Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia

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Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia
Directed byDavid Munro
Produced byDavid Munro
Written byJohn Pilger
Narrated byJohn Pilger
CinematographyEric Piper

Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia is a 1979 British television documentary written and presented by the Australian journalist John Pilger, which was produced and directed by David Munro for the ITV network by Associated Television (ATV).[1] First transmitted on 30 October 1979, for this documentary the filmmakers entered Cambodia in the wake of the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime.

The film recounts the bombing of Cambodia by the United States in 1970 during the Vietnam War, the subsequent brutality and genocide that occurred when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge militia took over, the poverty and suffering of the people, and the limited aid since given by the West. Pilger's first report on Cambodia was published in a special issue of the Daily Mirror.

Following the programme, some $45 million was raised, unsolicited, in mostly small donations, including almost £4 million raised by schoolchildren in the UK. This funded the first substantial relief to Cambodia, including the shipment of life-saving drugs such as penicillin, and clothing to replace the black uniforms people had been forced to wear. According to Brian Walker, director of Oxfam, "a solidarity and compassion surged across our nation" from the broadcast of Year Zero.[2][3]

During the filming of Cambodia Year One, the team were warned that Pilger was on a Khmer Rouge 'death list.' In one incident, they narrowly escaped an ambush.[citation needed]

Responses by William Shawcross and others[edit]

According to The Times journalist Oliver Kamm, however, Pilger "failed to disclose that Communist Vietnam, having invaded Cambodia and installed a puppet regime, was trying to control which starving people were fed and which were not".[4]

William Shawcross wrote in his book The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience (1984) about Pilger's series of articles about Cambodia in the Daily Mirror during August 1979:

A rather interesting quality of the articles was their concentration on Nazism and the holocaust. Pilger called Pol Pot 'an Asian Hitler' — and said he was even worse than Hitler ... Again and again Pilger compared the Khmer Rouge to the Nazis. Their Marxist-Leninist ideology was not even mentioned in the Mirror, except to say they were inspired by the Red Guards. Their intellectual origins were described as 'anarchist' rather than Communist.[5]

Ben Kiernan, in his review of Shawcross's book, notes that Pilger did compare Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge to Stalin's terror, as well as to Mao's Red Guards. Kiernan notes instances where other writers' comparisons of Pol Pot to Hitler or the Vietnamese to the Nazis are either accepted by Shawcross in his account, or not mentioned.[6]

Shawcross wrote in The Quality of Mercy that "Pilger's reports underwrote almost everything that refugees along the Thai border had been saying about the cruelty of Khmer Rouge rule since 1975, and that had already appeared in the books by the Readers Digest and Francois Ponchaud. Nonetheless, the reaction to the stories in Britain was as if they were something quite new."[5] Oliver Kamm asserted in 2006: "Pilger's documentaries are full of falsehoods. They operate by misdirection, simultaneously denouncing one form of injustice while ignoring or denying others".[4] In Heroes, Pilger disputes François Ponchaud and Shawcross's 's account of Vietnamesse atrocities during the Vietnamese invasion and near famine as being "unsubstantiated".[7]

Ponchard had interviewed members of anti-communist groups living in the Thai refugee border camps. According to Pilger, "At the very least the effect of Shawcross's 'exposé'" of Cambodian's treatment at the hands of the Vietnamese "was to blur the difference between Cambodia under Pol Pot and Cambodia liberated by the Vietnamese: in truth. a difference of night and day".[7] In his book, Shawcross himself doubted that anyone had died of starvation.[6]

Later comments[edit]

In 2006, Pilger described the British reaction to Year Zero:

The documentary as a television "event" can send ripples far and wide ... Year Zero not only revealed the horror of the Pol Pot years, it showed how Richard Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's 'secret' bombing of that country had provided a critical catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. It also exposed how the West, led by the United States and Britain, was imposing an embargo, like a medieval siege, on the most stricken country on earth. This was a reaction to the fact that Cambodia's liberator was Vietnam – a country that had come from the wrong side of the Cold War and that had recently defeated the US. Cambodia's suffering was a wilful revenge. Britain and the US even backed Pol Pot's demand that his man continue to occupy Cambodia's seat at the UN, while Margaret Thatcher stopped children's milk going to the survivors of his nightmare regime. Little of this was reported. Had Year Zero simply described the monster that Pol Pot was, it would have been quickly forgotten. By reporting the collusion of "our" governments, it told a wider truth about how the world was run ... Within two days of Year Zero going to air, 40 sacks of post arrived at ATV ... in Birmingham – 26,000 first-class letters in the first post alone. The station quickly amassed £1m, almost all of it in small amounts. "This is for Cambodia," wrote a Bristol bus driver, enclosing his week's wage. Entire pensions were sent, along with entire savings. Petitions arrived at Downing Street, one after the other, for weeks. MPs received hundreds of thousands of letters, demanding that British policy change (which it did, eventually). And none of it was asked for. For me, the public response to Year Zero gave the lie to clichés about "compassion fatigue", an excuse that some broadcasters and television executives use to justify the current descent into the cynicism and passivity of Big Brotherland. Above all, I learned that a documentary could reclaim shared historical and political memories, and present their hidden truths. The reward then was a compassionate and an informed public; and it still is.[8]

In a 2007 speech, "Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire", Pilger described his experience with executives of the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). They refused to screen Year Zero, which, according to Pilger, has never been broadcast in the USA.[9]

The documentary has been released on DVD as part of Network DVD's ITV 60 compilation box set as well as sets under Pilger's own name.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia, video of programme on John Pilger's website.
  2. ^ John Pilger Heroes, p. 410
  3. ^ John Pilger (15 February 2011). Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs. Random House. p. 121. ISBN 978-1-4070-8570-8.
  4. ^ a b Kamm, Oliver (20 September 2016). "Big voice, too many false notes". The Times. London. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  5. ^ a b West, Richard (28 September 1984). "Who was to blame?". The Spectator. pp. 29–30, 29. Retrieved 26 August 2016. "Holocaust" is rendered in lower case in Richard West's article.
  6. ^ a b Kiernan, Ben (30 October 1984). "Review Essay: William Shawcross, Declining Cambodia" (PDF). Age. pp. 56–63, 62. Retrieved 26 August 2016. Also cited to Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (January–March 1986), 18(1): 56–63
  7. ^ a b Pilger, John (2001). Heroes. London: Soluth End Press. p. 417. (Originally published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1986)
  8. ^ John Pilger "The revolution will not be televised" Archived 6 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine, New Statesman, 11 September 2006
  9. ^ Pilger, John. "Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire". Speech. Democracy Now. Archived from the original on 28 July 2013.

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