In the late 1970s Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman were following the Western reception of atrocities in Cambodia alongside the case of East Timor. The figure of 2 million killed was repeatedly deployed in US media, it originated in a book review by Jean Lacouture of Ponchaud's work Cambodia: Year Zero which was published in 1978. Lacouture said that the Khmer Rouge boasted of killing 2 million people, yet it was not in Ponchaud's writing which claimed 800,000 people died in the US bombing from 1970 to 1975. Since the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, amidst the devastation of the bombing, an additional 1.2 million had died according to the US embassy in Bangkok. When Chomsky pointed this out to Lacouture he soon published corrections in which he conceded that the killings may have been in the thousands rather than in the millions. American intelligence confirms that the slaughter was in the tens of thousands and may well have ran into the hundreds of thousands. But it was too late and the figure of 2 million remains stuck in the minds of many even three decades later.
Ever since then Chomsky has been tarred as a defender of Pol Pot's atrocities. The charge has become a favourite tool on the Right who have regularly deployed it to bash Chomsky. Yet it was Noam Chomsky who points to the 1978 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam as perhaps only one of two instances of ' humanitarian interventionism' since the Second World War. The other example he highlighted was in 1971 when India invaded East Pakistan, ending a massive slaughter and did so out of less than benign self-interest. Likewise, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia came just as Pol Pot's crimes were really picking up. By 1979 the capital of the country was in Vietnamese hands and the Khmer Rouge had fled to the Thai border. The Vietnamese would be condemned internationally as "outlaws" and "gangsters" for this invasion, the United Nations would support the Khmer Rouge in its claim to govern Cambodia while the US would lead the international effort to starve Cambodia as long as the Vietnamese occupied the country. Later William Shawcross would bemoan the silence over Pol Pot's crimes, that he imagined, pinning the blame on the scepticism of the Left.
The point that Chomsky made was that the West has never concerned itself with questions of human rights, only when it is convenient to do so. The crimes committed by Pol Pot in Cambodia constitute 'nefarious bloodbaths', which are condemned in the strongest terms because they are committed by the enemy, whereas the crimes of the Indonesians in East Timor were 'constructive bloodbaths' and therefore worth our support and our silence. The US, Canada, Britain and Holland supported the Indonesians all the way, while the West continued to pose as humanitarians over the atrocities in Cambodia. Suharto had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia in the 1960s, but the US supported him because he was open to American influence and investment. This helps to illuminate the "dramatic shift" away from condemnation to outright support of Pol Pot during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. As the Khmer Rouge became a force of opposition to the occupation, thereby becoming an opponent of Russian influence, the US shifted its support as part of its new-found alliance with China.
Near the end of her reign, Margaret Thatcher said in an interview "Most people agree that Pol Pot himself could not go back, nor some of his supporters who were very active in some of the terrible things that happened. Some of the Khmer Rouge, of course, are very different. I think there are probably two parts to the Khmer Rouge, those who supported Pol Pot and then there is a much much more reasonable grouping within the Khmer Rouge." The Iron Lady went on to qualify her statement, that this is what the experts on Cambodia have told her. She didn't go as far as to admit that the British government had been training the Khmer Rouge through the SAS for several years. That would come out in 1991. All of this was later confirmed on the Cambodian side by Ta Mok when he was arrested in 2000. Yet the Right still have the audacity to accuse Noam Chomsky of taking the side of Pol Pot in the midst of 'Year Zero'. It remains the favourite means of vilification for the neoconservatives who describe themselves as "revolutionaries" while they are nothing less than chickenhawks.