Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

The Missing Picture: The Khmer Rouge.

with 24 comments

The Khmer Rouge carried out one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

From 1975 to 1979 from  1.4 million and 2.2 million people died, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

The Missing Picture, which won the Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2013, is a heart-rending account of the personal and political tragedies caused by their rule.

Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh uses clay figures and newsreels to evoke the 4 year-long holocaust.

Panh dramatises his 1970s childhood through these painted clay figurines. A happy time, a Cambodia where people enjoy the normal pleasures of food, family parties, dancing and films, is brought to an end by the arrival of the black suited Khmer Rouge.  As part of the middle class (teachers) his parents, with their children, are sent to be the countryside to be “re-educated” in the new ideology.

They are reduced to the level of beasts of burden, scraping what food they can.

All except Panh die, amidst great suffering and the hectoring slogans of their masters. The author himself ends up in the hardest labour camps, for questioning the inequality of rations in ‘Democratic Kampuchea’.

In the film Panh looks for the “missing picture”, that is of Pol Pot, and his murders, and the genocide.

There is archive material of slaves labouring on pharaonic irrigation projects, of the Khmer Rouge leaders addressing their followers, with the portraits of Marx, Lenin, Lenin and Stalin behind the podium.

The film makes clear that resistance was impossible but that individuals and  families, by their simple dignity, refused to go along with the ideological terror.

The Missing Picture is a deeply affecting film.

Amongst the many images that haunt the audience is a calm statement: what were those in Paris and eleswherewho  endorsed the Khmer Rouge slogans thinking?

One might well ask.

The reality of life in ‘Democratic Kampuchea was soon known to the world, and the French in particular after the publication in 1977  of François Ponchaud’s Cambodge année zéro.

News rapidly got round about the genocide.

Not, apparently, though to Alain Badiou. He waxed ‘enthusiastic’ about the Khmer Rouge . He defended them tooth and nail against the Vietnamese  invaders who put a stop to their rule.

It was not until 2012 that the fêted philosopher and frequent contributor to New Left Review, expressed any “regrets” about this stand (Here).

People should see The Missing Picture and weep.

Including anybody tempted to admire Badiou.


Written by Andrew Coates

January 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm

24 Responses

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  1. Andrew,

    Jean Lacouture is another person who expressed regret. Here is what he said in a review of Ponchaud’s book in the New York Review of Books on March 31, 1977:

    François Ponchaud’s book can be read only with shame by those of us who supported the Khmer Rouge cause.

    However, one did not wait to the publication of Ponchaud’s book, or, indeed, Barron and Paul’s Peace With Horror published also in 1977 to know about what was going on in Cambodia. The so-called “liberation” of Cambodia was on April 17, 1975. News reports were being published almost immediately about the killings. Below is from The Times (April 25, 1975)

    , April 24: Khmer Rouge troops opened fire on a column of 350 Cambodian Muslim refugees, near the Thai border, killing about 40 of them, according to survivors.

    And there is plenty more where that came from.

    I do not tend to like comparisons of genocide A is worse than genocide B. It does no good to the families of the people who died under Mao to say it was worse under Pol Pot, but I feel I must comment on your suggestion that “The Khmer Rouge carried out probably the worst genocide of the 20th century.” I would say Hitler’s genocide trumped what happened in Cambodia, You might find the following book interesting:
    Alain Besançon, A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the Uniqueness of the Shoah, (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007).

    Having said that, I would certainly like to see The Missing Picture.

  2. I wonder if our own home grown supporters of genocide like Tariq Ali, John Rees, Lindsey German, Sean Matgamna, and any other number of Trots and Tankies will also admit they got it slightly wrong? I’m not holding my breath.


    January 23, 2014 at 12:49 pm

  3. Well it was it hook for the post.

    I said probably – in proportion to the size of the country.

    As you say Michael this was known very quickly – I certainly heard they were criminals fairly soon.

    But in terms of influence the Ponchard book was extremely important – it was for me (though I only read extracts at the time).

    I recall being sickened by Malcolm Caldwell’s apology for the Khmer Rouge at the time.

    I read something by him while I was working in a left-wing alternative bookshop which described their rule as some kind of ‘small is beautiful’ peasant utopia.

    But I note you have been there before:


    Andrew Coates

    January 23, 2014 at 12:56 pm

  4. I will leave any discussion about “worst genocide” for the reasons I gave above. I just think it is distasteful.

    Yes, I have written about Caldwell previously. I am continually amazed by his words in his article in the Guardian on May 8, 1978, which had the title, “The Cambodian Defence.” He simply tried to dismiss refugee testimony and damage the credibility of Ponchaud. Chomsky and Herman had tried the same thing earlier in The Nation. Much later on Hitchens was good on commenting on this.

    Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra)

    January 23, 2014 at 1:18 pm

  5. Well I apologise Michael and have changed the text – believe me I feel deeply about these things.

    I agree Matthew,

    It is deeply insulting to include Sean Matgamma, and indeed Tariq (who loathed the Khmer Rouge), in this list.

    And I would be surprised if Germain and Rees gave them any quarter either.

    Andrew Coates

    January 23, 2014 at 1:21 pm

  6. “Germain”. Is that a Pabloite slip?

    Matthew Thompson

    January 23, 2014 at 1:43 pm

  7. The Trot newspapers I have looked at in detail during the period of the Khmer Rouge regime include those from the IS/SWP and those from the WRP. I have also looked briefly, but not in so much detail, at Trot papers from other groups, including the IMG. What I will say is this is that they tended to ignore what was going on in Cambodia and hardly published anything on it – but in the little they did publish it was more in line with the genocide denial crew. I extracted from Socialist Worker in this blog post.

    Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra)

    January 23, 2014 at 1:49 pm

  8. Sorry Matthew, that being of course Ernest Mandel’s party name and not Lindsey German’s.

    Michael I learnt of this in Le Monde in the 1970s – which I could read (though not fluently at the time).

    I think it was John Pilger that brought it home to the British Left – give the man his due on this one.

    “In 1979, Pilger and two colleagues with whom he collaborated for many years, documentary film-maker David Munro and photographer Eric Piper, entered Cambodia in the wake of the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime. They made photographs and reports that were world exclusives. The first was published as a special issue of the Daily Mirror, which sold out. They also produced an ITV documentary, Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia,[17] which brought to people’s living rooms the suffering of the Khmer people.”

    Andrew Coates

    January 23, 2014 at 1:54 pm

  9. Interesting piece Andrew. I read the Badiou interview linked to, and it gradually became clear that it was an exercise in self-justification. Horrible, especially the petulant and familiar whine that it’s important to remember that the overthrow of the KR was not done for humanitarian reasons.

    Actually, of course, the motives, claimed or real, are not remotely as important as the fact that even a human-rights-abusing regime like North Vietnam was doing ordinary Cambodians a massive favour by toppling the psycopathic mass murderers who had been ruling them.

    What a truly sick and nasty man he still is.


    January 23, 2014 at 3:00 pm

  10. I think Pilger only turned against Cambodia when Vietnam invaded it and he had been a long supporter of Vietnamese communism. The bigger question comes down to why did so many on the left ignore the reports from the “bourgeois” press and dismiss books such as Barron and Paul as CIA propaganda?

    I would rather keep the discussion about Cambodia, but I just use this as a comparison. We see the same thing these days with many sections of the far-left (AWL aside -and I am not accusing you of this either, Andrew) about Hamas. With the SWP and the like, it is all “Free Palestine,” blaming Israel, Zionist ideology, Western Imperialism etc and completely ignoring both the actions of Hamas and its racist and genocidal covenant. It is far easier for them to blame Israel just as it was far easier for the far left in the late 1970s to blame America for any ills in Vietnam and Cambodia. This sort of thing has been continual with the far left. What comes to mind is the IRA bombing in Brighton of the Conservative Party conference. You might get the standard Trot line about not supporting individual acts of terrorism but this is couched with a big “but” about British troops in Northern Ireland etc in order that the real blame can be laid at the foot of imperialism.

    And Tariq Ali was also not immune. One only need look at his panegyrics to Ho Chi Minh.

    Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra)

    January 23, 2014 at 3:13 pm

  11. Lamia, he even sounds distasteful doesn’t he?

    It’s as if he can only just about put up with being asked impertinent questions by somebody beneath him.

    Michael, Tariq Ali has described the Khmer Rouge state as, the “demented Pol Pot regime—a mongrel offspring of Khmer chauvinism and Gang-of-Four Maoism— that confiscated the national revolution.”

    About Mao Tariq said he would have backed representative democracy, and still does,

    “Mao’s version of the Stalinist structure was supposedly based on the collective popular will, aroused by the revolution. But how long can such structures survive without mediations—representative institutions through which different interpretations of the popular will can be discussed and voted upon? This has nothing to do with mimicking the West, but is actually the most efficient and painless method of putting the people in touch with their rulers via elected representatives who are permanently accountable and can be recalled by the electors at any time. Had such a system existed, the famine would not have taken place and the backyard furnaces might have been dismantled soon after the experiment began. What might the “popular will” have said about the mountains of corpses that decorated the countryside after the mass famine?”


    There are some ambiguous things on third world conflicts that Tariq has said over the years, but on the general line – whether you like it or not – Tariq is a democrat.

    Andrew Coates

    January 23, 2014 at 5:00 pm

  12. “A happy time, a Cambodia where people enjoy the normal pleasures of food, family parties, dancing and films, is brought to an end by the arrival of the black suited Khmer Rouge.” Where did he spend this “happy time”? Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge was run by a rather corrupt, repressive military dictatorship under general Lon Nol, after a US-backed coup in 1970. And much of the countryside was ferocioucly bombed by the US Air Force up to1973. It is no defence of the Khmer Rouge to say that their crominality had roots in a very violent conflict that was not just started by Pol Pots gangster forces. The big surprise in all this was that the Khmer Rouge managed to behave even worse than the gangsters that came before them. Quite a feat indeed.

    Peter Storm

    January 23, 2014 at 6:25 pm

  13. You may not know this, but on the left Pilger is a very respected individual. Maybe you could write a piece explaining why this is to the people who are attracted to you brand of ‘decency’.

    Your demographic is typically Pilger hating pro Israeli pro imperialist ‘decents’. They need some educating, and if this blog doesn’t want to appear under the trades description act then you may think about educating them in the ways of ‘left socialism’.

    Socialism In One Bedroom

    January 23, 2014 at 7:48 pm

  14. What I meant by naming names is that their core political beliefs are inseparable from mass murder. The fact that when specific examples are undeniable their refrain is,” It wasn’t us, it was those terrible Stalinists and if Trotsky had lived we really would have had had a workers paradise”. Any system that requires the imposition of something needs terrorism.

    There has never been a Marxist regime of whatever ilk that has not resulted in murder, terror and starvation and were any of the people named above ever to have been a position of running such a regime they would have behaved exactly the same, thank God for the rest of us they have been total failures.

    I remember in about 1973 Tariq Ali publishing a book called ” The Coming British Revolution”. We are still waiting. What happens with all of those now recanting is that they have realised that they were wrong and that so much of their lives has been given over to a god that failed.

    Michael Ezra is of course correct in that nothing equals the Holocaust or comes anywhere near it in terms of the the intent.


    January 23, 2014 at 8:14 pm

  15. I am talking about the film Peter, not the history.

    And under the label “worse” the Khmer Rouge carried out some of the most terrible crimes of the 20th century.

    Andrew Coates

    January 24, 2014 at 10:57 am

  16. Andrew,

    One of things I do not tend to give much weight to are recent articles by leftists explaining their old positions as I have noticed a dislocation between how some want to remember their position and what their position actually was. That is why I like looking in the vaults for contemporaneous writing on events as opposed to hindsight claims about what the position was. (I should say that this might not just be the case with leftists, I suspect people from other perspectives have a similar habit.)

    You state:

    Tariq Ali has described the Khmer Rouge state as, the “demented Pol Pot regime—a mongrel offspring of Khmer chauvinism and Gang-of-Four Maoism— that confiscated the national revolution.”

    And indeed he did. But he did so in 1985. I am not so interested in what he said in 1985 about the Khmer Rouge- but what he said in 1975. I have not checked old IMG newspapers. Perhaps I shall one day. What I do know was that it was reported in the Guardian in June 1967 that Tariq Ali and Malcolm Caldwell were considering opening up a Vietnamese restaurant in London together – Uncle Ho’s! That is evidence to suggest they were friendly at that time. I do not know about any later friendship. I also know that because the so-called “liberation” of Cambodia happened within a close proximity to the fall of Saigon, Trotskyists, in general (without knowing the specific IMG line), were cheering on both events as a deserved defeat for imperialism.

    Regarding Mao, the back catalogue of the New Left Review which I have gone through shows articles where they were apologising for Mao during his reign.

    Socialism in One Bedroom,

    Me personal interest in Pilger has long been what he has said on Vietnam and not what he says on Israel. Here is an example of something I have written on that subject. But perhaps you see the name “Ezra” and think that I can be defined in your description as one of the ” pro Israeli pro imperialist ‘decents’.” I wonder why. Or perhaps I am not wondering.

  17. themadmullahofbricklane,

    Of course, I have a copy of Ali’s The Coming British Revolution.(Actually published in 1972).

  18. Ah but have you read, “Hayter of the bourgeoisie. Teresa Hayter 1971” another crucial document of the early IMG ?

    Teresa is, all accounts concur, an extremely good and generous person.

    Ali is of course also famous for his book on Russia, Moscow Gold (1990) in which he very accurately predicted a brilliant future for “democratic socialist” Boris Yeltsin.

    Not to mention calling for a vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2005.

    “For one day only, I’m a Lib Dem.
    We must take the politics of the anti-war front into the electoral arena.”


    Andrew Coates

    January 24, 2014 at 11:38 am

  19. Andrew,

    No, I have not read “Hayter of the bourgeoisie.” Perhaps I should. I have not really focussed that much on the IMG – my main interests are the SLL/WRP and IS/SWP. I have some wonderful attacks on Ali from Healy’s mob.

    My favouite Ali book is, of course, Redemption not least for his portrayals of the Healyites and the SWP mob, where I got many of the inside jokes. Sadly I don’t know enough about the background to the IMG/Mandel to get what were obviously more inside jokes. Nevertheless I found it a very funny novel. I liked the idea that there was a decision to name the baby Ho irrespective if it was male or female.

  20. I find Ali’s novels embarrassing – but then I like literature.

    His best work is about things he really knows about, Pakistan and Indian politics.

    Andrew Coates

    January 24, 2014 at 1:05 pm

  21. “There has never been a Marxist regime of whatever ilk that has not resulted in murder, terror and starvation and were any of the people named above ever to have been a position of running such a regime they would have behaved exactly the same, thank God for the rest of us they have been total failures.”


    But this kind of attitude can only really emanate from the imperialist core, where things are relatively peaceful and the war was a long time ago!

    Outside the warm comfort of the centre, where all the stuff the centre enjoys is produced – murder, torture and starvation are quite the norm. And these areas are part and parcel of the capitalist world market.

    So, if Marxism leads inexorably to violence so does capitalism and where does that lead themadmullahofbricklane?

    I tell you where, to the last refuge of every scoundrel…apologism!

    Socialism In One Bedroom

    January 24, 2014 at 2:30 pm

  22. I did like Street Fighting Years but then again I enjoy reading about radical history. The prized Ali book in my collection is Trotsky for Beginners. The reason for this is not only did Tariq Ali personally give it to me, my copy has doodles and scribbles on it that his son had done had decorated on the book! 9

    Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra)

    January 24, 2014 at 4:46 pm

  23. I did like Street Fighting Years but then again I like reading about radical history. The prized Ali book in my possession in his Trotsky for Beginners. Not only did Tariq Ali personally give me my copy, it is one on which his own son doodled and scribbled.

    Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra)

    January 24, 2014 at 5:00 pm

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