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Throughout the nearly four years of its existence, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia (which called itself Democratic Kampuchea) invited a number of Western sympathisers to observe the regime and (hopefully) provide eyewitness accounts back in the West. Infamously, this ended in tragedy for British academic Malcolm Caldwell, who was killed in the dying days of the Khmer Rouge’s time in power. After four members of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) from the United States travelled to Kampuchea in 1978, one of the leading members of the party, Daniel Burstein, became disillusioned with what he saw there. Although he initially wrote defences of the regime, by 1980 he was walking back from this initial assessment, which led to internal divisions and soul searching within the CP(M-L). As Max Elbaum notes, this contributed to the demise of the party by 1981.
Another visitor to Democratic Kampuchea was Edward (Ted) Hill, leader of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). The CPA (M-L) had formed in 1964 as a pro-China and ‘anti-revisionist’ breakaway group from the Communist Party of Australia, after the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s divided the international communist movement between Moscow and Peking. The party had grown in the 1960s as Australia underwent a boom in radicalism, primarily driven by opposition to the Vietnam War, and followed the Chinese lines during the decade of the Cultural Revolution, although the more militant Maoists belonged to the CPA (M-L) adjacent, Worker-Student Alliance, rather than the party itself. The CPA (M-L) also had considerable influence in the trade union movement in Victoria, with members occupying leading positions in the Builders’ Labourers Federation and the Victorian Tramways Union.
In the 1970s, the CPA (M-L) started campaigning around the idea of Australian independence from imperialism, seeing both the United States and the Soviet Union as imperial powers. This campaign included the establishment of the Australian Independence Movement, with the Eureka Flag employed as the movement’s emblem. At the same time, China’s foreign policy took a more conciliatory approach to the West and became more hostile to the Soviet Union, with the CPA (M-L) following suit. By the late 1970s, the party saw the USSR as ‘the modern Hitler Germany’ and an imperialist power looking to expand into South-East Asia, then Australia, then the Pacific. At the heart of this notion of Soviet imperialism in Asia was the links between Vietnam and the USSR following the Vietnamese defeat of the US in 1975.
In the same year that the Vietnamese ousted the US from Saigon, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia after a civil war that had raged since the late 1960s. In 1970, the pro-US regime of Lon Nol took power in a coup from Prince Sihanouk and escalated the civil war between the Cambodian government and Pol Pot’s forces. This coincided with the US bombing campaign of Cambodia, which ravaged the countryside and drew many new recruits to the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge seized control of the capital Phnom Penh in April 1975, which was heralded by communists around the world as a victory against imperialism, but stories started to emerge of the bloodshed caused by the new regime.
In 1977, border tensions grew between Democratic Kampuchea and Vietnam and many on the left in the West, although sceptical of some claims due to recent Western intervention in the region, reported atrocities being committed inside Cambodia. But others, such as those who were Maoists or at least sympathetic to China, denied that any such things were occurring and that the aggression and violence came from Vietnam (as a puppet of the Soviet Union). In 1977-78, Democratic Kampuchea invited sympathisers from the West, including those who belonged to pro-China Marxist-Leninist parties, to meet with Communist Party of Kampuchea officials and promote the regime in their home countries.
Ted Hill visited Kampuchea in December 1977 on his way to Beijing, spending a few days in Phnom Penh and meeting a delegation from the CPK, which included Pol Pot. Hill wrote about his visit in the CPA (M-L) newspaper, Vanguard, in 1978 in defence of the regime. In January 1978, the newspaper announced Hill’s visit and that he had ‘conveyed greetings from all Australian communists and revolutionaries and congratulations on the magnificent victory of the people of Kampuchea in their liberation struggle’. This victory, Hill reportedly said, ‘was not only a victory for the people of Kampuchea but a victory for all people struggling against the superpowers and domestic reactionaries’. In return, Pol Pot ‘sent warmest greetings to the Communist Party of Australia (M-L) and all Australian progressive people’. The visit, the newspaper stated, was ‘certain to cement the friendship and solidarity between the Communist Party of Kampuchea and the Communist Party of Australia (M-L) and are a further contribution to the great cause of proletarian internationalism’.
In this short initial report on Hill’s visit, Vanguard celebrated the supposed achievements of the Khmer Rouge and saw them as a counter to the Soviet-aligned Vietnamese government in the region. The article pronounced:
The people of Kampuchea under the leadership of the Communist Party of Kampuchea are building socialism. Their successes are inspiring. At the same time, they are heroically defending their hard-won national independence against armed aggression on several fronts, behind which stand the superpowers and in particular the extremely sinister Soviet social-imperialism and those who do its bidding. The people of Kampuchea are certain to win victory in their struggle because their cause is just and a just cause enjoys abundant support, while an unjust cause enjoys no support. Certainly they have the support of all genuine Australian revolutionaries.
News of Hill’s travel reached Australia and he was criticised for his visits to both Beijing and Phnom Penh by the journalist, Denis Warner. Replying to Warner, Hill wrote in Vanguard that he visited both countries due to common interests between the CPA (M-L) and the Communist Parties in China and Kampuchea. Hill accused Warner of preferring the ‘fascist traitor, Cambodian Lon Nol’, while he favoured ‘the patriot Pol Pot’. Hill praised the ‘international solidarity and mutual assistance of the Communist Parties and working and oppressed people’ and retorted that ‘honest people find no difficulty in understanding the cause of humanity.
In April 1978, Hill furnished more details of his discussions with Pol Pot and gave a potted history of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which had been relayed to him from the Khmer Rouge leader. According to Hill’s reporting on Pot’s narrative of the CPK, ‘[a]rmed struggle was the only path’ available to them, which was built in the countryside and ‘had the support of the people except for a handful of traitors’. In 1973, Hill wrote, ‘they began to build socialism’ and in 1975, ‘they completed the liberation of their country’.
Hill responded to reports that the Khmer Rouge had emptied the cities, particularly Phnom Penh, once they achieved power in April 1975 in an extremely glib manner. He claimed:
There is a great hooha about Phnom Penh being virtually without people. It is true that there are not many people in Phnom Penh. (A handful miss the brothels, the restaurants, the life of luxury). What is the position? Kampuchea is essentially an agricultural country. The first thing about people is that they must eat to live. To eat, agriculture must be developed. And development is going ahead apace. Big co-operative agricultural fields have been developed.
For Hill, emptying the cities was imperative to developing Kampuchea’s food production and that this involved everyone working in the fields to achieve this. Although, as we know, this meant overwork, malnutrition, starvation and death for many. But Hill repeated the line of the Khmer Rouge, ‘It is quite right that people should not eat unless they work’.
On the issue of the border conflict with Vietnam, Hill insisted that it was ‘regrettably a war of aggression by Vietnam’, which he described as ‘historically… an expansionist power’. Behind Vietnam, Hill alleged was ‘Soviet social-imperialism’ that sought to dominate South-East Asia, ‘setting Asian against Asian’. As well as these supposed imperial efforts, Hill also asserted that Vietnam had ‘stolen much grain from Kampuchea’. Hill finished his Vanguard piece by declaring:
The people of Kampuchea have the support of the Asian and other oppressed people of the world. They have friends all over the world. They are winning victory, consolidating socialism and are bound to win final victory.
We wholeheartedly support them.
The following week the newspaper published a ‘fraternal communication’ from the Communist Party of Kampuchea that expressed:
deep thanks to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) which has supported the just struggle of the people and the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea against acts of aggression and annexation perpetrated by the ‘Socialist Republic of Vietnam’.
The CPK stated that the support of the CPA (M-L) was ‘a great encouragement to the people and the Revolutionary Amy’ in defending Democratic Kampuchea and carrying out the socialist revolution. Vanguard and the CPA (M-L)’s theoretical journal The Australian Communist continued to support Democratic Kampuchea and oppose Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia into 1980.
Hill’s defence of the Khmer Rouge regime also appeared in other publications. In May 1978, the publication News from Kampuchea published an account by Hill of his visit. News from Kampuchea was produced by the Committee of Patriotic Kampucheans in Australia, beginning in April 1977. When first published, the journal’s editorial team consisted of several Cambodians now residing in Australia, as well as journalists and academics with an interest in Cambodia. The most well-known member of the editorial board in 1977 was Ben Kiernan, an Asian studies scholar who would eventually become a leading historian and prominent critic of the Khmer Rouge. The aim of the journal, as stated in its first issue, was:
- To keep Kampucheans in Australia informed of developments in their native country
- To develop and foster close ties between the peoples of Australia and Kampuchea
But further added that its main task was ‘to provide accurate and reliable information about Kampuchean affairs’, which was seen as ‘particularly necessary because of the worldwide campaign against Kampuchea in the rightwing Western press’.
In 1977, five issues of News from Kampuchea were published. Geoffrey C. Gunn and Jefferson Lee’s 1991 book, Cambodia Watching Down Under, state that these first issues featured the following themes: eye witness accounts of Democratic Kampuchea; analysis of distortions and bias in the Western press; extracts, reprints and translations of scholarly articles; articles of appropriate technology, and; reprints of Democratic Kampuchea press releases. These issues also featured accounts of visits to Kampuchea by foreigners, including East Timorese and Palestinian representatives.
Gunn and Lee argue that the second volume of the journal that appeared in 1978 had dropped most of these aspects and was dedicatedly primarily to the publication of press releases from the CPK/DK, as well as accounts from visiting Marxist-Leninist groups, such as Ted Hill. Hill stressed that he was writing his piece for News from Kampuchea ‘as a Communist’, but claimed that ‘many people in addition to the Communists support the cause of friendship with Democratic Kampuchea’ and his work as a communist ‘leads him to work with all who support the cause of independence and socialism’.
Much of the text of Hill’s article is similar to that which he published in Vanguard but highlighted the independent path to socialism that Democratic Kampuchea was allegedly taking, declaring, ‘The people of Kampuchea are building socialism in their own way with the emphasis on agriculture and the co-operatives while attending to industry.’ He continued:
Democratic Kampuchea is a splendid example of what Communists regard as the correct line of a wide united front for independence, an army waging armed struggle and a Communist Party adhering to a correct line and practising armed struggle against the reactionaries, open and secret work, legal and illegal work. The struggle and the victory of the people of Kampuchea are an inspiring [exam]ple to all Communists.
Hill promoted the idea that the interests of Democratic Kampuchea and Australia were the same in facing the threat of the superpowers, explaining that in the Asia-Pacific region, ‘there is a desperate struggle for domination of the area between the US imperialists and the Soviet social-imperialists’. Hill pronounced that Democratic Kampuchea was ‘actually under armed attack under the sinister influence of Soviet social-imperialism’, while the ‘same Soviet social-imperialism seeks to get Australia within its net’. This, for Hill, meant that the ‘causes of our two people are inseparable’, viewing Democratic Kampuchea as ‘part of the world wide front against the superpowers’.
Hill praised the patriotism of the people of Kampuchea and stated ‘Communists take the view that the greatest virtue of patriotism, lies in struggling to make the common people masters and owners of their own country’, adding that this had been achieved under the leadership of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’. According to Hill, the CPA (M-L) ‘devote ourselves to a similar cause’, although he did not elaborate on this in the article. He concluded by asserting, ‘I commend to all patriotic Kampucheans and to all patriotic Australians the cause of friendship between our two peoples’.
The Khmer Rouge regime in Democratic Kampuchea would not last another year and was deposed by Vietnam in early 1979, with Pol Pot and his followers fleeing to the jungle of the Cambodia-Thailand border. The CPA (M-L) routinely portrayed this as an act of aggression by Vietnam and a proxy for Soviet imperialism as an occupying force. For example, Hill wrote in Vanguard in October 1979:
The Vietnamese military aggression in the Indo-China peninsula is part of the global aggressive operations of Soviet imperialism, which is seeking world domination.
Vietnam occupies Democratic Kampuchea and Laos…
The Kampuchean people are our allies. We have the same enemy – Soviet social-imperialism (socialism in words, imperialism in deeds). We give them our full support.
In this article, he returned to the topic of his visit to Democratic Kampuchea in December 1977. He started this article by declaring, ‘Let me immediately say I went there with a bias in favour of the Pol Pot government and I came away with that bias. I believe the bias arises from the facts and the truth.’ He revisited old themes about the Kampuchean people and their independent path to socialism and sought to counter criticisms that he had reacted to in his previous articles on the subject.
Hill addressed the fact that the Khmer Rouge had cleared Phnom Penh in the days after taking control of country and acknowledged that when he visited, ‘there were not many people’ in the capital city, but stated ‘they had gone to work in the countryside in the vital task of food production’. Hill did note, ‘Maybe there is some truth in the allegation of going to excess in this’, before adding: ‘To my mind it is not the point. The central fact is that the Kampuchean people got themselves sufficient food and indeed an export surplus.’ Both of these assertions have been challenged by historians since then.
From this, Hill also mentioned that money was abolished in Kampuchea and admitted that ‘[m]aybe this was an error’, but deferred to Pol Pot’s explanation to him (as ‘the man on the spot’) that ‘the devastation wrought and the need to feed the people made direct allocation of food and other essentials necessary’. Hill blamed any starvation in Cambodia then on the Vietnamese, claiming, ‘The Kampuchean people who were well-fed in Pol Pot’s regime, are again starving after nine months of Vietnamese aggression’.
After the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge, the atrocities of the regime started to more fully come to light, but Hill contended, ‘I did not see all these corpses and pictures of which there is talk’. He qualified this by noting, ‘Doubtless if they existed I wouldn’t have been shown them. But I view such statements with great suspicion’. Instead, Hill emphasised that Kampuchea had faced decades of war from the French and the United States (as well as alleged Vietnamese aggression). He equivocated again in writing:
Maybe it is true the Kampuchean leaders went too far in repression. I do not know. Certainly they have done nothing comparable to French imperialism nor U.S. imperialism nor Vietnamese expansionism… All the alleged horror stories can be adequately explained by the U.S. imperialist horror and the Soviet back Vietnamese horror.
He concluded this article with this justification of the ‘errors’ of the Khmer Rouge:
I take the view too that if errors are committed in the course of a revolution they are deeply regrettable products of resistance to immense repression and comparatively nothing compared with saturation high explosive and napalm bombing or the aggression of 200,000 Vietnamese troops.
By 1980, the CPA (M-L) line had become not just a defence of the previous regime of Democratic Kampuchea and demonisation of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, but also support for the ‘united front’ of the Patriotic and Democratic Front of Great National Union that the former Democratic Kampuchea leaders were fostering. In this period, Hill, who had briefly visited the country, and the CPA (M-L) more broadly championed Democratic Kampuchea and its supposed combination of patriotism, anti-imperialism and socialism. The violence of the regime, if acknowledged at all, was downplayed and compared with the violence inflicted upon the country by the French, the United States and the Vietnamese.
Several Western groups and representatives, as well as foreign dignitaries, visited Democratic Kampuchea between 1976 and 1978, including a number from Western pro-China, Maoist or anti-revisionist groups. While some, such as Daniel Burstein, became disillusioned with the regime, others, including the CPA (M-L)’s Ted Hill, defended Democratic Kampuchea and the Communist Party of Kampuchea throughout its existence – and even after its collapse in 1979. Solidarity between Western Maoists and Democratic Kampuchea is oft forgotten and if remembered at all, is used as an example of the folly of Western Marxists (particularly intellectuals) in their support of certain regimes that were seen as an ally in the anti-imperial struggle. Hill’s writing on his visit to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge reveals an insight into Maoism in Australia and the alliances that it sought to forge as the Sino-Soviet split hardened in the 1970s and as the Cultural Revolution devolved in the post-Mao years. The emphasis of the CPA (M-L) on Australian independence and patriotic socialism meant that Hill tried to find similar in the programme of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, although, as he admits, he only saw a particular side of the regime on his trip. The rest of the Australian left, such as the Communist Party or the various Trotskyist groups, were not as enamoured with Democratic Kampuchea, despite an initial enthusiasm that the Khmer Rouge had ejected US imperialism from Cambodia (shortly before the fall of Saigon in Vietnam). The CPA (M-L), following China’s foreign policy cues, went the other way and associated themselves with a murderous government, which the party, including Hill as its leader, continued to endorse after its fall and details of widespread atrocities started to more clearly emerge.
I am yet to investigate the publications of the CPA (M-L) beyond 1980 (due to the pandemic), so I cannot determine how the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) perceived Democratic Kampuchea in retrospect or the Khmer Rouge as it lingered in the jungle for the next two decades. There are also extensive Australian Security Intelligence Organisation files on Hill at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra, but the files for the late 1970s have yet to be released (I have made a request for these).