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The quest for justice within Cambodia as a response to the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities from 1975 to 1979 has encountered continuous political debate and manoeuvring. With the opening of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 2003, it has clearly illustrated the challenges and complexities involved with the pursuit of the perpetrators as a result of the changing interpretations and perceptions of the Khmer Rouge from 1970-2018. The slow path to justice is reflective of the frequent opposing agendas of different states and individuals as the magnitude of the war crimes have been questioned and challenged upon. This has also encompassed the changing definition and extent of genocide throughout time which has developed an interdisciplinary study on the historiography of the Khmer Rouge. Over 35 years later, the gravity of the crimes that took place still impact the Cambodian society today under the immense suffering that occurred throughout 1975-79.
As part of the international response, foreign journalists reported the harrowing experiences of civilians in the atrocities they had witnessed and reports detailed the incidents of execution, disease and starvation. In US, Washington officials had publicly denounced these wrongdoings however the government remained unwilling to initiate action. The rest of the international community had largely remained silent throughout the course of the Khmer Rouge despite the fact that a strong public stance had developed against the atrocities. During 1977, in an issue of ‘The Nation’, the oldest running weekly and popular magazine in the US showcased Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman in their article ‘Distortions at Fourth Hand’.
Known as the ‘the father of modern linguistics’, Chomsky’s writings on the Cambodian genocide have gained immense attention based on his denial of credibility of information that emerged concerning with the number of deaths and sufferings. Chomsky has been cautious in avoiding outright genocide denial but has suggested the belief that a genocide occurred has been built on fabricated evidence as he argues ‘it is in this context that we must view the recent spate of newspaper reports, editorials and books on Cambodia, a part of the world not ordinarily of great concern to the press’. This context that Chomsky refers is the eagerness of the American effort to propagandize a reconstruction of history that portrays their nation in a positive light after its losses to Vietnam. Although history is based on evidence, evidence ‘flagrantly distorts’ and Chomsky sets out to prove this concept.
Influenced by the rewriting of history that condemn Communist atrocities rather than emphasis on their success and American failure, The Washington Post soon began to focus on the conditions in the countryside of Cambodia. Chomsky scrutinises their content by exposing much of the photographs claimed to have been taken after being smuggled out had already appeared a year earlier in France, Germany, Australia and the Bangkok Post. This pattern was repeated amongst expert analyses whom quoted statistics from different mass media without a reliable source. On April 17th, Boston Globe releases a paper reading ‘Most foreign experts on Cambodia and its refugees believe at least 1.2 million persons have been killed or have died as a result of the Communist regime since April 17, 1975’. There is no source given. The questioning of the stability of a ‘historical fact’ is evident and Chomsky has displayed how imperfect evidence can impact on the construction of history due to the lack of analysis and assessing of significance behind that source.
In the New York Times Magazine during May, 1977, Robert Moss declared there was ‘the slaughter of a million people’ at the knowledge of Khieu Samphan, a former chairman of Democratic Kampuchea. However it is noted, in his interview, he does not explicitly state whether this cause of death was a result of their policies or a result of the war that had left many maimed. Chomsky heavily scrutinised Francois Ponchaud’s account of the Cambodian genocide due to his reliance on refugee reports rather than cold hard facts, thus ‘his account is at best second-hand’. In this instance, Ponchaud cites a Cambodian report that states during the American bombing of 1973, there were 800,000 killed and 240,000 wounded form the source of ‘Cambodian authorities’. These figures remain arguable as the ratio for the wounded is usually three times killed which contradicts Ponchaud’s figures.
This perspective may not meld into the traditional paradigm but it manifests how the practice of history is individualistic as it is the historian’s task to judge the significance, something that can never be agreed upon. Whilst it may be difficult for some to comprehend certain version of events, Chomsky and Herman’s disciplined methodology remains valid and this aspect must be acknowledged. The construction of history does not necessarily require the findings of new evidence, large elements of re-interpretations can rely upon re-readings upon the basis of thorough and strong analytical work. As Carl L Becker once commented ‘history is a vulnerable branch of knowledge’ implying there is a certain extent of fluidity within history as Chomsky clearly demonstrates.
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