Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Trials: No Justice for Victims of Illegal U.S Bombing

David Hutt
RINF Alternative News

This week two high ranking ex-Khmer Rouge leaders were sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide. The United States heralded this as “justice for the Cambodian people.” But what about justice for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who were killed in illegal and secret bombing raids committed by the United States?

In the courtrooms of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, were this week sentenced to life in prison for their role in genocide and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge. It has taken three years to announce the ruling in this case, during which time one co-accused died in custody and another was declared mentally unfit to stand trial. The two guilty men have been dubbed the highest-ranking surviving members of the Khmer Rouge, which between 1975 and ’79, led by the infamous Pol Pot, killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians through murder and starvation.

Whole cities were emptied overnight. Doctors, teachers and anyone considered an intellectual was killed. Those who survived were forced to work in communal farms. They received barely enough food to work the next day. Those who were caught eating frogs or tarantulas disappeared. Now, tourists visit the ‘killing fields’ on excursions out of Phnom Penh, where the bones of tens of thousands of innocent Cambodians who were slaughtered still trickle to the surface during rainy seasons. A tree in the corner of one field is known as the ‘Children’s Tree’. Here, children were swung by their legs against the trunk until their bodies broke.

Since the formation of the ECCC (also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) in 2006, only three individuals have been held responsible for these crimes — including the two sentenced this week. In 2010, Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as ‘Comrade Duch’, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in running prison (death) camps where tens of thousands of civilians were tortured, raped and murdered. In total, these trials have cost in excess of $200 million.

After this week’s sentencing the U.S Embassy in Cambodia released the following statement. “The U.S Embassy in Cambodia welcomes today’s historic guilty verdict…We express our gratitude to the judges and other representatives of the tribunal for their hard work and commitment to justice.”

It added: “The U.S. Government will continue to support the efforts of the ECCC to bring justice to the Cambodian people.”

However, there was no mention of justice for the hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians who were killed by the illegal and secret bombings carried out by U.S forces between 1964 and 1974. Acts that most historians agree brought the Khmer Rouge to power.

Indeed, when the United States calls for justice, it means justice for the victims it considers ‘worthy victims’. These were the victims of a communist-inspired, Western-backed, Khmer Rouge regime. But they do not call from justice for the ‘unworthy victims’, those who happened to live in the rural villages were hundreds of thousands of American bombs landed during decade of illegal and secret bombing raids.

Between 1964 and 1974 American military planes secretly crossed the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Their supposed targets were camps belonging to Vietnamese guerrillas. But in reality, the casualties were innocent men, women and children.  In 1973 American B-52s dropped more bombs on Cambodia in one year than were dropped on Japan during the entire Second World War. One estimate puts the destruction caused by these bombs as the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. Officials responsible called these raids “breakfast, lunch and dinner”. The operations were named, “Operation Menu” and ‘Operation Freedom Deal’.

It is believed between 50,000 and 200,000 people were killed by these U.S bombs. Some sources put the death toll as high as 300,000.

According to the historian Mark Philip Bradley, who has written extensively on the Vietnam War and U.S activity in Indochina, “Popular support for the Khmer Rouge before the American intervention in Cambodia was very limited…The American bombing campaign, which killed as many as 150,000 Cambodian civilians, was critical in drawing ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the revolutionary movement.”

Such a viewpoint is supported by the CIA. Documents written at the time and later released in the 1990s state: “[The Khmer Rouge] are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda…This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of a number of young men [and] has been effective with refugees.”

In public, Richard Nixon promised that he “would not expand the [Vietnam War] into Cambodia”. But in private, Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser to the president and mastermind behind these raids, told colleagues in the State Department, “we are bombing the bejesus out of Cambodia.”

No U.S official has ever been held accountable for these crimes. There have been no investigations. No tribunals. No interrogation of the decision making process. And no justice for the victims. Instead, in the greatest mockery of justice, the same year Henry Kissinger masterminded the dropping of 250,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Khmer Rouge regime was ousted in 1979. Cambodia’s liberators were the Vietnamese forces that had repelled both French and U.S forces. The Khmer Rouge fled to the northern regions that bordered Thailand, while the Vietnamese built hospitals to treat survivors and helped develop the necessary infrastructure for a country that had just experienced a brutal genocide. The West, meanwhile, refused to send any aid to Cambodia. While children were dying of common diseases and others struggled to feed themselves in a country that had decimated food production, Western countries were debating whether Cambodia could be trusted with aid. This is because Cambodia was liberated by Vietnam. And Vietnam was the enemy of the United States and China.

It is not known how many Cambodians died in the year after the Khmer Rouge was overthrown due to the absence of aid that could have been so easily sent by the West. Some historians have estimated it to be in the hundreds, others in the thousands. In 1979, the total Western aid sent to Cambodia, by organizations like the Red Cross and the UN Children’s Fund was a mere 1,300 tons. This is effectively nothing. The journalist John Pilger, who was one of the first foreigners to enter Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, wrote, “In all its history. The United Nations had withheld development aid from only one Third World country: Cambodia”.

He added that the embargo placed on Cambodia and Vietnam was so severe, “not even Cuba and the Soviet Union were treated in this way.”

Back in the West the United States, Great Britain and others in the U.N refused to recognise the new government of Cambodia — the Vietnamese-backed government — as the official government of Cambodia. Rather, they said the Khmer Rouge government was still the official government of Cambodia, and welcomed Khieu Samphan (the man who was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes) as their man at the U.N.

Cambodia had fallen into the wrong side of Cold War politics. Vietnam was the enemy. Vietnam was the enemy so much that the U.S and the U.N preferred to accept the murderous and genocidal Khmer Rouge as the recognised government of Cambodia, rather than a Vietnamese-backed one.

But, in utter grotesqueness, having just watched the Khmer Rouge kill an estimated 2 million of its own people, its utter brutality, the ‘West’ continued to secretly fund remaining members of the Khmer Rouge during the 1980s. It is as if someone had funded the Nazi Party to rebuild post-war Germany.

Between 1980 and 1986, the United States secretly gave the Khmer Rouge – who were hiding in forests in the north of the country or in Thailand – $85 million. They supplied food, medicine, weapons, vehicles as well as training. Through ‘Task Force 80’, a unit of the Thai army, the U.S supplied aid and weaponry base camps belonging to Pol Pot’s men.  An 1989 article by Simon O’Dwyer-Russell written in the Sunday Telegraph found that during the 1980s, Great Britain had been secretly training Khmer Rouge units in bases across Southeast Asia with the guidance of the SAS.

The United States officially denied it was funding the Khmer Rouge, and Great Britain denied it was training Khmer Rouge soldiers in the arts of guerrilla warfare. However, both countries could not keep up the lies for too long, and by 1990 the two governments had accepted responsibility for their actions. The U.S government accepted responsibility on the same day the Gulf War ended — its admission of funding the Khmer Rouge barely made it in mainstream newspapers.

At Khieu Samphan’s trial in 2009 he called on the ECCC to expand its scope and look at war crimes committed by the United States. He told the courtroom, “You seem to forget that between January 1970 and August 1973 the United States carpeted the small Kampuchean territory with bombs.”

The attorney of another defendant at this trial, Michiel Pestman, stated, “Most historians agree that without this American intervention the Khmer Rouge would not have been able to seize power. Without Kissinger we would not be here today.” He called on Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, to face questions for war crimes.

The ECCC ignored these calls. The Tribunals remit – established by the United Nations with support from the United States and Great Britain – specifically states that investigations would only look into crimes committed between 1975 and 1979. Thereby, excluding any reference to crimes committed by the United States years earlier. This has effectively white-washed significant parts of Cambodia’s history. It neglects the war crimes committed by the United States that were the catalyst for the Khmer Rouge coming to power, and it whitewashes the fact that even after the world knew about the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, both U.S and British governments financially and militarily supported their return to power. When it became obvious that the Khmer Rouge could not be returned to power — as allies of the West — the U.N created the ECCC to make it look like justice was being served.

While Cambodia has publicly and consciously looked into its past to prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity, and has been championed by the West for doing so — the United States has not been so willing to look into its own troubled past in Cambodia. But this should come to no surprise. The U.S rarely acknowledges the deaths of those it calls ‘collateral damage’ — a term invented during the Vietnam War. And on the rare occasions U.S foreign policy is called into question, it simply refuses to accept responsibility.

Take the 1986 International Court of Justice ruling that found the United States had violated international law when it armed and supported the ‘Contas’ in Nicaragua — armed counter-revolutionary units that burnt down schools and hospitals, and raped and murdered innocent men, women and children. Found guilty of supporting these so-called ‘rebels’, the United States simply refused to accept the decision and blocked any enforcement of the ruling through the United Nations Security Council. To this day, it has not paid one dollar in compensation to Nicaragua; a country that remains one of the poorest in the region.

When Barack Obama visited Cambodia in 2012 — the first time a U.S president had visited the country in decades – Theary Seng, president of the Association of Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia, said, “President Obama should have [offered] a public apology to the Cambodian people for the illegal U.S. bombings, which took the lives of half a million Cambodians and created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide.”

But no such apology was forthcoming. An article in the New York Times lamented: “Four decades after American warplanes carpet-bombed this impoverished country, an American president came to visit for the first time. He came not to defend the past, nor to apologize for it. In fact, he made no public mention of it whatsoever.”

Over the last ten years Cambodia has made great strides in coming to terms with its past. History textbooks now accurately present the Khmer Rouge and the ECCC has given survivors a voice. Despite it being slow and cumbersome, the ECCC has brought to justice some of those responsible for the death of more than two-million Cambodians. It is, however, unlikely that justice will be found for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians — known in the West as ‘collateral damage’ – who were killed by an illegal bombing campaign by U.S forces.