Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Daniel Burstein

Setting the Record Straight on Kampuchea

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 34, October 20-November 2, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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A friend of mine wrote to me recently and posed a question. “The Call,” he said, “has been summing up and reevaluating a lot of things that were said in its pages over the years. What about the issue of Kampuchea? Do you have any new reflection about what was said in the past about it?”

Ever since 1978, when I visited Kampuchea and wrote a series of firsthand reports about it for The Call, I have been studying the situation there, learning more about it, and continuing to write about it. I still don’t understand all of its vast complexities but just the same, since Kampuchea has assumed a great deal of space in The Call over the last 2 1/2 years, I think it is appropriate to sum up certain relevant points.

On the most basic question–the immediate situation of a Kampuchea occupied by 200,000 Vietnamese troops who appear willing to fight to the last Kampuchean in order to create a Soviet-Vietnamese sphere of geopolitical power in Southeast Asia–I have not changed my view. This is an act of naked aggression and nothing else. People who seek peace for the world must stand up and take notice of the plight of the Kampuchean people, and do everything possible to bring about Vietnamese withdrawal and genuine self-determination for the Kampuchean people. In this context, I believe the war of resistance to the Vietnamese occupation being waged by the guerrilla government of Democratic Kampuchea should be supported. Most countries of the world have agreed with this position, voting by an overwhelming majority at UN Oct. 13 to maintain the seat of Democratic Kampuchea.

There are, however, quite a number of points on which I have changed my views or deepened my understanding. In looking back at my 1978 report from Kampuchea, I must say it was sorely one-sided. After only a one week visit to Kampuchea, in which I was positively impressed with some things I saw, I came back prepared to take on all the negative claims about human rights violations and other issues, claims being made by scholars, journalists, refugees, and others much more familiar with the situation in many ways than I. I set out to refute them all, charging many of them with being stooges in a propaganda war. This certainly was not a “seek truth from facts” method.

The positive things I saw in Kampuchea were genuinely positive. Significant things were achieved in agriculture and in rebuilding a country destroyed by 500,000 tons of U.S. bombs during the 1970-75 war. Other journalists and visitors with political perspectives much different from mine confirmed that this positive side of Democratic Kampuchea really did exist.

That didn’t mean, however, that a negative side didn’t exist as well. But towards the negative, The Call articles mainly turned a blind eye. I believe my reports as well as later Call articles were seriously remiss in not presenting a more balanced picture.

There were two types of problems with which we failed to come to grips. One was the erroneous political policies employed by the Democratic Kampuchea government. The other was the actual extent of the bloodshed and political violence.

On the first score, it seems clear to me now that a great many of the policies implemented by the Pol Pot government were profoundly in error politically. It was an extreme form of ultra-leftism that led to such policies as the near-total evacuation of the cities; the immediate and total collectivization of agriculture after the revolution; the abandonment of a money economy and modern communications systems; the over-reliance on agricultural development to the point of almost abandoning industrial development; the liquidation of the united front with patriots like Prince Sihanouk and the Buddhist hierarchy; the view that the intelligentsia and skilled workers had no role to play in the new society; the decision to seek such near-total self-reliance as to cut off Kampuchea from much of the outside world economically and diplomatically; the almost total lack of any social or political institutions apart from the Communist Party and the consequent lack of any kind of judicial or legislative system.

At the time, in 1978, I tried to rationalize these policies, even though they appeared to run against the grain of common sense. There was indeed a certain rationale, and those who argued that the policies simply represented a “mad plot” to return Kampuchea to the fourteenth century, I would still argue, were off base. The extremist policies took place against a backdrop of the very real problems of trying to make a revolution in an impoverished third world country where powerful old American forces were trying to make a comeback, and highly sophisticated, well-trained Vietnamese agents were secretly trying to entrench themselves and develop events in a direction favorable to their own interests.

In the light of history, however, it seems to me that even taking into account the context, the policies were still far too extreme to provide the basis for building up the country. They cannot be rationalized by taking into account conditions. Instead, I think they succeeded mainly in isolating the Pol Pot government from a great many of its potential allies among the Kampuchean people and in the world community abroad.


The Kampuchean leadership itself has made some self-criticism on these points. The removal of Pol Pot as prime minister last December and his replacement by Khieu Samphan represented a certain recognition of the past mistakes. Subsequent statements by Samphan on the importance of building a broad united front also reflect this.

In my talks with Samphan and Deputy Prime Minister Ieng Sary, both men have said that it now appears to them that the economic and political policies, implemented from 1975-78 suffered from an ultra-left view and from trying to go too fast. They have also said that if victory were achieved in the anti-Vietnamese war, such policies would not again be put into practice.

Somewhat less clear to me than the question of political policies is the causes and extent of the bloodshed during 1975-78. Although my earlier report took note of the fact that the Kampuchean revolution had obviously been bloody, I think it seriously underestimated how many people might actually have died through internal upheavals, clashes and repression of these years. Khieu Samphan is prepared to admit today that some thousands, perhaps even as many as 10,000 people were actually killed.

The number of 10,000 may be accurate in terms of people who were officially designated as counter-revolutionaries by central authorities and put to death. But it appears from most refugee accounts that this is not the way most of those who were killed lost their lives.

For one thing, the death toll from the tumult of reorganizing the society as rapidly as was done, would seem to me to number in the tens of thousands alone, and maybe more, based on my talks with those refugees who have seemed to be fairly credible sources without reason to exaggerate or lie.

Moreover, there is no doubt in my mind that large-scale massacres and atrocities of various kinds took place in Kampuchea through much of this 1975-78 period. How many thousands of people actually died this way and, more importantly, who was responsible is not fully clear to me.

Khieu Samphan and other Kampuchean leaders I have interviewed agree that these things happened, but accuse pro-Vietnamese Kampucheans of having been responsible in an effort to divide the people and undermine the stability of the regime. They do acknowledge, however, that in some cases, inexperienced or corrupt local cadres failed to understand how to solve contradictions among the people and resorted to violence as a way to solve problems.

I would guess that Vietnamese agents may indeed have played a significant role in carrying out the most brutal atrocities–certainly they are doing so today in their efforts to control Kampuchea. In my opinion much of the bloodshed of the 1975-78 period was attributable to the fact that there was actually a hidden civil war going on during that entire time, with Hanoi-trained Kampucheans trying to establish control over state, Communist Party and army institutions.


But this alone cannot account for all the killings that I believe from my talks with eyewitness refugees and other credible sources to have taken place. Nor can the killings be pinned simply to local cadres who may have been excessive in their methods. There is no doubt in my mind that a major share of responsibilities for such killings must fall with the Pol Pot leadership itself. It appears that a very definite climate existed in Kampuchea that saw physical liquidation of people as a way of solving political disagreements or maintaining the purity of the revolution from penetration by agents. How many killings were actually directed by the leadership I cannot authoritatively say, but the leaders certainly must assume responsibility at least for allowing such a climate to exist, and not taking measures to effectively stop it.

The Vietnamese propaganda machine and others of Pol Pot’s most rabid enemies, have charged his government with having killed as many as three or four million Kampucheans. No real evidence has been presented by any of these sources to begin to substantiate such an extensive claim which, from my knowledge, seems outrageously exaggerated. More importantly, while many Kampucheans speak angrily and bitterly about how they were treated when Pol Pot was in power, it is improbable for me to believe that the Democratic Kampuchean guerrillas could operate as effectively as they appear to–keeping 200,000 well-armed invaders from being able to fully control the country–without broad support from the people.

Much more could be said on these subjects, and I’m sure much more will be. There is no clear truth as yet, and it will take a lot more time and evidence to fully understand what happened. The errors in our own thinking that could allow The Call to be so one-sided in its assessments also must still be analyzed and summed up.

For now, in a tentative assessment, I would not argue that Democratic Kampuchea should be supported on the basis of its positive experience in building socialism or its revolutionary ideology. It seems that on those scores, the Kampuchean communists made some grievous errors, which, in due time, I’m sure the Kampuchean people will sort out and sum up for themselves. But Democratic Kampuchea is today in the front lines of the fight against Soviet hegemonism, and there is no doubt in my mind that support for Kampuchea on that basis will be a positive contribution to the salvation of the Kampuchean nation and of world peace.