Devastation and Denial: Cambodia and the Academic Left
Pic by David Dennis

Devastation and Denial: Cambodia and the Academic Left

Matthew Blackwell
Matthew Blackwell
18 min read

Looking out across the yellow-washed angular buildings that clutter the inner city of Phnom Penh in 2016, hindsight fills me with anxiety. Imagining myself here in 1975, I recall the jubilant and cheering crowds in the spring of that year who weren’t privy to that hindsight as they welcomed Khmer Rouge communists into Cambodia’s capital city after months of siege.

On the morning of 17 April, word had arrived that the Khmer Rouge had captured the government’s last beleaguered military stronghold on the outskirts of the city. Prime Minister Long Boret could hardly believe the news. He demanded to be driven to the riverside to see it with his own eyes. By the time he arrived, order had already collapsed in the streets and men wearing the black shirts of the Khmer Rouge surrounded his small entourage and demanded his guards put down their guns. Managing to slip away in the chaos, Boret reported back to his cabinet at the Defence Ministry that the enemy was already in the streets. The rush then began to evacuate senior government members from the country on any government helicopters still available amidst the anarchy. Had he taken action, Boret might have escaped with his wife and children on a helicopter reserved for him, but he delayed, trying to find a helicopter with enough space for his extended family.

The head of state, President Lon Nol, had already fled two weeks earlier, but as head of the government, Boret had stayed behind in those last weeks to try to work through a peace agreement with the revolutionaries. That delay, and his attempt to find a helicopter, proved fatal. As columns of revolutionary soldiers made their way down Phnom Penh’s streets, it dawned on the Prime Minister that there were now no helicopters left at all. The last Western journalists to take refuge in the French Embassy remember seeing Boret standing outside in the street with puffy red eyes and trembling legs. They shook his hand and thanked him for staying in the capital in those last few weeks when others had fled. Staring at the ground, he tried to mumble an incoherent sentence but found himself unable to speak. He knew he’d be dead by the end of the day.

I. Devastation

Loung Ung, author and human-rights activist

In her book First They Killed My Father (now a heart-gnawing Angelina Jolie film), Loung Ung recalls the fall of Phnom Penh on that day, when she was just five years old. She describes the jubilation among citizens who welcomed the end of the siege and who cheered the grinning Khmer Rouge soldiers. That celebration lasted only a few hours, until the Khmer Rouge ordered the immediate evacuation of Phnom Penh’s two million people into the countryside. Some people didn’t take the order seriously, especially the elderly who couldn’t walk. But the seriousness and severity of the Khmer Rouge soon became apparent. Loung remembers gossip among the adults marching out of the city, “Those who refused were shot dead right on their door steps.” As one witness reported, even hospital patients were marched out of the city:

I shall never forget one cripple who had neither hands nor feet, writhing along the ground like a severed worm, or a weeping father carrying his ten-year-old daughter wrapped in a sheet tied around his neck like a sling, or the man with his foot dangling at the end of a leg to which it was attached by nothing but skin.1

As Loung and her family continued the hike out of the city through the countryside, they stopped by a temple, but upon hearing gunshots from inside, they kept moving. After four days, they reached a checkpoint where Khmer Rouge soldiers asked former government workers to step forward and sign up for “immediate work.” Although Loung’s father was a high-ranking official in Boret’s government, he told the soldiers that his background was in packing on the wharfs. The next day, Loung remembers her elder brother telling her parents, “The noise last night was the Khmer Rouge soldiers opening fire on all the people who registered for work. They killed every one of them.”

The new regime tried to eliminate every vestige of the old government—and every vestige of society they considered a threat, including people who had committed no crime besides wearing reading glasses. The population was forced to wear a national uniform of all black, and absolute conformity with Khmer Rouge ideology was imposed on the people. According to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had long been led astray by the Western world, its money, its profits, and its professionals. Now that the cities had been evacuated and emptied into the countryside, Cambodia would take a different path—an agrarian brotherhood dedicated to working the land. Cambodia was to return to ‘Year Zero,’ and recover its former glory, removed from the modern world and the unnecessary corruption of its influences. In order to facilitate the eradication of capitalism, the National Bank was blown apart and all forms of money were banned. Marriages were now arranged by the state, children were taught to obey the government instead of their parents, and every last trace of individuality was expunged from human life. To seal the transformation, the country was renamed Kampuchea.

Loung and her family were forced, along with the rest of the population, into communal agrarian labour camps, which also served as centres for extreme indoctrination. Loung’s sister Keav died of food poisoning. One day, two soldiers arrived at Loung’s hut and asked her father to assist them in getting a wagon unstuck. She never saw him again. Disturbed by the disappearance of her husband and the sounds of screaming at night, Loung’s mother ordered Loung and her surviving siblings to separate and pretend to be orphans. She feared the Khmer Rouge would eventually kill them too, just as they were killing the families of other executed ‘traitors.’

Cambodia during this period was ruled by a secretive group of Khmer Rouge party officials, known only as ‘the Organization,’ or the Angkar. In its earliest years in power, the Angkar didn’t reveal the identity of the party’s Secretary General. Even those who knew the leader had no idea of his official position. He turned out to be a rubber plantation farmer named Saloth Sâr, or as we now know him, Pol Pot. It was only in 1978 that Pol Pot was publicly revealed to be the Angkar’s leader. Loung noticed two years into her indentured labour and indoctrination that the ideology began to shift away from the party, and towards Pol Pot:

Every night our nightly lessons grow longer and longer. It seems Pol Pot has replaced the Angkar as the source of power. I don’t know why or how it happened…Since the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, I have heard of Pol Pot but I never knew exactly what his position with Angkar was. Now it seems that it is Angkar working for him, and that we all work for him. More and more each day, we call out his name in place of the Angkar.

By May 1978, the effort to produce a communist system of agriculture had failed utterly and the population was starving. Despite being a seven-year-old reduced to skin and bones, Loung was forced to work 12 hour days in the field along with the rest of the population. “By midday, during lunchtime, the effort of pulling leeches out of my toes requires more energy than I have in me. So tired, I allow the leeches to feed on me and only remove them at the end of the day.” Those too weak, and whose entire families had perished, felt no reason to go on: “They wasted away and laid in their own faeces and urine, completely alone.” Throughout this period, the emptied city of Phnom Penh stood as a ghost town, a reminder of a lost civilization of business and commerce.

*     *     *

As I walk along the constructed footpaths that wind through unearthed mass graves on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I take special care in identifying human remains lying in situ around the water-filled excavations of Choeung Ek, where the Angkar buried tens of thousands of people. What looks like the top of a human cranium appears beside a pit, and I find a femur lying beside another. At another junction between paths, an observant eye can locate a human mandible protruding from the earth.

The gate to Choeung Ek houses a memorial tower filled with hundreds of thousands of pieces of skeletal remains exhumed at the site, guarded by a sign written in imperfect English: “Would you please kindly show your respect to many million people who were killed under genocidal Pol Pot regime.” This killing field, the closest to the capital, was one of 20,000 spread across the country into which the Angkar marched untold numbers of men, women, and children, all of whom would be killed with shovels and other tools. Signs across the field indicate where atrocities were carried out. One indicates the tree against which children’s skulls were smashed. Another marks the tree from which loud speakers were hung, through which music was played to drown out the agonizing cries of victims as they were beaten to death.

Admittedly, skulls don’t elicit a reaction from me. A background in anthropology has desensitized me to skeletal human remains. But what does disturb me is the clothing. Clothes released from the putrefied remains of their massacred owners are still rising out of these watery swamplands today. Unlike skeletons from the past, there’s something all too human and too real about these garments. I’m not standing in a disembodied museum looking at artefacts that have long passed formal processing by experts; it is as if I’ve come across a grizzly crime scene and I’m waiting for some designated authority to arrive and swiftly remove the evidence from public sight. But the scars of the Pol Pot regime lie open; the country wears its past on its sleeve, as if to say to visitors, “After everything we’ve been through, if you can’t look at this, then why are you here?”

Inside the heart of the urban centre of Phnom Penh lies Tuol Sleng Prison, a high school the Khmer Rouge converted into the infamous S-21 torture facility. The complex was discovered after the fall of Pol Pot in 1979. Vietnamese soldiers trying to locate the stench in the city finally discovered the complex and the remains of its decomposing corpses strapped to bed frames. During party purges in Pol Pot’s paranoid later years, even party leaders of the highest rank were brought here to be tortured. Thousands of photos adorn the walls, revealing the faces of the victims killed within them.

A sign at the front gate translates the rules of the prison into English: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry out at all.” “You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.” Barbed wire skirts the balconies of one of the buildings, a late addition designed to prevent prisoners leaping to their deaths. Within these walls, political prisoners were tortured for months until they ‘admitted’ to plots to overthrow Pol Pot. S-21 also served as a place for medical experimentation and a blood bank for the regime, where prisoners were drained of blood until they died. I close the wooden door to one cell and sit on the chequered tile floor, trying to imagine what the hundreds of people who sat in that spot might have felt as they waited for the door to open, so they could be led away to certain death.

II. Denial

Amazingly, even as Cambodia disintegrated, the Khmer Rouge benefitted from unsolicited apologetics from intellectuals at the West’s august universities. Just as Mao, Stalin, and Hitler enjoyed disproportionate popularity among academics and university students, Pol Pot and his promise of a communist utopia in South East Asia elicited sharp defences from many radical Western academics. In what is now known by some historians as the ‘The Standard Total Academic View,’ these professors downplayed reports of atrocities perpetrated in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and printed vicious attacks against anyone who disagreed.

Reports of cities being emptied by the regime’s forced marches, for instance, were explained away as a necessary policy to prevent starvation in the country. “What was portrayed as a destructive, backward-looking policy motivated by doctrinaire hatred was actually a rationally conceived strategy for dealing with the urgent problems that faced postwar Cambodia,” wrote Gareth Porter and George Hilderbrand in their 1977 book Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. “Cambodia is only the latest victim of the enforcement of an ideology that demands that social revolutions be portrayed as negatively as possible, rather than as responses to real human needs which the existing social and economic structure was incapable of meeting.” The authors didn’t have the direct data on food levels in Cambodia required to make this claim. Nor were they able to assess conditions on the ground, since the regime had expelled all Western observers under a policy even more strict than that adopted by North Korea today.

As refugees who managed to escape the Khmer Rouge began spilling over the border into Thailand, their harrowing testimonies of horrific hardship, forced labour, starvation, and mass killings were dismissed by the West’s radical intelligentsia. In a manner reminiscent of the patronising social scientist, one academic wrote, “What the urban dwellers consider ‘hard’ labor may not be punishment or community service beyond human endurance … Such associations take what is happening in Cambodia out of its historical and cultural context.”2

After interviewing Cambodian refugees, the French priest François Ponchaud said, “How many of those who say they are unreservedly in support of the Khmer revolution would consent to endure one hundredth part of the present sufferings of the Cambodian people?” In his 1977 book Cambodge Année Zéro (translated into English a year later as Cambodia: Year Zero), Ponchaud argued that refugee testimonies spoke to the gravity of the crisis enveloping Cambodia. John Barron and Anthony Paul reached a similar conclusion in their 1977 book Murder Of A Gentle Land: “We believe that the documentation conclusively shows that cataclysmic events have occurred in Cambodia and that their occurrence is not subject to rational dispute. We hope that upon learning of these events, people in all parts of the world will act to halt the ongoing annihilation of the Cambodian people…”

Noam Chomsky in 1977

The academic Left in the West found Ponchaud’s book uncomfortable, and detested the conclusions in Murder Of A Gentle Land. Noam Chomsky, arguably the most formidable icon of the Left’s intelligentsia, called the book a “third rate propaganda tract.”3 Refugee testimonies were not be dismissed, Chomsky argued, but nor were they to be trusted. “Refugees,” he wrote, “are frightened and defenceless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocutors wish to hear.”4

Many other Western intellectuals summarily dismissed Barron and Paul’s conclusion of a “monstrous dark age that has engulfed the people of Cambodia.” The aforementioned Gareth Porter called refugee testimony the “least reliable kind of documentation,” and derided the refugees themselves as merely the wealthy elite of Cambodian society who had lost out in the collectivisation process. When Porter testified before U.S Congress he stated, “I cannot accept the premise … that one million people have been murdered systematically or that the Government of Cambodia is systematically slaughtering its people.”5

In response to such criticism, François Ponchaud countered that his interviews were carried out with lower class refugees who couldn’t read and write or speak French. The arrogance of Western intellectuals astounded him:

After an investigation of this kind, it is surprising to see that ‘experts’ who have spoken to few if any of the Khmer [Cambodian] 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.6

But not all of the Khmer Rouge’s supporters on the Left stood firm. In 1978, Jean Lacoutre, originally a fervent supporter of the Khmer Rouge, wrote Cambodians Survive! After reading Ponchaud, Lacoutre attempted to wash his hands of his former support for the regime:

The shame, alone, would have justified that this book be written—which is firstly a cry of horror. The shame of having contributed, even as little as it was, as weak as its influence could have been on the mass media, to the establishment of one of the most oppressive powers history has ever known.

Lacoutre kept Chomsky in his sights, who had earlier criticised Lacoutre for a review of Ponchaud’s book, “Cambodia and Cambodians are on their way to ethnic extinction … If Noam Chomsky and his friends doubt it, they should study the papers, the cultures, the facts.”

*     *     *

One of Chomsky’s associates, the Marxist scholar Dr. Malcolm Caldwell, complained during the 1970s that the “richest countries of the world today are still disfigured by poverty and gross inequalities.” For Caldwell, the latest communist experiment in Cambodia represented the “promise of a better future for all.”7 Like his colleagues, Caldwell dismissed refugee stories that testified to the horrors unfolding inside Cambodia as the lamentations of the rich put to work: “It need occasion us no surprise that to begin with they required close supervision when put to work shifting earth and collecting boulders; we should bear this in mind when evaluating refugee stories, particularly those referring to the immediate post-liberation period.”8 As for the reports of mass killings, Caldwell cited the denials of the Khmer Rouge Information Minister Hu Nim as his primary evidence. He was unaware that, by the time he was quoting the Minister, Hu Nim had himself been tortured and killed in Tuol Sleng Prison during a party purge.

In December of 1978, Pol Pot invited Caldwell and two other Western journalists to take a guided tour of Cambodia. Caldwell jumped on what he thought was the opportunity of a lifetime. However, the tour turned out to be bubble-wrapped. The journalists were not allowed to travel where they wished, and were forbidden from speaking to Cambodian citizens. Even Caldwell is said to have joked with his Western companions about the embarrassingly staged scenes they were invited to admire. After two weeks spent touring the country, Caldwell was summoned to speak with Pol Pot face-to-face. A few hours later he was killed in his hotel room by Pol Pot’s soldiers. Some have speculated that he was murdered because he had confronted Pol Pot with what he had seen in the country. Others suggest that he was killed by rogue soldiers who didn’t want him to return to the West and write supportive things in the media about the brutal regime, as he had done in the past. Elizabeth Becker, one of the other journalists on the trip, hid in her hotel bathroom as she heard the gunshots. Later she stated that, “Caldwell’s death was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired.”9

*     *     *

The purpose of inviting journalists into Cambodia seems to have been an attempt to solicit Western support at a time when the regime felt threatened by closer enemy. Three days after Caldwell’s murder, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot. What had happened during those cruel years was finally exposed before the eyes of the world. Not only were the refugees’ stories of starvation and slaughter finally vindicated, but the horror was revealed to have been more extreme than anyone had imagined. What Pol Pot’s academic apologists had been defending was quite possibly the greatest slaughter in human history in per capita terms. In those three years of Khmer Rouge misrule, one in four Cambodians disappeared into the ground, and food shortages were so appalling the U.N. estimates that one in two people would have died in the near future without emergency aid.

Western academe’s romantic vision of Cambodia came tumbling down. Most of the regime’s defenders never spoke of the issue again. Some offered immediate retractions and apologies. Others spent decades in reflection before making public apologies. In 2010, Gareth Porter admitted, “I’ve been well aware for many years that I was guilty of intellectual arrogance.”10 Others retreated into complete denial. Israel Shamir, latterly an associate of Wikileaks, has written:

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 […] 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 interlocuters.11

Where Shamir discovered Cambodians willing to provide him with this exculpatory testimony, I cannot say. But I found no such love for Pol Pot or denial of the the Khmer Rouge’s brutality among the Cambodian people I encountered there, and the shattering effects of those years appear to be borne out by Cambodia’s unusually high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.12

As a godfather to the intellectual Left, Noam Chomsky was careful to avoid outright genocide denial, but also too proud to admit to any errors of judgment whatsoever. Strategically, he had been cautious enough to write everything he published on the issue with the precision of a lawyer. As he later pointed out, he never did say anywhere that the regime was not guilty of mass murder, he had only argued that those who said that it was were making an unconvincing case, or relying on fabricated evidence. Chomsky would later claim that, at the time, the best judgement call was to believe American intelligence sources, which held that only a few thousand people had died in Cambodia:

We came out with no conclusion of our own about the numbers, in fact we ended up by saying that maybe the two million figure would turn out to be right, even if it were totally fabricated. But, tentatively, we assumed that American intelligence was probably right.

However, Chomsky’s highly evasive manoeuvring doesn’t accurately capture his former position at all, or account for the copious derision he had emptied over those he accused of alarmism. In assessing Ponchaud’s dramatic claims of deaths, Chomsky had previously written, “We wonder, frankly, whether Ponchaud really believes such figures.”13

In his 1979 book After the Cataclysm, co-written with Edward S. Herman, Chomsky invites us to consider historian Ben Kiernan’s hypothesis that the Khmer Rouge leaders never properly established discipline over insubordinate soldiers: “[Kiernan] notes that most of the atrocity stories come from areas of little Khmer Rouge strength, where orders to stop reprisals were disobeyed by soldiers wreaking vengeance, often drawn from the poorest sections of the peasantry.”14 According to this theory, atrocities were chiefly carried out by unaffiliated peasants unmotivated by party ideology.

Kiernan has since confessed to the same lethargic response to the Khmer Rouge as other intellectuals. As Director of the Genocide Study Program at Yale University, Kiernan now utterly rejects his own earlier explanation: “Despite its underdeveloped economy, the regime probably exerted more power over its citizens than any state in world history. It controlled and directed their public lives more closely than government had ever done.”15

In 1955 Raymond Aron published his masterwork, The Opium of the Intellectuals, in which he described how the French cognoscenti had become entranced by Stalinism after the Second World War. Here was a group of bright, erudite people “ready to toler­ate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines.” According to Aron, those proper doctrines—equality, classlessness, unselfish dedication—were something like pictures in a children’s book; enticing images that seduced the most imaginative among us—our intellectuals.

Pol Pot completed his studies at the University of Paris in 1953, just two years before Aron would publish his book. There, he had fallen in love with the works of Marx, Rousseau, Stalin, and Mao. Many of the future Khmer Rouge leaders were also graduates of French universities at this time, and became the founders of a club they called the Marxist Circle. Conduct a survey of your own among blue collar workers and students and faculty at universities, and it will soon become apparent that Marxism is a movement of intellectuals. But in the name of the peasants and workers, their doctrines left the halls of the universities and entered the killing fields of Cambodia.

III. Epilogue

Pol Pot invaded Vietnam in late 1979 and killed 30,000 villagers before the Vietnamese army arrived and launched its counter-invasion of Cambodia. Within two weeks, Vietnamese soldiers reached Phnom Penh and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge fled into the jungle near the Thailand border, where they lived for the next two decades until they disbanded in 1998. Just as we are accustomed to hearing that every failed communist regime in the last century wasn’t real communism, Pol Pot insisted that all of the deaths under the Khmer Rouge were committed by men who weren’t real communists. Perhaps it was Pol Pot’s warm smile, quite voice, and gentle disposition that enabled him to become such a powerful and manipulative figure.

In 1985, Vietnam installed the former Khmer Rouge soldier Hun Sen as ruler of the country, a position he still holds today in that corrupt and authoritarian state. Like the autocratic state of Singapore, the country has nonetheless turned towards the free market, and time has shown the resilience of the Cambodian people. Since its movement toward a more market-based system, rapid economic growth has produced one of the greatest reductions in poverty seen anywhere in the world. If Cambodia’s economic reforms can be matched by reforms in government, they could usher in a renaissance reminiscent of the Khmer Empire 1000 years ago. This is what the Khmer Rouge once deluded themselves into believing they could achieve.


1 Ponchaud, F. (1977). Cambodia: Year Zero, p. 22.
2 Summers, L. (1976). “Defining the Revolutionary State in Cambodia,” Current History, p. 215.
3 Chomsky, N. and Herman, E. S. “Distortions at Fourth Hand” The Nation, June 6, 1977.
4 Chomksy, N. and Herman, E. “Distortions at Fourth Hand” The Nation, June 6, 1977.
5 Hearing Before the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, 95th Congress, First Session, on: Human Rights in Cambodia, May 3, 1977.
6 Ponchaud, F. Cambodia: Year Zero (Introduction to the British Edition, 1978, Henry Holt & Co).
7 Caldwell, M. (1975) Kampuchea: Rationale of a Rural Policy, Janata Prachuranalu, p. 45.
8 Caldwell, M. (1975) Kampuchea: Rationale of a Rural Policy, Janata Prachuranalu, p. 46.
9 Andrew Anthony, ‘Malcolm Caldwell, Pol Pot Revisited’, The Guardian.
10 Brinkley, Joel (2011). Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, Public Affairs.
11 Shamir, Israel. 2012. “Pol Pot Revisited,” CounterPunch.
12 Agger I. Calming the mind: Healing after mass atrocity in Cambodia. Transcultural Psychiatry. 2015;52(4):543-560.

13 Chomsky, N. and Herman, E. S. (1979). After the Cataclysm, South End Press. p. 290
14 Chomsky, N., Herman, E. S. (1979).  After the Cataclysm. South End Press, 226-227
15 Kiernan, Ben. 1996. The Pol Pot Regime, Yale University Press. p. 464.

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Matthew Blackwell

Matthew Blackwell is an Australian writer and Outback Drug and Alcohol Case Manager & Educator in the Northern Territory.