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From Collective Guilt to Collective Silence

Stuart Elliott,
New America,
June 1976

American peace groups have reacted with silence, confusion, or apology to the reports that up to 600,000 Cambodians, one-tenth of that nation’s population, have died from mistreatment at the hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge. None of the peace groups contacted by New America has issued public statements condemning the harsh oppression in Cambodia. Thus organizations and individuals which once demanded that Americans accept collective guilt for the Vietnam war have now themselves adopted positions of collective silence on one of the most brutal bloodbaths of modern history.

Clergy and Laity Concerned, a moderate peace group which aimed its appeal at the middle-class conscience constituency, is apparently unconcerned about Cambodia. The CALC has issued no statement on the Cambodian slaughters, either condemning or denying. The group, according to staffer Janice Stern, is convinced that the stories were intended to propound a bloodbath theory which CALC does not accept.

Women Strike for Peace has washed its hands of Cambodia. WSP is “not into that area anymore” and has not issued any national statement on Cambodia or Vietnam. Yet at its public events and in ads in radical journals, WSP has continued to promote posters celebrating the “victories of the Vietnamese people” which include a quote from Ho Chi Minh, “We will rebuild our country ten times more beautiful.”

Friends of Indochina, formerly the Indochina Peace Campaign, takes its line, as does CALC, from the Indochina Resource Center. That group published a study in 1975 whitewashing the Khmer Rouge’s forced evacuation of Phnom Penh. Its monthly publication, US/Indochina Report, is little more than a propaganda organ for the Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian Communists. The April 30 issue assures us the Cambodian government “has extended a policy of ‘broad national union’ towards those who served on the other side. All Khmers, irrespective of their [role] during the war, were eligible to vote in the Assembly elections.” Of course, the story does not mention that the elections were uncontested. It does praise the new constitution, “its paramount stress on the role of the people...” but Cambodia’s peasants, 85 percent of the population, received only 60 percent of the seats in the People’s Representative Assembly. The same issue dismisses reports of a reign of terror as “a US propaganda campaign.”

The more established peace groups are less [adept] at dismissing the reports of a Cambodian bloodbath. Dave Elder, Southeast Asia area coordinator for the American Friends Service, said that he was sorry to see such reports, but was suspicious of their accuracy. Elder [admitted] that it was hard to shake the image of “extreme order” in Cambodia, but he maintained that there was a need to be very careful in evaluation of evidence about Cambodia and he characterized the reports of the Cambodian refugees as “self-serving.” Elder said that until the US pursued a more open policy toward Indochina, including the lifting of aid prohibitions to Cambodia and Vietnam, it would be impossible to know what was happening in Cambodia. According to Elder, the AFSC has an unconditional offer to provide aid to Cambodia. But he said it would be helpful in raising money if Cambodia would open up.

David McReynolds of the War Resisters League said that his organization has not yet seen any reports which are substantial enough to take a position condemning Cambodia. SANE, a non-pacifist peace group, explained that it naturally deplored any bloodletting, but it has not yet issued a national statement. According to Washington staffer Nan Randell, SANE places some credence in the reports about a bloodbath in Cambodia.

The double standard deploring violence except in cases where it is conducted by revolutionaries is still intact, but it does show some evidence of cracking. The more principled peace groups are disturbed by the reports coming from Cambodia, though they are still more reluctant to accept evidence about Communist atrocities than about the mythical American bombing of North Vietnamese dikes. Even the peace constituency which follows the lead of pro-Communist groups is apparently bothered by the fact that so little news is coming from Cambodia. The Indochina Resource Center reports that it has had an unusually high number of requests for its reply to the Time article.

In coming months it will become more and more difficult for the peace groups and American liberals to avoid the Cambodia issue. The broad outlines of Time’s allegations have been repeated by the highly respected Le Monde, which puts the death toll at 800,000. Just as significantly, it is now clear that Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who served as nominal chief of state during and after the civil war, is a virtual prisoner of the totalitarian regime.

Sihanouk resigned his honorary post a month ago, and since then has been allowed to contact no-one outside of his family and his guards. The imprisonment of Sihanouk reveals the limited popular support for the Khmer Rouge. He is the one authentic national figure in Cambodia and is still capable of rallying opposition to the existing regime.

One of the most total dictatorships in history has been imposed upon the Cambodians, and the evidence of a bloodbath, while not incontrovertible, is as substantial and convincing as one could expect under the circumstances. The refusal of the peace groups and American liberals to condemn the terror, or at least to demand that the Cambodians allow an impartial international group to investigate the charges, is a betrayal of moral and political responsibility. The time has surely come to condemn the Gulag Archipelago in Cambodia.