This year, I spent approximately two weeks with a group of fellow graduate students exploring challenges to peace-building in Cambodia as part of our conflict resolution studies. When I returned to the States, friends and family invariably asked about the “killing fields”. To many Americans, it seems, the most well-known aspects of Cambodian history are the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79. I too, admittedly, knew little more about Cambodia before visiting than the fact mass-killings had occurred there.I learned that the killings did not occur in a vacuum. Quiet fields were not converted to mass graves outside of a particular historical and social context which allowed the Khmer Rouge, led by the maniacal Pol Pot, to take power in Cambodia. As an American patriot and student of policy, I feel it doubly important to acknowledge that much of that context was shaped by non-Cambodian actors; namely the United States, China and North Vietnam.
During the U.S. war in Vietnam, Cambodia was embroiled in a bloody civil war between the communist Khmer Rouge, backed by China and North Vietnam, and Cambodian government forces backed by the U.S. From 1969-73, the U.S. military covertly carpet-bombed eastern Cambodia in an attempt to disrupt North Vietnamese operations and defend the government against the Khmer Rouge, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian citizens. For a country which at the time had a population of about 6 million, the losses were enormously devastating. Amongst the Cambodian populace, resentment grew against the U.S. and what was perceived as the American “puppet government” in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge represented resistance to the U.S. and consequently, as bombs continued to fall, Cambodian citizens flocked to join them.
Former New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, renowned for his experience in Cambodia at the time, said the Khmer Rouge “... would point... at the bombs falling from B-52s as something they had to oppose if they were going to have freedom. And it became a recruiting tool until they grew to a fierce, indefatigable guerrilla army.” Eventually, the Khmer Rouge were able to overwhelm the government forces and establish control over Cambodia, leading to Pol Pot’s “agrarian revolution”, the killing fields, torture centers and loss of some 2 million Cambodian lives.
In his memoirs, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has denied the U.S. is at all responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. He claims “It was Hanoi - animated by an insatiable drive to dominate Indochina - that organized the Khmer Rouge long before any American bombs fell on Cambodian soil.” Certainly, the U.S. is not solely to blame for the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power. China and the Vietnamese communists provided the Khmer Rouge with much support and it was an organic organization, its ranks filled with willing, patriotic Cambodians. Citizens cheered in the streets, warmly welcoming the Khmer Rouge when their tanks rolled triumphant through Phnom Penh in 1975. Nevertheless, their triumph might not have been guaranteed had it not been for the influx of support they received during the bombings.
To what degree, then, is the U.S. accountable for what happened in Cambodia from 1975-79? My desire to examine the issue was triggered when, in Cambodia, I was afforded the opportunity to speak with survivors of that dark time. As the group and I were exposed to horror stories from Cambodians who had lost entire families, been forced to work as slaves and/or nearly starved to death, it became clear that the U.S. bombings were a key part of their narratives.
One woman, who now works at a peace-building NGO, expressed that she was so distraught by the daily bombings her village suffered and so thoroughly angered with the U.S. that she eventually sided with the Khmer Rouge and served as a propagandist throughout their time in power. She did not hesitate to say that her anger with the U.S. continues to this day. Though other survivors were more reluctant to openly criticize the U.S. in front of us, it was obvious to me that most felt similar contempt and resentment.
The fact that, invariably, bitterly recounted descriptions of the bombings prefaced stories of surviving the Khmer Rouge leads me to believe that there is little to separate the U.S. bombings and Khmer Rouge brutality in the minds of Cambodian survivors. Who better to determine accountability than those who most directly suffered? It is impossible to say for certain, but to me such personal accounts are a powerful condemnation of the bombings and evidence that the U.S. government at the time was significantly responsible for what occurred thereafter.
Whether the bombing of Cambodia from 1969-73 was conducted out of hubris or mere ignorance of geopolitical realities, it is apparent that it led, whether directly or indirectly, to massive suffering and the deaths of a full one-third of Cambodia’s population at the time. Perhaps worse, the dysfunction caused by that tragedy continues to profoundly affect Cambodian society to this day.
“Whatever short-term battlefield advantage the raids bring pales in comparison with the long-term danger posed by the resentment they cause…”
The quote above has nothing, yet everything, to do with the Cambodian case. It was written in an article on U.S. strikes against military targets in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan in a February, 2009 issue of The Economist, but is relevant to the majority of conflicts throughout history. It represents an invaluable lesson that the world’s politicians and military commanders seem incapable of absorbing: resentment aggravates conflicts.
I truly hope that our current and future leaders have the foresight to ensure that history does not repeat itself and Pakistan, Iran, or other potential targets do not become modern Cambodias. If every U.S. politician were required to travel to Cambodia and forced to witness the continuing reverberations of the long-silent bombs: the survivors’ heartrending stories, the piles of human skulls, the dried blood on the floor of Tuol Sleng prison, the 70% of citizens under the age of 30….or if they were forced to wander, sickened, through the fields of mass graves just outside Phnom Penh, surely our policies would be shaped with greater consideration for the long-term well-being of all the world’s citizens and with a greater appreciation for the tremendous power of resentment.
Adam's blog entry is part of a two-part series written by WIP Contributor Pushpa Iyer's students. In the coming weeks, more entries will follow. Part I, "Legacy, Responsibility, Justice and Spirituality" will contemplate how Cambodia is coping with its painful past. Part II, "Identity, Sex Trafficking, HIV/AIDS and Property Rights" will explore some of the challenges modern-day Cambodia faces. – Ed.
Adam Kogeman is a second year graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA, specializing in international development and conflict resolution. He will receive an M.A. in International Policy Studies in December, 2009. Adam conducted language acquisition research during his undergraduate career at the University of Arizona and worked for the U.S. Department of Defense prior to enrolling in graduate school. He plans to pursue a career in microfinance upon graduation. He is originally from Claremont, CA.