Commentary Magazine


Yellow Rain: The Conspiracy of Closed Mouths

When one investigates the use of Soviet chemical weapons in Laos and Cambodia (and, for that matter, in Afghanistan as well), the difficulty lies not in gathering evidence, which by now is within the grasp of anyone who searches for it, but rather in understanding by what sophisticated mechanisms this evidence has been obscured, discredited, and minimized by the very persons who should bring it forward. And since the great falsifiers are all Westerners, one encounters a second difficulty: how to explain to the victims the absurd game of political complicity by which the “chorus of closed mouths” has come to be organized.

A few months ago, during my most recent visit along the Cambodian and Laotian borders where the guerrillas operate, I gathered so many and such detailed accounts of chemical warfare that anyone in my position would have had enough evidence for a grave and definitive verdict. At Ban Sangae I heard the testimony of Prith Song, the survivor of a gas attack on January 6 in the area of Non Chan, and the testimony of Chun Sarom, survivor of the attack of January 14. These two young men still had symptoms of poisoning, about which I heard the testimony of Miss Garcia, the attending doctor. The nature of the symptoms was confirmed by Dr. Jibbhong Jayarasu, a specialist in these things, who in recent days had treated twenty-eight gassed persons.

Along the Laotian border I heard the detailed testimony of Khommi Vang, the village chief of Ban Nam Jao, who, on December 22, 1982, between 8 and 9 in the morning, witnessed a “yellow-rain” attack launched from a Vietnamese airplane. Eyewitnesses described the effects of the attack, which wounded ten persons in the village, and roughly eight in the surrounding area.

The same description of “yellow rain,” launched at the beginning of February on Nam Ngao and on Pa Mon, were heard from the refugees fleeing those villages. From the inhabitants of Ban Hue Sai, a Laotian village under Soviet and Vietnamese control, I heard of deposits of chemical weapons in the former religious house of the Oblates, a building visible from the Mekong.

In the region of Non Chan, in the first days of my arrival, a Vietnamese from the chemical units was killed, and his gas mask was taken by the Khmer Blancs. They insisted that I photograph and examine the mask before it was given to the West German embassy in Bangkok, which had secretly asked for it. The mask was of a new variety and confirmed that Vietnam was obtaining gas masks from various sources.

It is obvious that all countries, through their embassies in Thailand, have been collecting evidence. They have, by now, obtained a bit of everything: samples of infected soil and vegetation, blood samples from victims, samples of yellow powder, “top-secret” autopsy results, photographs of scarred and burned victims of chemical attacks (the photographs remind one of Hiroshima).

The documentation is immense (indeed, the Thai government has a special section of its intelligence service to deal with this material), and for some time the embassies collecting it have considered the evidence irrefutable. But the West is silent. Arrogantly challenging the obvious, the American national press continues to raise subtle questions, as if instead of a tragic reality one were talking about the Loch Ness monster; the press continues to say, “If it is true that 1,500 Hmong tribesmen have been killed by nerve gas,” when it is sufficient to go there to discover that the number of dead is closer to 15,000, if not more. The Washington Post wrote last February that the “credibility of the charge” (of the use of gas) has been placed in further doubt by the fact that the gathering of evidence has been entrusted to the American secret services. Such evidence—said the Post—is used by Reagan to convince Congress to finance American chemical-weapons programs.

Europe is no better. A few months ago a noted French newspaper spoke about Vietnamese gas attacks in these terms: “No definitive proof, but strong suspicions,” and thus the dead come to be the objects of black humor like the character in the famous joke. (Alas! If he weren’t dead, he would still be alive.)

In the United States, in the meantime, at regular intervals one reads reports from skeptical professors who, with great echoes in the press, deny the evidence of the sampling carried out at the request of the State Department. These statements are not presented for what they are (technical disputations of marginal questions: Was the sample contaminated? Did it contain traces of one or another substance?), but as a general challenge to a reality that they do not wish to accept. Instead of the thousands of deaths (many of them among the Hmong tribesmen, precisely those who remained loyal to the last to the Americans), one hears about learned scientific analyses.

Meanwhile, Western journalists, respecting the Thai veto that obliges them to stay far away from the zones where the gas is used, live their pleasant days in Bangkok. Of the hundreds of “information kamikazes”—the great investigative reporters who crisscrossed Vietnam during the “patriotic war” against the United States—there is not a trace. A mysterious syndrome of disinterest in the phenomenon seems to have spread like an epidemic across four continents.

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This silence permits the most shameful and the most aberrant complicities between the Vietnamese and the West. An impressive example: the doctors of the International Red Cross—in violation of all medical standards—refuse to help victims of gas attacks, “because to accept them in the hospitals would create a political problem.” Protests are lively, but useless. The International Red Cross in Thailand is under United Nations control, and UN organizations favor with their silence the slaughter of Laotian and Cambodian anti-Communists, guilty of having refused to accept their “liberation” by the Vietnamese.

Amos Townsend of the International Rescue Committee appealed to the UN Border Relief Organization which supervises the International Red Cross in Thailand. At a meeting on November 4, 1982, Townsend officially asked why the Red Cross denied assistance to gassed victims. He was given no answer and—even worse—his question was removed from the transcript of the meeting. The same treatment was given to his second question: “Why were the results of the autopsy of a twenty-two-year-old Cambodian woman, killed by Vietnamese gas and carried to the hospital of Kao I Dang, suppressed, even though the autopsy was performed by Red Cross doctors?” No reply. Question deleted from the transcript.

The assistance agencies that work alongside the UN carry out their own campaign of obfuscation, while the newspapers say that “evidence is insufficient.”

Almost all the medical agencies, even the private ones, are under UN control, and they have adapted to these methods and deny help to gas victims. On December 2, 1982, the question was raised by a scientist, Dr. Jibbhong of the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief to Refugees (COER), who pleaded that the doctors “respect professional ethics and put their personal or political interests aside.” The appeal was not in the transcript. All the UN humanitarian agencies make efforts to prevent the truth from appearing in the press: there is no worse enemy of the journalist who tries to work in the area than the United Nations.

Indeed, we owe some of the most brilliant operations of suppressing the truth to UN officials. The most tragic, perhaps, took place some time ago. Two years back rumors were heard in Bangkok to the effect that the Vietnamese were producing new gas mixtures that were capable of deceiving investigators as to their toxic content and their origin. These new substances—it was said—were the result of experiments in a laboratory conducted by a “new Doctor Mengele” who operated on human subjects. No one accepted these rumors, which were so clearly “defamatory” to Vietnam. But in April 1982, Adelia Bernard, of COER, was secretly taken to Phnom Penh where, thanks to a person who worked at the Hôpital Sovietique, she was informed of the incredible truth. The experiments were taking place, in that very same hospital as well as elsewhere, and were being conducted on healthy children ranging from two to ten years of age. The children were kept in special homes and during the experiments were placed in transparent plastic spheres equipped with two valves, one for oxygen, the other for the gas that was being tested. There were approximately one hundred child guinea pigs in the area of the hospital alone, while many others lived in laboratory camps built on the tiny islands of the Mekong. The latter were injected with toxic substances.

Incredulous, Mrs. Bernard asked for proof, and after negotiating the payment of $300, her interlocutor entered the hospital and returned with a plastic sphere, with valves and tubes, inside of which lay the dead body of a three-year-old baby. Adelia Bernard put the sphere in a sack and carried it back to Bangkok, where she deposited it on the desk of Mark Brown, a representative of the UN High Commission for Refugees. Brown did nothing, and no “case” was opened.

Brown has gone, perhaps prudently transferred or removed. But not a word is to be heard of that terrible episode, which takes us back to the days of Treblinka, and which makes us all guilty of a shameful silence.

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