extensively about Cambodia, including, a few months before his death, an article in The Guardian denying reports of Khmer Rouge genocide.[23] Caldwell was a member of the first delegation of three Western writers, two Americans, Elizabeth Becker and Richard Dudman, and Caldwell, to be invited to visit Cambodia in December 1978—nearly four years after the Khmer Rouge had taken power. The invitation was apparently an effort by Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, to improve the image of the Khmer Rouge in the West, now questioned by some of its former academic sympathizers.[23] On December 22, Caldwell had a private meeting with Pol Pot and returned "euphoric" to the guest house in Phnom Penh where the three members of the delegation were staying. During the night Becker awoke to the sound of gunfire and saw a Cambodian man with a gun in the guest house outside her room. Later that night she and Dudman were allowed by guards to venture out of their rooms and they discovered Caldwell's body. He had been shot. The body of a Cambodian man was also in his room.[24]

The murder of Caldwell has never been fully explained. Four of the Cambodian guards were arrested and two "confessed" under torture. They said, "We were attacking to ruin the Khmer Rouge Party's policy, to prevent the Party from gathering friends in the world... it would be enough to attack the English guest, because the English guest had written in support of our Party.... Therefore, we must absolutely succeed in attacking this English guest, in order that the American guests would write about it." Whatever the motive behind Caldwell's murder, it seems highly unlikely that it could have occurred in tightly-controlled Cambodia without the involvement of high-level Khmer Rouge officials.[23]

The impact of Caldwell's visit to Cambodia and his murder was muted by the invasion of Cambodia three days later on December 25, 1978, which soon ended the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Support for the Khmer Rouge in the Western academic community of Cambodian scholars quietly faded away. Peter Rodman, an American foreign policy expert and public official, stated that "When Hanoi [Vietnam] turned publicly against Phnom Penh, it suddenly became respectable for many on the Left to 'discover' the murderous qualities of the Khmer Rouge — qualities that had been obvious to unbiased observers for years."[25]

The STAV disappears

With the takeover of Cambodia by Vietnam in 1979 and the discovery of incontestable evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities, including mass graves, the "tales told by refugees", which had been doubted by many Western academics, proved to be entirely accurate. Some former enthusiasts for the Khmer Rouge recanted their previous views, others diverted their interest to other issues, and a few continued to defend the Khmer Rouge.

In a caustic exchange with William Shawcross in The New York Review of Books on July 20, 1978, Gareth Porter wrote that, "It is true, as Shawcross notes from my May 1977 Congressional testimony, that I have changed my view on a number of aspects of the Cambodian situation. I have no interest in defending everything the Khmer government does, and I believe that the policy of self-reliance has been carried so far that it has imposed unnecessary costs on the population of Cambodia. Shawcross, however, clearly does have an interest in rejecting our conclusions. It is time, I suggest, for him to examine it carefully, because it does not make for intellectual honesty." Shawcross responded, "I was glad to acknowledge in my article that Mr. Porter had changed his views on the Khmer Rouge and it is a tribute to his own integrity that he now agrees that the Khmer Rouge have imposed 'unnecessary costs' on the Cambodian people. He should, however, be a little more careful before he accuses others of deliberately falsifying evidence and of intellectual dishonesty."[26]

In 2010, Porter said he had been waiting many years for someone to ask him about his earlier views of the Khmer Rouge. He described how the climate of distrust of the government generated during the Vietnam war carried over to Cambodia. "I uncovered a series of instances when government officials were propagandizing [about the Vietnam war]. They were lying," he explained. "I've been well aware for many years that I was guilty of intellectual arrogance. I was right about the bloodbath in Vietnam, so I assumed I would be right about Cambodia."[27]

Australian Ben Kiernan recanted after interviewing 500 Cambodian refugees in 1979. He admitted that he had been "late in recognizing the extent of the tragedy in Cambodia....and "wrong about...the brutal authoritarian trend within the revolutionary movement after 1973."[28]

In the opinion of one scholar, the genocide deniers and doubters among academics may have been motivated more by politics than a search for the truth, but conservatives who "embraced the reports" of Khmer Rouge atrocities had no less "cynicism or naiveté" in later downplaying reports of atrocities by anti-communists in Central America.[29]

Certain authors have continued to downplay Khmer Rouge atrocities in recent years. Richard Dudman, who accompanied Caldwell to Cambodia, challenged the "conventional wisdom that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are irrational fanatics who practiced deliberate genocide [and] slaughtered more than one million Cambodians" in a 1990 New York Times editorial, arguing that "The evidence for these fixed beliefs consists mainly of poignant though statistically inconclusive anecdotes from accounts of mass executions in a few villages. It comes mostly from those with an interest in blackening the name of the Khmer Rouge: From Cambodian refugees, largely the middle- and upper-class victims of the Pol Pot revolution, and from the Vietnamese".[30] In 2012, journalist Israel Shamir wrote an article titled "Pol Pot Revisted" for the American left-wing newsletter CounterPunch in which he argued:

"New Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as it was called) under Pol Pot and his comrades was a nightmare for the privileged, for the wealthy and for their retainers; but poor people had enough food and were taught to read and write. As for the mass killings, these are just horror stories, averred my Cambodian interlocutors. Surely the victorious peasants shot marauders and spies, but many more died of American-planted mines and during the subsequent Vietnamese takeover, they said...  Noam Chomsky assessed that the death toll in Cambodia may have been inflated "by a factor of a thousand"...  To me, this recalls other CIA-sponsored stories of Red atrocities, be it Stalin's Terror or the Ukrainian Holodomor...  [The Vietnamese] supported the black legend of genocide to justify their own bloody intervention.[31]

Disputing the number of Khmer Rouge victims

Estimates of the number of Cambodians who died during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule have been controversial and range from less than one million to more than three million. Kiernan, head of the Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University, estimated that the Khmer Rouge were responsible for 1.5 million deaths and later raised that estimate to 1.7 million, more than 20 percent of the population. His deputy, Craig Etcheson undertook the most complete survey of mass graves and evidence of executions in Cambodia and concluded in 1999 that the KR may have executed as many as 1.5 million people and as many as another 1.5 million may have died of starvation and overwork. Kiernan criticized Etcheson for "sloppiness, exaggerating a horrific death toll", and "ethnic auctioneering." Etcheson's report was removed from the web site of the Cambodian Genocide Project.[32]

See also


  1. Brinkley, Joel (2011). Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. Public Affairs. pp. 48–49. Khmer Rouge apologists easily outnumbered those who believed a tragedy was under way. These people had been vociferous opponents of the Vietnam War...And to them, whatever the U.S. government had to say now was per force a lie...Before the subcommittee, Porter said simply that it was "a myth that between one million and two million Cambodians have been victims of a regime led by genocidal maniacs."...A few weeks earlier Noam Chomsky, an author and academic, offered an article in the Nation that conflated the American bombing and the Khmer Rouge horrors and made the same broad argument as the other apologists. He cited "highly qualified specialists" whom he did not name, but "who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who have concluded that executions numbered at most in the thousands." 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Beachler, Donald W. (2009) "Arguing about Cambodia: Genocide and Political Interest" Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, Fall 2009, p. 214, 215
  3. "Cambodia's Crime" The New York Times, July 9, 1975, p. 30
  4. Thompson, Larry Clinton Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982 Jefferson, NC and London: MacFarland, 2010, p. 40
  5. "Cambodia's Crime"
  6. "Sophal Ear The Khmer Rouge Canon, 1975-1979,, accessed May 8, 2014.
  7. Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media New York: Random House, 1988, p. 292
  8. Barron, John and Paul, Anthony Murder of a Gentle Land: The Untold Story of a Communist Genocide in Cambodia New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1977, pp. 201-206
  9. Peter Maguire (19 June 2012). Facing Death in Cambodia. Columbia University Press. pp. 53–. ISBN 978-0-231-50939-8. 
  10. Rodayne, Peter Never Again?: The United States and Punishment of Genocide since the Holocaust Washington: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001, p. 67
  11. "Hearing Before the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, Ninety-fifth Congress, First Session, on: Human Rights in Cambodia, 03 May 1977, Folder 02, Box 12, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 11 - Monographs, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp. 34 Accessed 6 May. 2014. <>.ns, May 3, 1977, pp 33-35
  12. Thompson, pp. 130-138
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Chomsky, Noam and Herman, Edward S. "Distortions at Fourth Hand" The Nation, June 6, 1977, accessed 25 Mar 2014
  14. Ponchaud, Francois Year Zero New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1978, p. xiii
  15. Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p.318-319
  16. Sharp, Bruce, "Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodian Controversy", accessed 22 Dec 2014
  17. "Thayer, Nate, "Khmer Rouge Apologist Noam Chomsky: Unrepentant",, accessed 1 January 2015
  18. Anthony, Andrew "Lost in Cambodia", The Observer, 9 January 2010
  19. Beachler, p. 47
  20. Hitchens, Christopher, "The Chorus and Cassandra: What Everyone Knows about Noam Chomsky" Grand Steet, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn 1985), p. 118. Downloaded from JSTOR.
  21. Hitchens, p.. 116. Downloaded from JSTOR.
  22. Sharp
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Anthony, Andrew, Lost in Cambodia, The Guardian, January 10, 2010.
  24. Becker, Elizabeth, When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution New York: Public Affairs Books, 1998, pp. 426-430
  25. Rodman, Peter "The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978: Grantsmanship & the Killing Fields", Commentary, March 1996
  26. "An Exchange on Cambodia" New York Review of Books, July 20, 1978,, accessed 25 May 2013
  27. Brinkley, Joel (2011). Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. PublicAffairs. p. 49. 
  28. Sophal Ear, p. 98
  29. Beachler, 232
  30. Dudman, Richard (August 17, 1990). "Pol Pot: Brutal, Yes, but No Mass Murderer". The New York Times. 
  31. Shamir, Israel (2012-09-18). "Pol Pot Revisited". CounterPunch. Retrieved 2014-05-08. 
  32. Kiernan, Ben. "The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia" Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2003), pp. 587-588;, accessed 21 Oct 2013; Thompson, p. 138