Khmer Rouge undisputed leader?

In the article Was Andrew Jackson one of the world’s biggest mass murderers??, a list is presented of the greatest mass murdering regimes. I found several problems with this list. Perhaps the problem is not with Cecil, but with his source, a certain R.J. Rummel. The most striking error was this:

There are two problems with this assertion, namely (1) even if the highest figure of deaths is granted, this is not the highest percentage of deaths in a population, even in the same decade, and (2) these figures are wildly over-exaggerated.

As for point (1), even granting the figure of 2.4 million killed by the DK, the 1/3 of the population of East Timor killed from 1975-1990 is higher, as a percentage of the population. Indeed, as a percentage of population, the slaughter in East Timor must count as one of the worst mass murders of all time (all carried out with U.S. support, by the way, which provided about 90% of the arms during the peak of atrocities, but that is another story.)

The second point deals with the actual numbers killed by the Khmer Rouge. The figure of 2 million killed by the Khmer Rouge was fastened on by the U.S. media (and hence has become historical fact) after a fabricated quote by a writer by the name of LaCoutre was widely circulated, in which he claimed that a high Khmer Rouge official “boasted of having killed 2 million.” LaCoutre himself even admitted that the figure was off by a factor of between 100 and 1000, but this didn’t stop the figure from becoming historical fact. According to the CIA, the Khmer Rouge killed between 50,000 - 100,000 after their takeover in 1975. Several hundred thousand more died of starvation (which was predicted by U.S. government sources even without the Khmer Rouge), and during purges and internicine warfare in 1977-8 in the course of the war with Vietnam.

The point is not to say that the Khmer Rouge wasn’t a brutal regime that killed many people, but the figure of 2 million + killed by the Khmer Rouge is a ridiculous exaggeration. Furthermore, it is often presented as if the Khmer Rouge just came in and started killing people in a class war, which is a childish over-simplification. Several thousand people, maybe tens of thousands, were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the course of “cleansing” after the 1975 takeover. But, to lay 2.4 million corpses at the feet of the “Paris trained Marxist” Pol Pot is just propaganda.

Furthermore, you will notice that the deaths are all counted from 1975 on, leaving one with the idea that before 1975 nothing was really going on, as if the U.S. didn’t kill a couple hundred thousand people through bombing and support for Death Squads.

Another point I found troubling was the figures attributed to the USSR and China. It is asserted, for example, that the PRC killed 35 million from '49-'87. Since Cecil claims that the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward and warfare are left out, I am mystified as to how this figure was arrived at. Likewise for the 43 million attributed to Stalin.

Like I say, the problem is probably with Cecil’s source, R.J. Rummel. I did not have any familiarity with Rummel, so I did a search on the web, and found his website, here. Judging from his website, he does not seem to be a very credible source. For example, he states,

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Democracies often attack each other. In fact, there is virtually no correlation between the degree of internal freedom of a state and its external behavior. Even going back to antiquity, the most democratic state was Athens, which was also a brutal imperialist state.

And, in this century, the U.S.–a very free state internally–has attacked numerous states without provocation. For example, the U.S. attacked the democracy of Nicaragua in the 1980’s, killing more than 30,000 through its proxy forces the Contras; the U.S. attacked Vietnam in 1961 specifically to prevent a democratic settlement, leading to about 50,000 American and 4 million Indochinese deaths; the U.S. attacked Libya, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, etc. In addition to the outright attacks, the U.S. colluded in the overthrow of democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950’s, Congo in the 1960’s and Chile in the 1970’s, and has colluded with coup plotters attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela in 2002.

All this clearly shows that democratic countries, while they may be free internally, do, in fact, attack other countries when they see something to be gained. The only reason there has been no war between the major powers since WWII is that there is a realization that such a war would be the last.

Agreed that it was pretty bad and right up there, though I would characterize U.S. government behavior as more callously indifferent than supportive.

Ah, a fan of Noam Chomsky I see ;). Your numbers aren’t necessarily any more accurate, as even Chomsky admits I believe. Vickery’s estimates ( the CIA ones cited above from 1978, I think ) were ~400,000 - 700,000 ( and I believe he said he wouldn’t find one million unacceptabley high - these estimates are very rough ) and are the lowest that have been cited. Assorted other estimates have been made and I think I once saw one average of all of those being cited as ~1.6 million. Rummel’s was a range of 600,000 - 3,000,000 for the Khmer Rouge per se, with a rough median of 2,000,000. You can see his calculations here ( this is for lurkers, I’m sure you’ve already checked this out yourself ):

Perhaps. IMHO the jury is out and may always be.


Disagree, though only in part. It may or may not be 2.4 million. But I would definitely pin the blame of more than just tens of thousands on him. His actions appear to have only worsened the effects of the pending famine and it seems that it was mostly ( though I’m sure not entirely ) Khmer Rouge provocations that triggered the Vietnamese invasion with all its attendant misery. He may or may not be #1. But he was pretty damn bad.

Actually it is modern ( 20th century ) western democracies that have so far mostly restrained from attacking each other.

I would disagree. Representative democracies have somewhat greater internal brakes on naked aggression. Which doesn’t mean there is a strong corollary ( there might be, but I’m not prepared to argue that point at this moment ), but I would say there is definitely some corollary.

A poor example, if I may say so. Ancient Greek democracies had very little in common with modern western democracies.

The issue of provocation is arguable depending on the particular instance. For example, I wouldn’t agree that the Gulf War was unprovoked and Libya is a mixed bag. Also, I’m not certain how far collusion has been proven in the case of Venezuela - it seems more a situation where the U.S. gave “moral”, but not material support, which is bad enough ( but I admit I didn’t follow the details on that one carefully, so I might be wrong ). But I agree in spirit that the U.S. has done a lot of questionable things and I include a number of those on your list above.

A nitpicky post perhaps, but I’m in a “nothing is clear cut” mood today :).

  • Tamerlane

I’m neither agreeing nor disagreeing. JUst curious what you mean by that exactly? (Bolding is mine)

samclem: The issue is a little bit in dispute, but I think what Chumpsky is referring to the aftermath of the 1954 Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Geneva which separated Vietnam temporarily along the 17th parallel into an communist North and non-communist South. A time-table was set up for an election to be held in 1956 to reunite the two halves under a single regime. However South Vietnam under Diem refused to participate and instead declared full independance in 1955. Diem held a bit of a mock election later where he was elected with 98+% of the vote ( where have we seen that lately :wink: ). It appears there were real concerns Ho Chi Minh would have walked away with a clear victory in '56, hence Diem’s move.

So I am assuming that Chumpsky is referring to the U.S.'s entry into the Vietnam conflict in '61 on the side of the beleagured and anti-democratic regime of Diem ( who was in the process of losing before the U.S. intervention ). However I would say it is stretching things just a bit as the north Vietnamese weren’t exactly democrats and that proposed settlement was 5 years in the past and a bit of a moot point by then. Still, the American role was definitely not unambiguously noble.

  • Tamerlane

Thanks, Tamerlane. I assumed it was just a bit of exageration to use the word “democratic.”

Well, 1961 was the year when the Kennedy sent the bombers to start bombing south Vietnam. The U.S. already had military advisors in the country, but this was when the invasion began in earnest.

You will recall that after the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh and the French came to an agreement in Geneva in 1954. The accords called for a general election in 1956, to unite the two zones of the country under the temporary control of the Viet Minh and the French. The U.S. immediately acted to prevent the election from occuring in 1956, as they realized that Ho Chi Minh would win easily. Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs that he didn’t know of any serious analyst who doubted that Ho would get 80% of the vote in any election.

So, the U.S. flew in a Vietnamese expatriate from New Jersey, Ngo Dinh Diem, to run South Vietnam, which was little more than a creation of the U.S. After 1954 the NLF was formed, which was a political group whose activities were focused on organizing the peasant villages. It was only after the Diem regime’s brutal repression reached extremes that the North authorized the NLF to begin insurgency operations in 1959. At this time, guerrilla warfare began in earnest, as the southern regime had lost all legitimacy and it had become obvious that it was simply a puppet of the U.S. Throughout, the NLF and the north had attempted to come to a political settlement involving free elections and the uniting of the two artificial halves of the country. There were movements within the southern regime, even by Diem, to making a political settlement. These moves would eventually cost Diem his life. The U.S., in fact, went through a string of puppets who all had the flaw that they wanted to come to a political settlement, until they arrived at Thieu and Ky, who were sufficiently subservient to U.S. interests.

By 1961 it was becoming apparent that the Diem regime could not survive on its own, and that the NLF was the only organization with any political influence in the villages, and, indeed, outside of Saigon. Thus, in order to prevent the NLF from coming to power and Saigon making a deal, the U.S. had to invade.

Bombing started in 1961, focusing on south Vietnam, on NLF strongholds, which was most of the country. Throughout the entire war, political settlements were always possible, and always rejected by the U.S., for the simple reason that the U.S. would lose in any election.

(All of this is from memory, so forgive me if I made any mistakes. :slight_smile: )

Chumpsky said:

Nonsense. The deaths were counted from 1975 because they were attributing deaths to the Khmer Rouge. Any deaths before that were not caused by Pol Pot, so it wouldn’t be fair to include them.

I have to disagree. The U.S. was intimately involved, providing crucial military and diplomatic support. Without this support the invasion could never have been carried out. Indeed, when the U.S. withdrew support in 1999, the Indonesians withdrew within hours.

Yes, you are correct. There is a great degree of uncertainty with regard to how many the Khmer Rouge actually killed, and under what circumstances. I am not objecting so much to the condemnation of the Khmer Rouge, which they certainly deserve, but the statement that they are the “undisputed leader” in the words of Cecil. They are anything but “undisputed.”

There is uncertainty here also. It is clear that there was a pending famine, as the U.S. government admitted, with projections of up to 1 million dying from starvation in 1975 in and around Pnom Penh. It might have been worse than it was had the Khmer Rouge not forced the population onto the farms to start producing food. I am in no way apologizing for the Khmer Rouge, but a large portion of blame for the starvation in Cambodia must be placed at the feet of the U.S. for its ruthless bombing and counterinsergency campaigns which devastated the countryside.

Only since the arrival of The Bomb. Before that happened, western democracies waged constant war with each other. They only stopped because they realized that the next war would be the last.

History simply does not bear this out. The most warlike states are western capitalist democracies like the U.S. and U.K., who wage interminable war.

I don’t see why that is a bad example. It shows that a state can be very free internally and still aggressive and brutal to its neighbors.

It is a simple fact that Iraq did not provoke the U.S., and even obtained implicit permission from the U.S. before invading Kuwait. Furthermore, there were plenty of diplomatic options available that the U.S. rejected, in favor of going to war. As for Libya, there was not even a credible pretext for the bombing. The alleged pretext, the bombing of a German discoteque, was conceded by German authorities to have no Libyan links. As for Venezuela, it does appear that the U.S. was involved with the coup. We probably won’t know the full extent of U.S. involvement for many years, until internal documents are released. But, as you say, at the very least the U.S. supported the coup plotters.

I agree the U.S. has dirty hands here, I was just making the point that I doubt anyone in the State dept. was interested in promoting massacres and other genocidal action. Rather they played realpolitik and turned their heads from the ugliness. A subtle difference perhaps, but still a difference.

I suppose I can go along with that.

Hmmm…A bit of a stretch IMHO. I don’t think the Khmer Rouge made that move for entirely altruistic reasons, nor do I think said urban dwellers were likely to be of much use on farms. Though I suppose it is remotely possible you are correct.

I can probably agree here as well, at least to some extent. Though as with everything surrounding Cambodia in his period, just who was most responsible for what will probably never be known.

Examples? Nazi Germany wasn’t a democracy. Neither was Mussolini’s Italy, the Prussian Empire, Hapsburg Austria or Czarist Russia. I’ll readily admit some democratic countries came close to clashing and perhaps it was just an accident that they didn’t. But by and large, no two modern democracies have gotten into a major slugging match that I can recall.

Nonsense. Pretty warlike at times, yes. Most large states are at one point or another. It’s usually how they get large. But the most warlike? I’d beg to differ.

Yes, but in comparison to modern representative democracies, especially post -WW II, the ancient Greek democracies didn’t have an enormous amount of internal freedom. Typically the political franchise was extremely limited.

At any rate, I wouldn’t argue that modern democracies are pacifistic, but I do think you’re taking the argument to far in the opposite extreme.

At any rate, just MHO.

  • Tamerlane