How the west supported the Khmer Rouge

The late travel documentarian and TV chef Anthony Bourdain once said that “once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands”. 

Bourdain was reflecting on the legacy of the Cambodian genocide, a period in which around a million and a half Cambodians were murdered under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. 

The Khmer Rouge had until 1969 been a Maoist fringe organisation with no real popular base. That lasted until the Nixon administration, advised by Kissinger, expanded the Vietnam War into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. 

Strategic bombing campaigns Menu and Freedom Deal saw US B52s drop 250,000 tonnes (more than had been dropped on Japan during WWII) on Cambodia, killing tens of thousands. 

Angry Cambodians rallied and support for the Khmer Rouge surged. In 1975 Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot and his men. 

While the KR had found its way to power thanks to some inadvertent help via clumsy US diplomacy, the relationship between the genocidal regime and the west would soon evolve into a strategic alliance.

The US and her allies had been largely sat idly by while the Khmer Rouge murdered millions of Cambodians. It wasn’t until Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot’s regime in 1978 that the west was spurred into action.

What was that action? Well, it was to covertly prop up the exiled Khmer Rouge of course!

The problem for the west was that Vietnam and the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea were backed by the Soviet Union, and this was the height of Cold War tensions. 

Not only that, but the US was still recovering from the humiliation of the capitulation of South Vietnam, and the evacuation of the US Embassy at Saigon in 1975.

China was also outraged by Vietnam’s invasion. The Chinese were suspicious of the Vietnamese anyway, given the latter’s alliance with the Soviet Union and lingering tensions from the Sino-Soviet split. The Chinese invaded and occupied parts of northern Vietnam in 1979.

For the US, China, and the UK (three of the five members of the UN Security Council), Pot’s regime represented the lesser of two evils. Which is really saying something, given that this particular evil had just committed one of the worst genocides in modern memory. 

The three powers made sure that the Khmer Rouge, now operating from within Thailand, continued to represent Cambodia at the UN. The Security Council also placed an embargo on an already crippled Cambodian state.

China supplied arms to Pot’s exiles, and the US covertly funded the KR in Thailand through agencies such as the Kampuchea Emergency Group.

Documents suggest that US financial backing totaled around $100m, including a steady stream of food and arms to the 30,000 or so Pot-loyal guerrillas across the border. 

The sporadic Khmer Rouge-affiliated groups would come to be known as the Coalition of the Democratic Government of Kampuchea, and would be supported by the western powers well into the 1990s.

While the majority of this support came via the US and China, the diplomatic row over the 1986 Iran-Contra affair necessitated a cautious US to step back from its covert assistance. 

Step forward Great Britain, who despite withdrawing its forces from ‘East of Suez’ in 1968, were happy to plug the US-sized gap as part of the close relationship between PM Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan.

The SAS took an active role in training KR guerillas in the use of mines and booby traps. The British government was of course quick to deny this, and Thatcher did so specifically to opposition leader Neil Kinnock, writing : “I confirm that there is no British government involvement of any kind in training, equipping or co-operating with Khmer Rouge forces or those allied to them.”

In 1989 the Vietnamese caved to intense international pressure and left Cambodia. Order was held by a UN peacekeeping force, which included elements of the Khmer Rouge. 

Journalist John Pilger, who was reporting on this event as it happened, said: “Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot’s prime minister during the years of genocide, took the salute of UN troops with their commander, the Australian general John Sanderson, at his side.”

The coalition government was unable to govern effectively throughout the 1990s, and large swathes of western Cambodia were in effect back under Khmer Rouge control. 

To this day, Cambodia lags far behind its neighbours when it comes to economic and social development. 

Perhaps the most damning consequence of the west’s cosying up to the Khmer Rouge is the lack of justice carried out for the genocide.

Pol Pot himself lived in Thailand for many years, buoyed by western support. He died in his own bed in 1998, having never been held accountable for the death of more than a million Cambodian citizens. 
Further reading: John Pilger’s contemporary account –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s