Thursday, November 24, 2011

Useful Idiots of the Khmer Rouge

By late 1977 the Pol Pot regime had decided to begin seeking broader international support for their 'Democratic Kampuchea.' In November 1977 Burma's Ne Win became the first head of state to visit Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975. Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania followed soon after. Beginning in early 1978, small groups of Communist-sympathizing westerners were invited and/or allowed to visit Cambodia, most often arriving on the then weekly flight from Beijing to Phnom Penh. (Pol Pot History of a Nightmare, by Phillip Short, page 381.) In August of that year a leftist Swedish group including the now repentant Gunnar Bergstrom toured the country and even dined with Pol Pot. Bergstrom made news again in 2008 when he returned to Cambodia after 30 years, this time to offer apologies for supporting the regime and ask forgiveness of the survivors. (For more on Bergstrom see Taiwan News and BBC)

In April 1978, months before Bergstrom arrived in Cambodia, a group of four Americans from the American Communist Party M-L visited the country, declaring themselves the "first Americans to visit Cambodia since April 1975." The group included Robert Brown, David Klein and the editor of the communist The Call magazine Daniel Burstein. (Ironically, Burstein is now a New York venture capitalist and writer, at least according to the Communpedia and from what I have been able to infer from some Googling.)

This group of Americans met with Iang Sary and toured the country for eight days* in what was no doubt a carefully orchestrated outing, including Phnom Penh city and Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham and Takeo provinces. Afterward, they departed with a very favorable impression of Democratic Kampuchea and the 'accomplishments' of the Khmer Rouge regime. Burstein was so impressed that he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled "On Cambodia: But, Yet," published November 21, 1978 (link,) declaring the stories of Khmer Rouge horrors and genocide that were littering the US press at the time to be slanderous lies. Burstein wrote,
"Everyone knows about the war waged by the United States in Cambodia from 1970 to 1975. But very few people know about or understand the war that it is waging today against that country, which now calls itself Democratic Kampuchea. The was is being fought on many fronts. But it is mainly a propaganda war, a consciously organized, well-financed campaign to spread lies and misinformation about Kampuchea since the victory of its revolution in 1975
I was the first American to visit Kampuchea since April 17, 1975. What I saw has little in common with the stories told by so many journalists and other 'authorities' who have never been there...
The most slanderous of all charges leveled against Kampuchea is that of 'mass genocide,' with figures often cited running into the millions of people. I believe this is a lie, which certain opinion-makers in this country believe can be turned into a 'fact' by repeating it often enough."     
Though, in the spirit of a proper apologist he did concede that there may have been "excesses,"
This does not mean there has been no violence or bloodshed since the revolution. The new Government has had to deal with many forces that oppose the revolution -- former Lon Nol officials, as well as organized networks of American, Russian and Vietnamese agents trying to overthrow the Government. Such sabotage has undoubtedly been met with violent suppression. In the course of this, there may even have been some excesses, which no revolution is immune to.
His tour companions were similarly impressed by their experience in Democratic Kampuchea. They produced a 115-page booklet entitled, 'The New Face of Kampuchea: a photo-record of the first American visit to Cambodia since the end of the war,' or 'Kampuchea: A photo-record of the first American visit to Cambodia since April 1975,' written by Klein, with photographs by Robert Brown and published by the now defunct Liberator Press (Chicago) in late 1978. (See The Eyes of the Pineapple for more on Liberator Press.) They arrived at a similar conclusion to Burstein's, i.e. that the Khmer Rouge were liberators, Cambodia was moving in the right direction, the Cambodian people enthusiastic participants in the new order and that the tales of Khmer Rouge atrocities were just so much capitalist propaganda.

The very month that this group of Americans were in Phnom Penh, April 1978, the purges of the Eastern Zone and the torture operation at the infamous S-21 prison facility in Phnom Penh (now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum) were reaching a crescendo. The unfortunates brought to S-21, not far from where the Americans were touring city, were tortured into bizarre and unlikely 'confessions' reflecting the paranoias of Khmer Rouge leadership, sometimes 'admitting' to being counter-revolutionary spies working simultaneously for the Americans, the Russians and the Vietnamese. In his landmark work on the prison, 'Voices from S-21' (page 73,) David Chandler writes, "The Party Center then embarked on a wholesale purge of cadres in the Eastern Zone. In April 1978, so many were brought into S-21 that some of the trucks bearing prisoners had to be turned away...presumably to be taken off to be killed without any interrogation," stocking the killing fields of Choeung Ek just outside of town. In a chillingly deaf echo of this horrible reality, Klein apologetically notes in Kampuchea (page 10) that Khmer Rouge government leaders acknowledged "violence" was still being employed to root out a secret apparatus of CIA, KGB and Vietnamese infiltrators in Cambodia, but that it was to "(make) sure that the chains which had previously held the people in bondage would never be forged again." 

The following are scans of a photocopy of the Forward, Introduction and first two chapters of 'Kampuchea: A photo-record of the first American visit to Cambodia since April 1975,' which contain Klein's observations and impressions of the state of the country and people as well as several interesting photographs by Brown of an almost empty Phnom Penh.

One might say that these men were naive, duped, perhaps blinded by their ideology, but I find it difficult to understand how they could see child soldiers carrying AKs as big as themselves, masses of black clad people toiling in the mud like ants and a capital city devoid of occupants three years after the takeover and not catch a hint that something might be amiss.

Click on the images to enlarge. 

 Page 4: Colonial villa on Sothearos Blvd opposite National Museum?

 Dan Burstein with Iang Sary, April 28, 1978

Page 27: Former American Embassy, northeast corner of Norodom Blvd. and Mao Tse Toung Blvd.

 Page 31: Corner of Norodom Blvd and Street 130, northwest corner

Page 32: Looking east down Street 154 from the corner of Norodom Blvd. and Street 154.
Page 33: Looking south down Monivong Blvd from corner of Monivong and Street 114

Page 34: Looking east on Street 118 from the corner of Norodom Blvd and Street 118. 
Page 35: Southeast corner of Norodom Blvd and Street 118

(* There is some discrepancy regarding the length of the tour. Wikipedia [yes, I know it is an inherently dubious source] states that the tour lasted 8 days. But in his booklet 'Kampuchea,' David Klein states the group arrived in Phnom Penh April 12, but also dates one of the photos of Dan Burstein in the book April 28, indicating that the stay was longer than 8 days or perhaps that they toured at slightly different times or had overlapping tours. It may also be that the photo is incorrectly dated, or is not credited properly, perhaps taken by someone other that Robert Brown.)


  1. Interesting document, I'd like to see the original. Another K.R. apologist wasn't so lucky, I'm speaking of course of Malcolm Caldwell who was knocked off shortly after his dinner with Pol Pot. As far as I know, his death has never been fully explained.We do know, through Elizabeth Becker, that he had returned from this dinner full of praise for Pol Pot. I guess we could also add Noam Chomsky to the list of stooges and a dangerous one given his status with the International Left at the time.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. I looked up Burnstein. He is now a Venture Capitalist in the U.S. I emailed him to see if he had any comments on his visit to Democratic Kampuchea.

  3. I'd be very interested to hear about it if you get a response. I'd like to smooth out some of the discrepancies in this story, if not hear how he feels about all this 33 years later, assuming it is in fact the same Dan Burstein.

  4. Hmm. Well it could just be similar names and appearance, but he looks like the same Dan Burstein in the photos from that book.

    Cheers from Siem Reap

  5. Ya pretty sure it's the same Burstein because he and Kline are still publishing books together. Found Klines photo on plugged it into googles photo search and it gave me his google plus info. I've dropped him a line as well and would be interested to hear back from him. Do you have a copy of this book? I just ordered one if you haven't seen the entire book. I should get it in a month or two.

  6. Quite an amazing document with great pictures, I'd also be interested in seeing more of it.

  7. Thanks for the scans. I own a copy of this booklet, too.

    At my blog last December, I posted up an English translation of Pol Pot's September 1977 CPK congress speech, published by the same radical press that also published the above booklet. I see you've linked to it, with regard to Liberator Press. In April this year, Carl Davidson, a former member of the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist, the same organisation which enjoyed fraternal relations with the Communist Party of China and received the invitation to visit Democratic Kampuchea in 1978, contacted me via email about the speech, confirmed it is the Dan Burstein, and also talked about the effect the naive visit had on party members.

    "Yes, it is the same Dan Burstein. And the correct name of our group then was simply Communist Party Marxist Leninist (CPML). When Burstein and the small group that visited Cambodia later discovered they had been mislead and lied to on their tour, it caused a crisis for them personally, and for our organization as well. Dan resigned his post, saying he was no longer a Marxist-Leninist--he was in his mid-20s at the time--and retreated into private life. Later he wrote books on Japanese economics and China for the business press, as well as other nonfiction works, and became a small-time venture capitalist. Dan's resignation started a process of liquidation within our group, and within a year, we were defunct.

    I was editor of Class Struggle, our theoretical journal, and I made the decision to print Pol Pot's speech as an appendix in one of our last issues. I recall thinking that his politics were rather strange--calls for abolishing money, setting up communism immediately, etc--but since his thinking wasn't available anywhere else in English for people to study, I made it available, since he was the leader of a party that had taken power vs. the US imperialists.

    I've mentioned this a few times to younger comrades and activists, to warn they [sic] against dogmatism and flunkeyism--and to take anything coming from any party regarding its achievements with a grain of salt."

  8. Haha. Thanks for that.

    "When Burstein and the small group that visited Cambodia later discovered they had been mislead and lied to on their tour, it caused a crisis for them personally, and for our organization as well."

    Oh no not lies! I guess they forgot one of their very own tenants....."Morality is that which serves to destroy the old exploiting society....Communist morality is the morality which serves this struggle." - Lenin

    It certainly wouldn't serve the struggle to admit the number of people they were killing. They were just humble academics dedicated to peace and social justice!

    I also love this one: "I recall thinking that his politics were rather strange--calls for abolishing money, setting up communism immediately, etc"

    I find that interesting consider in 1982 the Progressive labour party authored the Road to Revolution 4 which stated, "We concluded
    that the cardinal error of communists,
    including ourselves, had been the
    fight to establish socialism as a stage, the
    prelude to the communist stage of society."

    See what happens when a whole country like Cambodia follows the SDS: "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the Revolution home. Kill your parents."

  9. The Cambodian revolution diverged sharply from the Marxist conception of socialism, and after all, such a thing remains in the abstract, as the main body of theory concerns analysis of the past and present, it is no blueprint or plan for action. Its Marxist-Leninist (or rather, Stalinist) interpretation on the other hand ... But then again, it diverged from that too, but always owed a doctrinal debt.

    I would contend that the scale of violence seen in DK was perhaps unprecedented in the country's history, but that the kind of violence was unremarkable. And by that, I mean it wasn't an imported Communist innovation. There was a political overlay, if you will, that was rejected by most. The revolution did have initial support from people (widespread but not majority peasant support) for different reasons than communism, but not for very long. Marxist-Leninists also came to power in Vietnam, but the same didn't happen there. And that isn't my support for bureaucratic 'socialist' dictatorship, which now, like China, is capitalist. Liberal democracy came after capitalism. The two aren't inseparable. Capitalism doesn't need such a thing as democracy to function.

    As for reaching communism immediately, I would also contend that Pol Pot was very formulaic, and it was not immediate communism, but the Marxist-Leninist conception of 'building socialism' before reaching communism that the Cambodians set about doing. The crude logic of it could not allow any other way. And it was that 'stage' they never got beyond. I don't believe in the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of socialism in general, and don't believe it was socialism the Cambodians were building at all, personally. But I believe they thought they were doing that, and I don't take the utopian position that such a thing has never been tried because the outcomes were far different to what was expected or desired.

    The foreign saps who were Marxist-Leninists believed in it too, either through genuine naivety, or trying to justify the unjustifiable by bending reality to fit their prefabricated political positions. And of course, in public or private, they have the grim reality and their support for it, to live with.

  10. "You better believe I have a “comment” about that book — and my experience in Cambodia.

    I was an idiot. Like many other youthful ideologues and utopians throughout American history, I allowed myself to be duped. And I regret it more than any other mistake I’ve made in my life.

    Of course, when someone realizes he has been stupid, there are only two choices going forward: You can either continue to be stupid, or you can stop being stupid and learn some lessons from the experience that will take you in a healthier direction.

    Within a few months of leaving Cambodia, it hit me that regardless of what I had been told, there really was no HUMAN explanation for the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge had committed. I realized that I had allowed my years as an anti-war activist who saw through Washington’s lies about the Indochina war (e.g., the Pentagon Papers) make me blind to the truth when they actually told it, as they did about Pol Pot.

    So ever since I have tried to make amends by doing work that tries to expose the truth of people’s lives and their suffering rather than deny it.

    I stopped being a leftist ideologue and started paying attention to the actual truth of the world. And I decided to become a REAL journalist.

    A year and a half after my visit to Cambodia I became the first Western reporter to go inside the fighting areas of Afghanistan (for the Christian Science Monitor) and expose the mass murder and brutality committed by the Russians there. And I kept going back (and getting g shot at) until the end of the war — also becoming the first Western reporter to warn of the growing danger posed by the then-still-small Jihadist factions of the mujahedeen.

    (Being an ex-leftist ideologue, of course, I had more than a few insights into the self-deception and danger presented by ideologues of all types — whether of the leftist, Jihadist, anarchist or other variety.)

    In 1983, I was in all probability also the first Western journalist to go into the famine areas of Eritrea and Ethiopia and try to warn the world of the impending disaster almost a year before the story finally broke in the major media. Unfortunately, I was not successful in getting my stories published in enough media to make a real difference or spark action, and as a result many tens of thousands of people died who didn’t have to die.

    Obviously I feel bad that I wasn’t more successful in getting published. But at least I tried for almost a year to get people to listen, as the attached article by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll explains.

    “Long before the story broke in the national media,” Carroll wrote, “long before movie stars and senators and rock guitarists and anchormen had visited the region, Kline had the story nailed, chapter and verse.”

    That and a dollar will barely get you on the bus, of course. But still.

    As for my former youthful leftism, if you’ve scanned my work since you’ll see that I finally came to appreciate the social value of entrepreneurial capitalism (as opposed to Big Business). This is most clearly reflected in my latest bo

  11. One last point is worth making. Obviously, nothing excuses my past blindness about what was really happening in Cambodia. But by the same token, it seems only fair to offer at least some context for my mistakes.

    At the time Ieng Sary was lying his ass off and I was listening uncritically, America was in political ferment and literally millions of young people were infatuated with what they saw as leftist or “liberation movements” in southeast Asia, Cuba and elsewhere around the world as well as at home. It was a very different time that must be hard for young people today to imagine.

    Just yesterday, for example, the New York Times ran a profile of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, opening the article this way:

    “Steven Pinker was a 15-year-old anarchist … It was 1969, said Dr. Pinker, who is now a 57-year-old psychologist at Harvard. “If you weren’t an anarchist,” he said, “you couldn’t get a date.”

    Indeed, It really seems hard to believe now, but in 1978 the majority of people on the planet still lived under communist rule and tens of millions of them fully believed in that ideology.

    Today, you could fit all the world’s remaining communist true believers in a mid-sized meeting room at the Marriott.

    Again, I make no excuses — I’m simply pointing to how different the context was in those days and how much the world (and we boomers) have changed.

    In any event, you took the trouble to ask for my view of those events and my role in them, and I thought you deserved an honest reply.