Derided by Washington powerbrokers and ignored by swathes of the mainstream media, Noam Chomsky is, nonetheless, said to be the eighth most frequently cited academic source of all time – coming in just below Plato and Freud. Southeast Asia Globe spoke with the world’s most famed public intellectual and political firebrand about the growing threat of conflict between the US and China and the roles of both superpowers in the region
Illustration by Victor Blanco
Even for those who have never read his work nor heard him speak, the name Noam Chomsky is familiar. Perhaps they overheard it during a heated political debate, or they passed over the name while browsing in a bookshop. The 86-year-old, born in Philadelphia, first came to prominence as a linguistics expert, often dubbed ‘the father of modern linguistics’, though his reputation was mainly limited to within that field. But international fame and a broader audience did arrive in the 1960s as Chomsky increasingly assumed the roles of modern-day philosopher and political commentator. His work often focused on US foreign policy, neoliberal capitalism and modern forms of imperialism. In 2005, he was described as the “world’s top public intellectual” in a poll jointly conducted by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines. The following year, the UK political publication New Statesman ranked him seventh in their ‘Heroes of our Time’ list.
As well as being a prolific writer – he has written or co-written almost 100 books on varying subjects and continues to publish articles through numerous independent media – he could also claim to have lived up to Karl Marx’s refrain that philosophers should not only interpret the world: “The point… is to change it.” Chomsky founded an influential anti-Vietnam War organisation in the 1960s and was arrested on several occasions for his anti-war activism – former US President Richard Nixon once included him on his so-called ‘enemies list’. His continued focus on the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste in 1975, as well as the tacit support given by many Western states, played a large part in the Timorese independence movement attracting international attention. However, he also faced severe criticism over his initial stance on the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, with many claiming that Chomsky downplayed the regime’s atrocities. In recent years, he has been a vocal campaigner for the anti-Iraq War and Occupy movements.
For his efforts, which span more than half a century, he has been frequently derided as anti-American, a traitor, a conspirator, a genocide denier and a habitual troublemaker; he would most likely describe himself as a truth-teller, an ardent supporter of freedom of speech and a thorn in the side of governments and ruling elites, revealing their secrets and hidden agendas.
What do you make of the potential for conflict between the US and China, particularly since the US launched its ‘pivot to Asia’ a few years ago and with China flexing its muscles in the South China Sea?
It’s undoubtedly a very serious issue, but it’s worth noting that the conflict is off the coast of China. It’s not off the coast of the US – there’s no conflict over the Caribbean, or the eastern Pacific off California. This is
a reflection of the residue of the imperial period when the US emerged as the global hegemon. It’s also a reflection of Japanese imperialism. Japan, during its imperial phase, had taken over vast areas of the Pacific and declared them part of its imperial system, and still maintains many of them. And, of course, China is a rising power and is challenging many of these arrangements off of its coast through the areas in which China’s main trade proceeds.
This leads not just to a conflict between China and the US, but also with China and Southeast Asian states that have their own interests that are often in conflict with China’s. So, for example, China building on the islands in the South China Sea [is balanced by] Vietnam also building on islands there. Of course, the Vietnamese [works] are a tiny fraction of those that China is doing, reflecting the relative power of the two states.
We know what the US has done in the region – since the Second World War it has been devastating – but what about China? I might tell you an anecdote: I visited Hanoi in 1970 during the brief bombing pause. They had invited me to lecture at the polytechnic – well, the ruins of it. On my first morning there I was taken on a visit of the war museum. I was exposed to a long lecture about Vietnam’s wars with China, thousands of years ago. What they were telling us, very clearly, was that right now the US is bombing and destroying us but, one day, the US will go away, and China will always be there. That was their real problem, and this was right in the midst of the intensive US bombing of Vietnam. And this is the understandable perception across Southeast Asia.
There is this ongoing conflict between a rising China and regional powers and, the global hegemon, the US. I think it will be resolved peacefully, which doesn’t mean justly, because real conflict would be far too dangerous.
I wanted to ask you about Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor). You have written extensively about the country for more than two decades. A few months ago, declassified documents were released that showed that the US and Australia knew about Indonesia’s intentions to drop napalm on Timor-Leste. What are your thoughts on this?
I read that report. It was sent to me by Clinton Fernandes, the Australian academic whose work on the independence of East Timor is the authority. He is an excellent scholar, but his work is under-reported, including his recent discoveries, which I don’t think have even been mentioned in the US. But this is part of the under-reporting of the entire history of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor from the very beginning. If you look back at the years before the invasion, at the brief period of decolonisation when Portugal was beginning to pull out [in the first half of the 1970s], there was substantial reporting – there was concern about what would happen to the Portuguese empire. But as soon as the Indonesians invaded, with the support of the US and other Western powers, including Australia, reporting declined. Western powers do not report their own crimes.
It’s not just East Timor; just take a look at US economic and military aid: the largest recipients of US aid are typically the most violent and brutal states in the world. In the 1980s, the leading recipients were the Central American states, especially El Salvador, that were carrying out murderous destructions of their own populations. By 1990, peace treaties were signed in Central America so conflict declined, as did US aid, which then switched to Turkey, who was the largest recipient at that time and was carrying out a massive war against its own Kurdish population. Turkey remained a leading recipient of US aid right through the worst times of atrocities. In fact, in 1997, when atrocities peaked, Bill Clinton sent more arms to Turkey than during the entire Cold War period. By 1999, Turkey had the situation under control, conflict declined, so US aid declined. Who then moved into first place? Colombia, which was committing the worst crimes in Latin America at the time.
That’s the way it works; there are actually scholarly studies on this. For example, Lars Schoultz, a leading academic on human rights in Latin America, did a study that showed, convincingly, that US aid correlates with what he calls “egregious human rights violations”. The more egregious the human rights violations, the greater the aid. There’s another study by Edward S. Herman, in which he found the same correlation. He also found that US aid correlates very closely with an improved environment for business. That makes sense; you would expect that correlation. But of course, you improve the environment for business operations when you murder union leaders or priests who are working with peasants.
So there are these correlations between US aid and torture and murder and so on throughout the world, but none of this ever gets reported. You can find it in scholarly work, but you won’t find it in the press.
What do you make of the United States’ continued support of Thailand after its authoritarian turn last year, as well as the US role in Myanmar, which is often assumed to be positive for democracy and human rights?
The US support for the authoritarian regime in Thailand is normal; it’s the same all over the world. For example, the leading US ally in the Middle East for the past 70 years has been Saudi Arabia – a dictatorship, the most extreme, radical Islamic fundamentalist state in the world and a good source of jihadi terrorism elsewhere. So what is happening in Thailand is normal and to be expected.
With regards to Myanmar, the US involvement has been moderately helpful in this case, but it’s a complicated story. There has been some opening in Myanmar, which is to be very much welcomed. But there is still plenty of violence and brutality in the country, especially with regards to the Rohingya. The US role in Myanmar has not been the same role it has played elsewhere, such as Colombia, Turkey or East Timor, and many other places where it was the prime sponsor of terror.
On the other hand, if you look back a little further, the issue is more complex. There’s a good book by the leading Southeast Asia scholar, George Kahin, called Subversion as Foreign Policy, in which he discusses what was happening in the late 1950s. He points out that the US at that time was organising Chinese nationalists, or its remnants, to attack China from the south. So they were establishing bases for Chinese nationalist forces in what was then Burma, in the tribal areas, to attack China. This set off a tribal conflict between the government and the tribes, led to the overthrow of Burma’s parliamentary government by a military coup, and then it led to the period of horrors that has followed since. Burma did have a moderately democratic system, comparative to the region and, as Kahin points out, this was one of the casualties of the US attack on China.
It also set off drug trafficking, which became the famous Golden Triangle. There’s actually a pretty good correlation between CIA subversive counterinsurgency and drugs that has been studied in detail by Alfred McCoy, one of the leading scholars on the region and drugs, in his book The Politics of Heroin.
Finally, you’ve received criticism for your original stance on the Khmer Rouge, especially during its early years. Looking back now, what are your thoughts on that stance and have you learned anything from it?
Actually, if you look at the work I did on Cambodia with Edward S. Herman, which appeared in a two-volume study called Political Economy of Human Rights, we compared two countries: East Timor and Cambodia. Remember, this was between the years of 1975 and 1977, and what we pointed out in these two countries was that there were major and horrible atrocities being carried out, but they differed in some substantial respects. One of them was that in East Timor, we [the West] had a large share of the responsibility and could easily have ended the atrocities. But in the case of Cambodia, it was possible to blame someone else, and no one had a suggestion about how to end the atrocities. We then pointed out that in both cases there was massive lying and deceit, but in opposite directions. In the case of East Timor, it was suppression and denial of the atrocities we could have ended. For Cambodia, it was fabulous lying of the kind that would have impressed Stalin. But the reaction [we received] was solely about Cambodia, nothing about East Timor, which was by far the more important case because [the West] could have ended the atrocities.