Historical Revisionism and the Contrarian Left: Counterpunch and the Case of Cambodia

“The noble title of dissident must be earned rather than claimed.”
“Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence”
– Christopher Hitchens

Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens are gone. Contrarianism is alive, but whether it is well is an entirely different matter. The Republican party’s knee-jerk contrarianism seems poised to lose them an election which a poor economy seemed to have handed them on a plate. On the left, the web newsletter Counterpunch which Mr. Cockburn founded carries on under the editorship of long-time colleague Jeffrey St. Clair. I am told it gets hundreds of thousands of page reads per day. About Counterpunch I have some concerns.

As a long-term resident of Cambodia with a Khmer family, an unapologetic man of the left and more than a bit of a contrarian myself, I was dumbfounded to read last week’s article in Counterpunch entitled “Dispatch from Cambodia: Pol Pot Revisited.” by Israel Shamir, a piece which has now been reproduced in a number of left journals on the internet.

It is an incredibly bizarre piece, wrong from beginning to end and devoid of any documentation or references which hint at serious journalism. By all rights it should be an embarrassment to Counterpunch but its publication suggests that Mr. Shamir’s version of contrarianism is at least shared by his editor if not his readers.

Let’s first look at how patently absurd is Mr. Shamir’s revisionist look at Cambodia.

`Now, in the monsoon season, Cambodia is verdant, cool and relaxed. The rice paddies on the low hill slopes are flooded, forests that hide old temples are almost impassable, rough seas deter swimmers.’

This stage setting device serves a purpose, as if to say, “look I really did come to Cambodia. I know, nothing which follows this charming introduction supports that assertion, but really I did. How about that weather in Cambodia?” Anyone who comments on the weather must really have traveled there, all evidence to the contrary. Cambodians, by the way, do not swim.

‘The Khmer Rouge experiment lasted only three years, from 1975 to 1978.
Surprisingly, Cambodians have no bad memories of that period. This is quite an amazing discovery for an infrequent visitor.’

This astonishing assertion is unsupported by any documentation provided by Shamir or for that matter by any scholar or observer of today’s Cambodia. The opposite, however, is well supported. A 2009 countrywide survey of Cambodians conducted by the Human Rights Center of the University of California Berkeley found that 92% of those who had lived under the Khmer Rouge viewed themselves as victims of that regime. 84.6% expressed hatred towards the KR responsible for violence. 27% had experienced torture and 20% had been threatened with death. Fully 39% expressed the wish they could exact personal revenge on the KR for the sufferings they and their families endured. The study is available for review here.

‘A much quoted American professor, RJ Rummel, wrote that “out of a 1970 population of probably near 7,100,000 …almost 3,300,000 men, women, and children were murdered …most of these… were murdered by the communist Khmer Rouge”. Every second person was killed, according to his estimate.’

Here Shamir disingenuously quotes one of the highest published estimate of deaths under the Khmer Rouge without acknowledging the wide range of alternative figures. It is a not a figure generally accepted, which Shamir of course knows having done the research to correctly identify the highest possible figure upon which to base his critique. Other scholars have estimated deaths attributable to the Khmer Rouge as between 750,000 (Vickery) and 2.5 million with most accepting figures between 1 and 2 million (e.g. Kiernan, Chandler, CIA).

‘However, Cambodia’s population was not halved but more than doubled since 1970, despite alleged multiple genocides. Apparently, the genocidaires were inept, or their achievements have been greatly exaggerated.’

Shamir’s flippant comment displays an ignorance of basic demographic statistics and compounding, as well as misrepresenting the facts. No scholar has suggested that Cambodia lost half its population since 1970, not one. And it is indeed a fact that Cambodia’s population has more than doubled in the three decades since the Khmer Rouge, a function of high birthrates among a young population and immigration (Cambodia’s growths rate during the ’90’s was 40.2%). Estimates of 1.5 to up to 2.5 million dead are not inconsistent with the population estimates which Shamir appears to accept. (CIA population estimates are found here.)

‘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. He was brought up in royal palace circles; his aunt was a concubine of the previous king. He studied in Paris, but instead of making money and a career, he returned home, and spent a few years dwelling with forest tribes to learn from the peasants. He felt compassion for the ordinary village people who were ripped off on a daily basis by the city folk, the comprador parasites. He built an army to defend the countryside from these power-wielding robbers. Pol Pot, a monkish man of simple needs, did not seek wealth, fame or power for himself. He had one great ambition: to terminate the failing colonial capitalism in Cambodia, return to village tradition, and from there, to build a new country from scratch.’

This is pure fiction on Shamir’s part. Most Cambodians are too young to have any memory of Pol Pot. If the above refernced study is even reasonably accurate, the vast majority who did live under his regime would indeed characterize this “great patriot and nationalist” as a tyrant. Who are these unnamed Cambodians with fond memories of Pol Pot? Shamir makes no effort to tell us, names, places, ages, occupations. The mere assertion is enough for Shamir and Counterpunch. The Bophana Center of Cambodia has collected interviews with former Khmer Rouge cadre, some of whom do share this outlook. But that these opinions are somehow representative of “Cambodians” is a case which cannot be made, which presumably is why Shamir makes no effort to document the basis for his assertions.

‘Being a strong nationalist, Pol Pot was suspicious of the Vietnamese and Chinese minorities. But what he hated most was acquisitiveness, greed, the desire to own things. St Francis and Leo Tolstoy would have understood him.’

Pol Pot was not “suspicious” of Vietnamese and Chinese minorities: they were viewed as enemies to be liquidated. Virtually 100% of the the country’s Vietnamese population, estimated to number at least 250,000, much of whom had lived in Cambodia for generations, was relocated to Vietnam in the earliest period of the revolution or were killed thereafter. The massacres of minority populations – Cham and Vietnamese especially – have been sufficiently well documented to form the backbone of the charge of genocide by the ECCC. Being a strong nationalist does not require the slaughter of minorities and I expect both St. Francis and Tolstoy might agree.

‘The Cambodians I spoke to pooh-poohed the dreadful stories of Communist Holocaust as a western invention. They reminded me of what went on: their brief history of troubles began in 1970, when the Americans chased away their legitimate ruler, Prince Sihanouk, and replaced him with their proxy military dictator Lon Nol. Lon Nol’s middle name was Corruption, and his followers stole everything they could, transferred their ill-gotten gains abroad then moved to the US. On top of this came US bombing raids. The peasants ran to the forest guerrillas of Khmer Rouge, which was led by a few Sorbonne graduates, and eventually succeeded in kicking out Lon Nol and his American supporters.

Unsupported rubbish from Shamir. “Cambodians I spoke to..” Two of them? Former Khmer Rouge cadre in Pailin? A couple of random guys at an airport lounge? Who knows. “They reminded me…”. It makes it sounds as if Shamir just blew into town on holiday or on Wikileaks business (he being Julian Assange’s Russian connection) without having read anything on Cambodian history. Hard to swallow. The lack of any detail leads one to assume that Shamir is simply making this alleged conversations up from the comfort of his Moscow/Stockholm home.

Is Shamir suggesting that the Sihanouk regime was not corrupt? That would be a hard case to make. The Khmer Rouge did not take to the maquis to escape Lon Nol, it was the Sihanouk regime, viewed as vicious and corrupt which they first sought to replace. That the United States supported the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia after 1979 is an inconvenient truth for those wanting to ascribe to the Americans the exaggeration of the killings under the KR.

‘In 1975, Pol Pot took over the country, devastated by a US bombing campaign of Dresden ferocity, and saved it, they say. Indeed, the US planes (do you remember Ride of the Valkyries in the Apocalypse is Now?) dropped more bombs on this poor country than they had on the Nazi Germany, and spread their mines all over the rest of it. If the Cambodians are pressed to name their great destroyer (and they are not keen about burrowing back into the past), it is Professor Henry Kissinger they name, not Comrade Pol Pot.’

Ridiculous and of course unsupported.

‘Pol Pot and his friends inherited a devastated country. The villages had been depopulated; millions of refugees gathered in the capital to escape American bombs and American mines. Destitute and hungry, they had to be fed. But because of the bombing campaign, nobody planted rice in 1974. Pol Pot commanded everybody away from the city and to the rice paddies, to plant rice. This was a harsh, but a necessary step, and in a year Cambodia had plenty of rice, enough to feed all and even to sell some surplus to buy necessary commodities.

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 interlocutors. Surely the victorious peasants shot marauders and spies, but many more died of American-planted mines and during the subsequent Vietnamese takeover, they said.’

American bombing ceased in August 1973. Refugees streaming into Phnom Penh in 1974 would not have been fleeing American B52s, by that time they were fleeing a civil war and their new Khmer Rouge masters who by 1974 controlled the bulk of countryside villages. Though it varied by time and place starvation during the KR period was endemic. 81.5% of those surveyed in the above referenced study experienced starvation or lack of adequate food.

That many more died as a result of American-planted mines and during the Vietnamese takeover has neither been documented nor even claimed in recent years by anyone except former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan who attributed most of 2 million acknowledged dead to the Vietnamese invasion. Shamir doesn’t do so here of course, conveniently it’s his undescribed “Cambodian interlocutors.” The vast majority of mines were planted by the Khmer Rouge themselves, they were certainly not planted by Americans who while responsible for unexploded ordinance never had any ground presence in Cambodia with which to be planting mines.

‘Noam Chomsky assessed that the death toll in Cambodia may have been inflated “by a factor of a thousand.”’

Chomsky asserted no such thing. What Chomsky said in a discussion of Jean Lacouture’s review of Francois Ponchaud’s book (in 1977 when the number of deaths was even harder to estimate) was that if the 2 million dead figure being bandied about by Lacouture was off by a factor of a thousand, that would be meaningful and not “nitpicking” to use Chomsky’s words. That’s a far cry from staking a position on how many died which Chomsky has always posited as unknowable. Link.

‘There are no photos of the killings; instead, the humble museum holds a couple of naïve paintings showing a big, strong man killing a small, weak one, in a rather traditional style. Other plaques read: “Here the murderous tools were kept, but nothing remains now” and similar inscriptions. To me, this recalled other CIA-sponsored stories of Red atrocities, be it Stalin’s Terror or the Ukrainian Holodomor. The people now in charge of the US, Europe and Russia want to present every alternative to their rule as inept or bloody or both. They especially hate incorruptible leaders, be it Robespierre or Lenin, Stalin or Mao – and Pol Pot. They prefer leaders keen on graft, and eventually install them. The Americans have an additional good reason: Pol Pot killings serve to hide their own atrocities, the millions of Indochinese they napalmed and strafed.’

John Pilger once said, famously or not, “The Vietnamese case is much stronger than their propoganda” and on this point Pilger is no doubt correct. Of course the Killing Fields and S21 held propoganda value for the Vietnamese and succeeding regimes. But that in no way should lead one to conclude that the mass killings did not take place in the face of overwhelming evidence that they did. Shamir conveniently overlooks the fact that Comrade Deuch freely admitted the mass killings which took place under his watch, and other KR cadre have made similar confessions.

If the KR did not take photographs of their murders for Mr. Shamir’s edification, they did carefully document with photographs, dossiers and written confessions under torture those who were interred in S21 and subsequently killed at Choeung Ek or elsewhere.I

If not murdered by the Khmer Rouge, where are these people, Mr. Shamir? And just how do the Americans now get mixed up with the establishment of the Killing Fields and S21 sites? As Mr. Shamir acknowledges, these were established by the Vietnamese and PRK governments with whom the Americans had only hostile relations at the time.

‘Cambodians do say that many more people were killed by the invading Vietnamese in 1978; while the Vietnamese prefer to shift the guilt to the Khmer Rouge.’

They don’t say that. Every published account written by Cambodians who lived through the period in fact asserts the opposite. There is no other documentation written by non-Cambodians which makes that claim. Here Shamir is simply making things up. If Mr. Shamir interviewed former Khmer Rouge cadres as to their their perceptions about the period that would be interesting for his readers to know.

‘Prince Sihanouk, who was exiled by the Americans, also supported the Khmer Rouge. He returned home to his neat royal palace and to its adjacent silver temple with Emerald Buddha after departure of the Vietnamese. Unbelievably, he is still alive, though he transferred the crown to his son, a monk who had to leave monastery and assume the throne. So the royal family is not keen on digging up the past, either. Nobody wants to discuss it openly; the official story of Khmer Rouge alleged atrocities is entrenched in Western conscience, though attempts to try the perpetrators bore scant results.’

Shamir plays fast and loose with history. Sihanouk was not exiled by the Americans but by his right wing oppposition who believed they enjoyed American support. There is a difference. Sihanouk’s son, now King, was a professor of classical dance and Cambodia’s Ambassador to UNESCO prior to his election as king. I guess monk sounds better for Shamir’s narrative.

‘Looking back, it appears that the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot failed in their foreign policy rather than in their internal one. It is fine that they canceled money, dynamited banks and sent bankers to plant rice. It is fine that they dried up the great blood-sucking leech, the big-city compradors and money-lenders. Their failure was that they did not calculate their position vis-à-vis Vietnam, and tried to push beyond their own weight. Vietnam was very powerful – it had just defeated the US – and would brook no nonsense from their junior brothers in Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese planned to create an Indochinese Federation including Laos and Cambodia under their own leadership. They invaded and overthrew the stubborn Khmer Rouge who were too keen on their independence. They also supported the black legend of genocide to justify their own bloody intervention.’

Shamir is apparently looking back with only the benefit of ideological blindness. A good percentage of those with money had already left Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge arrived in the city. The two million people who were forced marched to the countryside could hardly be characterized as bankers and moneylenders. The “black legend of genocide”? The mass graves, the first person accounts, the confessions of KR killers, for Shamir pale in significance to undocumented conversations between an infrequent visitor and unnamed apologists for a regime whose evils are supremely well documented.

The universal response to Shamir’s article here in Cambodia has been a combination of outrage and ridicule. (see Phnom Penh Post and Khmer440). For me, such outrage ought not be directed at Mr. Shamir as a review of Mr. Shamir’s writing suggests he is not to be taken seriously. His recent writings on Jewish blood libel, the Holocaust, and the Dreyfus case, for example, make it clear that Mr. Shamir is more an anti-Semitic troublemaker than a serious journalist.

Fellow anti-Zionist academic Norman Finkelstein, a man who you would think might share some comradely feelings for Shamir based on their shared passion for the Palestinian cause, has described the latter as “a maniac” whose entire biography is a fiction. Be that as it may, Mr. Shamir is not really the problem here.

In this instance, outrage, and perhaps ridicule as well ought better be aimed at Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair who for years, with Alexander Cockburn, has given writers such as Shamir a platform and support. One has to ask whether this is what left contrarianism has come to for so at least it seems.

Mr. St. Clair in a 2007 interview expressed his belief that more than half of Counterpunch’s readership believed that the Bush administration was itself culpable in the 9-11 attacks. While at that time St. Clair stood with the traditionalist view of 9-11 and against the conspiracy theorists, perhaps St. Clair has been beaten down in the face of the growing tide of anti-intellectualism such that journalistic integrity is now less than important than being willing to take a contrarian stand for its own sake. Or perhaps St. Clair really believes the bile which writers such as Shamir publish under his editorship. Either way, left journalism as represented by Counterpunch is in a very sorry state.

Jeff Mudrick
Phnom Penh

16 thoughts on “Historical Revisionism and the Contrarian Left: Counterpunch and the Case of Cambodia

  1. Siddo Reply

    Outstanding stuff Jeff. Thank you so much for your reasoned dissection of a truly shameful piece of writing.

    Mr Shamir if you are reading this, you should know that you are a terrible, hurtful man.

    As a long-term expat with a loving Khmer family, I would love you to revisit Cambodia and speak with a few of my relatives. If after the upteenth tale of hardship and horror you still think Cambodians “have no bad memories of [the] period”, I would be utterly astounded.

  2. Sateev Reply

    Great and necessary article, admirably put. That such calculatedly glib nonsense can be passed of as true in a journal of Counterpunch’s (former) repute, begs for rebuttals such as this, that speak with the force of actual experience…

    Thanks, Jeff.

  3. Visser Reply

    While the article you’re responding to is laughable you sometimes fall in the same trap of over exaggerating things.

    “The universal response to Shamir’s article here in Cambodia has been a combination of outrage and ridicule. (see Phnom Penh Post and Khmer440)”

    I would think the Khmer couldn’t care less about what some fuckwit writes about them on some foreign website. Only people i see caring are western expats and one overseas Khmer/Khmer American on the post website.

    “Americans who while responsible for unexploded ordinance never had any ground presence in Cambodia with which to be planting mines.”

    You’re saying the army never crossed the border from Vietnam? Never had military “advisers” and/or special forces fighting on Cambodian soil during Lon Nol days?
    Apart from a few on the border and giving them to Lon Nol (and later funding the KR ones via the CDGK) I’d say the US had little to do with mines in Cambodia.

  4. Jay Reply

    Reading his CV on Wikipedia this guy’s life is a big question mark. By the same token his article on both Cambodia or on Pussy Riot on Counterpunch are questionable for both veracity and rationality. To me he appears that his mind is somewhat befuddled. Thankfully, he is not too well-known and with limited exposure to the general public. So who really cares what he writes?

  5. jeff Reply

    Visser: rather obviously most Khmers don’t read Counterpunch. I didnt think it necessary to point that out. If A few American forays across the border occurred that doesn’t alter the truth of my response. Americans did not lay the mines responsible for killing thousands of Cambodians as Shamir asserts.

  6. Josh Kline Reply

    This is nuts, why do you even publish this article to give this guy any sort of attention.

    • Jeff Reply

      This guy has attention, people on the left and journalists do read Counterpunch and they need to be called out. And I don’t think my critique is going to do anything to increase Shamir’s fan base.

  7. Stan Musical Reply

    Thanks for writing this. The writing on CP is usually high-quality so I was also absolutely gobsmacked that CP would publish this dreck by this very questionable character “Israel Shamir” aka Jöran Jermas aka Adam Ermash. I’m since boycotting CP based on this story, not that that’s much good.

    I hope to run in Mr. “Shamir” someday, really, really hard.

  8. Bernhardow Reply

    As a German, it reminds me to my own History and what funny things I can learn, when some people start writing “Journalistic” Conclusions about History, the way “theu understand” lol …

    Didn’t finish your nice and investigative Article but promise to do tomorrow. Thanks B

  9. Mr Zippy Reply

    Look at the head on him!
    Why does he wish to discredit Israel?
    Who knew they needed help?

  10. Pingback:Counterpunch: A Journalistic Horror Show? | www.khmer440.com

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