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International Response to Khmer Rouge Rule

Foreign journalists who were in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge captured the city wrote harrowing accounts of the atrocities they witnessed. After that, the Khmer Rouge sealed off the country from the outside world, but reports of unspeakable hardships continued to trickle out. Western journalists interviewing refugees at Thai border camps heard accounts of widespread executions, disease, and starvation.

In Washington, US officials publicly denounced the atrocities. People who had long distrusted US motives in Southeast Asia often dismissed these statements as lies or exaggeration, the propaganda of a government that had warned of a bloodbath. But the information was reliable and it was believed at the top levels of the US administration. A 1976 memo from Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor, to President Ford shows detailed knowledge of the regime’s brutal efforts to remake the country.

Memo from Brent Scowcroft to President Ford

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Nonetheless, the US government took little action. With the disastrous defeat in Vietnam still fresh in memory, Washington was reluctant to get involved in the region again. It proceeded with its military withdrawal from the Southeast Asian mainland.

Gradually, the United States took a stronger stance against the Khmer Rouge, at least in public statements. In April 1978, President Carter declared them to be “the worst violator of human rights in the world today.” But he too took no affirmative steps to end crimes that were still underway.

After the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and the reopening of the country, the crimes began to gain wider international attention. News media reported on survivors’ accounts. The 1984 film The Killing Fields, starring Sam Waterston as New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg and Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, his Cambodian colleague, became a cultural touchstone, introducing people all over the world to Cambodia and its ordeal. 

In 1987, Pran and Ngor joined with others to demand an investigation of Khmer Rouge abuses. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called for world leaders “to explore the tragedy in all of its aspects. . . . We have learned from history that tragic truth is better than no truth.” But still there was no official international investigation.