Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Starvation in Kampuchea

Who is to blame?
What are its causes?
What can be done?

First Published: The Call, Vol. 8, No. 40, October 22, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

It is a gruesome sight that the news now brings into our living rooms with almost nightly regularity: the spectacle of Kampuchea (Cambodia) virtually starving to death. In living color we see the emaciated children, the diseased adults too sick to move, the frightened refugees who have escaped the war by crossing the border to Thailand.

For many Americans, such scenes evoke a strong desire to do something to help bring an end to the misery of this far-off country. But what can really be done?

Most of the news media tells us that the guerrilla forces loyal to Prime Minister Pol Pot are as bad or worse than the invading Vietnamese army. We are told that China, Vietnam; the Pol Pot government –and the U.S. in some analyses – all share in the blame for what is happening, and that the future is bleak for Kampuchea and its people.

Those who themselves directed and defended U.S. aggression in Indochina a decade ago, now piously denounce “communism” as the cause of Kampuchea’s suffering, while offering nothing but abstract calls for humanitarian aid as a solution.

A closer examination of the situation, however, shows something else. It is neither as hopeless as some have painted it, nor is the political responsibility for the misery simply shared by all the parties concerned without clear-cut issues of right and wrong, justice and injustice, aggression and resistance to aggression.

The problem itself is indeed staggering. Reports from the Red Cross, UNICEF and other relief workers indicate that anywhere from one to three million Kampucheans face starvation in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps as many as a million people have already died from hunger, disease and the other effects of the war that began with the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea last winter.

Yet before the Vietnamese invasion there was no starvation in Kampuchea. Foreign visitors in 1978, whether politically sympathetic to Pol Pot’s government or fervently critical, all agreed that food was adequate and that major progress had been made in developing rice production.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Richard Dudman, for example, wrote after his Dec. 1978 visit to Kampuchea: “I saw no evidence of starvation. We saw many new dams and canals, part of a crash irrigation program that is bringing new areas under cultivation and permitting two or three rice harvests a year in some areas. The current Vietnamese invasion at the height of the rice harvest, however, throws all projections into doubt.”

Dudman’s doubts proved accurate. Recent U.S. satellite photography of Kampuchea indicates that only 5% of the country is now under cultivation as compared to approximately 80% just one year ago.

As the invading Vietnamese divisions swarmed into Kampuchea last winter, they looted stored rice to feed themselves as well as to ship back to Vietnam. In areas they could not control owing to popularly-supported resistance, they ordered the rice fields burnt. A New York Times report Sept. 26, stated, “Preliminary evidence is said to indicate that the Vietnamese are following a ’scorched earth’ policy in the areas they, cannot permanently secure. At least one analyst believes Vietnam’s strategy amounts to imposing starvation on its enemies and innocent Cambodian bystanders not in Vietnamese-held areas .... ”


Other sources tell the same story. Writing in the Washington Post Sept. 25, Elizabeth Becker reports on the propaganda campaign of Vietnam’s leaders to cover up their own responsibility for the situation in Kampuchea. On a recent visit to Hanoi, she says, Vietnamese spokesmen told her that Pol Pot was to blame for “destroying the country’s economy and producing the current famine.” The Vietnamese officials cited such specifics as Pol Pot supposedly closing down all factories and not allowing fishermen to fish.

But, notes Becker, “As one of the few journalists permitted to visit Cambodia during Pol Pot’s rule, I was surprised throughout my travels in Vietnam to hear these tales about Pol Pot repeated over and over again. During my trip to Cambodia last year, just weeks before the Vietnamese invasion, I toured more than 10 factories from pharmaceutical to textile to rubber factories. On a long boat trip up the Mekong River I saw the fishermen casting their nets into the river and bringing up immense harvests of fish .... ”

The facts are quite clear from a variety of sources. Before the Vietnamese invasion, Kampuchea was moving forward economically. Now it has been plunged into the deepest depths of famine and disease.

“Never before has starvation been used so extensively as a weapon of war as Vietnam is now doing,“ Swedish author Jan Myrdal told The Call last week after his visit inside the Pol Pot government-controlled areas of Kampuchea at the end of September.

In this situation, the politics of food have assumed tremendous importance. Aid to the resistance forces is urgently needed if they are to continue their struggle against foreign aggression. Conversely, Vietnam, the Soviet Union and the pro-Vietnamese puppet government of Heng Samrin in Phnom Penh, have all been urging international relief efforts to be channeled through Heng Samrin.

Some international relief agencies, believing that Heng Samrin’s channels are the only ones open, have sent large amounts of food in. But so far, little, if any has gotten to starving people.

“The Heng Samrin government in Phnom, Penh is obstructing the expansion of desperately needed foreign assistance,” reported Kathleen leltsch in the New York Times Sept. 22. The regime, she said, was “blocking humanitarian aid efforts as a means of putting pressure on foreign governments that wish to help the starving Cambodians but have been unwilling to extend political recognition to an administration installed by force.”

Taking account of this situation, UNICEF and the International Red Cross have begun delivering supplies to the Pol Pot forces over the protests of Vietnam and Heng Sarnrin. Recently, officials of these aid groups spent two days with Democratic Kampuchea Health Minister Thiounn Thieun, delivering food in the parts of western Kampuchea held by the Pol Pot guerrilla army. Their report on the situation testifies to the continuing viability of the resistance forces, despite efforts by Vietnamese to portray them as “only a handful of bandits.”

An account in the French newspaper Le Monde of, the relief team’s visit indicates that while the conditions are indeed extremely severe, the people in those areas have been organized effectively by the Pol Pot government to find food, cultivate some crops, and establish basic medical institutions.

After an in-depth interview with Thiounn Thieun, Jan Myrdal further reported that the Pol Pot forces are not categorically against aid through the Heng Samrin side. But the Health Minister warned that international agencies who provide such aid should attempt to deliver it themselves to civilians, to keep the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin forces from appropriating it to feed their troops as they have done with food sent to Phnom Penh by the Catholic Relief Services and the Oxfam agency.

In light of all this, what has been the official Vietnamese response? Vietnamese UN Ambassador Ha Van Lau recently summed it up when. he charged that the famine in Kampuchea is the responsibility of “Pol Pot, the Chinese expansionists and U.S. imperialism.” But all facts show him to be wrong on every point.

The responsibility clearly does not belong with the Pol Pot government which no matter how history will judge its overall political record, must be acknowledged to have made gargantuan efforts to feed its people. Nor does responsibility lie with China, which has no military presence in Kampuchea at all. China’s role has been to provide material aid and relief supplies to the Pol Pot forces to assist their struggle against Vietnam’s genocidal war.

Vietnam’s efforts to blame U.S. imperialism for the terrible conditions in Indochina today also fall flat. Heinous as the crimes of U.S. imperialism were in Indochina, Kampuchea was well on its way to recovering from the 500,000 tons of bombs dropped by U.S. B-52s on its countryside – until the Vietnamese invasion came. Today, while American-made tanks may still be tearing up Kampuchea’s rice fields and terrorizing its population, they are being driven by Vietnamese commanders and are operating alongside a far larger fleet of Soviet tanks with Soviet commanders.

It is Vietnam, with the power of the Soviet Union behind it, which must bear the responsibility for the massive human suffering that characterizes Kampuchea today. It is the aggressive Soviet-Vietnamese war seeking domination of, Kampuchea that has produced the frightening spectacle of hunger and deadly disease enveloping that country.

What can be done? The Red Cross-UNICEF efforts to get food to the resistance forces is one good step. Although it is only a small beginning of what is needed, these supplies can be assured of getting to Kampucheans, and not to Vietnamese soldiers. Much more massive aid must be rapidly organized. The International Kampuchea Conference scheduled for Stockholm Nov. 17-18 is expected to initiate a worldwide relief effort, and the Kampuchea Support Committee in the U.S. is also working to undertake relief efforts.

In addition to developing concrete, humanitarian aid programs of this type, every avenue must be explored to expose and condemn the Vietnamese aggression and demand that the Vietnamese forces withdraw. For, in the long run, even if massive food aid can be organized, the suffering of the Kampuchean people cannot be brought to an end so long as Soviet-Vietnamese armed might continues to hold their country in its grip.