February 8, 2019
History:When facts of the Cambodian tragedy get distorted by the US
Historical negationism or denialism is an illegitimate distortion of the historical record which the US Embassy in Phnom Penh has resorted to when it publicly stated in social media that Washington was not involved in the March 18, 1970 coup led by Lon Nol, argues Thomas Fowler.
Last Thursday, January 31, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh released a statement that claimed, “We would like to highlight that the US was not involved in the coup leading to Lon Nol coming to power. Up to now, there has not been any evidence proving the US was involved.” Unfortunately, this is nothing more contrary to the truth. We are faced with what historians call negationism – the illegitimate distortion of historical records.
There is a long history of fatal relations between Cambodia and the US. During the two decades following independence, while Prince Norodom Sihanouk was in power, Washington denied the many attempts to overthrow and even assassinate him.
Based on a strange US concept which is named “plausible deniability”, senior officials are able to deny knowledge of or responsibility for any damnable actions committed by others in an organisational hierarchy. In the case that illegal or otherwise disreputable and unpopular activities become public, high-ranking officials may deny any awareness of such acts to insulate themselves. The expression “plausibly deniable” was first used publicly by CIA director Allen Dulles.
In 1956, the US National Security Council decided to support with money, arms and ammunitions the Khmer Serei, an extreme right militia based in South Vietnam and Thailand led by Son Ngoc Thanh and opposed to then Prince Norodom Sihanouk. But in the same year, Washington vehemently denied any support to these rebels.
In 1959, there were three attempts to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk and even assassinate him. Traitors like Son Ngoc Thanh, Dap Chhuon and Sam Sary, all against Prince Sihanouk’s principle of neutrality and all passionate supporters of the US, were CIA operatives as has been proven by archival material. But in 1959, the Americans denied that Washington was involved in the plots for a regime change.
In 1963, the Khmer Serei’s activities increased dramatically as they were integrated partly in the Special Forces under US command. But in 1963, yet again, the State Department informed Cambodia’s Ambassador in the US that there was no evidence of American involvement with the Khmer Serei.
Since the archives of the CIA and the National Security Council for this period have been opened to researchers, we know all the details of these attempts. We even know that they were hidden from President John F Kennedy who was only informed a few days before his assassination in November 1963.
Similarly, it was not until William Clinton’s Presidency that we learnt the truth about the bombings of a country that had not declared war on anyone: 2,756,941 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia from October 4, 1965 to August 15, 1973 through 230,516 bomber missions which destroyed 115,273 targets. Until then, the Pentagon recognised “only” 539,129 tons, which still represents three times the tonnage of bombs dumped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki between 1942 and 1945.
The March 18, 1970 coup led by Lon Nol and Sirik Matak, joined soon by Son Ngoc Thanh, was coordinated by the CIA station and US military intelligence in Saigon, with the involvement of the US embassies in Phnom Penh and Saigon.
By supporting staged rallies against Prince Sihanouk, Khmer Serei forces were transferred step-by-step though the months by the CIA from South Vietnam to Phnom Penh with the order to organise deadly anti-Vietnamese demonstrations in the capital city. Of course, then US president Nixon and then state secretary Henry Kissinger denied their involvement in this regime change. As does the US embassy today in Phnom Penh. And Mr Kissinger is still alive.
These are the facts and they are indisputable. In 1993, all the details of US involvement were described to me by Douglas E Pike in a discussion we had while he was the director of the Indochina Archives at the University of Berkeley. As Foreign Service officer, he had been stationed at the US embassy in Saigon in the 1960s and in 1973-1974.
Until March 1970, with the exception of the neighboring provinces of Vietnam, Cambodia was considered an “oasis of peace”. Even if he had on his own side opponents to his policy of neutrality, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s power was disputed only by two political movements: the Khmer Serei with bases in the two neighboring countries and as we have seen receiving US military assistance and, on the other side of the political spectrum, the Communists, who were subjected to fierce repression and were reduced to a militia not exceeding 3,000 men.
With the coup of March 18, 1970, Cambodia as a whole became an extension of the Vietnamese battlefield. What some still call a civil war was actually one of the theaters of the global conflict between the West and Communist world – a situation that, for fifteen years, Prince Sihanouk had tried to avoid defending the neutrality of his country.
Most historians agree today that the coup and extreme violence of the US bombings offered the Khmer Rouge the opportunity to develop and build up their cadres – to the point that their numbers reached 120,000 five years later, at the time of their victory.
There were 7.3 million Cambodians in 1970. In 1979, just before the country was liberated from the tyranny of Pol Pot, the population was decimated to 4.8 million. This is the US legacy in Cambodia.
From 1970 to 1975, Cambodia was a victim of foreign interferences and Cambodians became mere instruments in a proxy war. This story would be repeated between 1979 and 1991, and each time it has been proven that the US had a role in inflicting pain and suffering among the Khmer people.
Thomas Fowler is a Phnom Penh-based Cambodia watcher.