If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas” ~ Benjamin Franklin
The UK is being plunged into an imposed period of national mourning at the death of the nation’s longest serving and only female Prime Minister. Yesterday we looked at her domestic legacy; today we look at her love affair with despots.
In 1969, President Nixon authorised Operation Menu, the air assault on neutral Cambodia, in secret and contrary to International Law. During one six month period of 1973, the Nixon-Kissinger White House dropped more bombs on Cambodia than it dropped on Japan during World War II; equivalent to five Hiroshimas. More than 600,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by this bombing.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh on April 1st 1975 thanks in large part to the bombings which he leveraged to create a previously nonexistent popular support for his brand of Maoism. The ensuing genocide would be one of the bloodiest in human history, leaving 2 million Cambodians (a fifth of the entire population) dead.
What is less well known is that the Thatcher government was using the SAS to train Pol Pot’s armed forces to carry out this genocide. When the insidious regime was defeated by the Vietnamese in 1978, the US government (supported by Thatcher from 1979) moved heaven and earth to restore the mass murderer to power.
For more than four years from 1983, the SAS trained Pol Pot’s troops in secret camps on explosives, mine laying and psychological warfare and supplied them with Royal Ordnance with which to slaughter their own people.
The Thatcher government also lied to cover up its role in the genocide. The Foreign Office responded to a Parliamentary question on the matter with the following:
“Britain does not give military aid in any form to the Cambodian factions,”
Thatcher herself, in a written response to Neil Kinnock stated:
“I confirm that there is no British government involvement of any kind in training, equipping or co-operating with Khmer Rouge forces or those allied to them.”
But, by 1991 the Major government admitted the UK’s role in training and equipping one of the worst genocides in history.
On September 11th 1973, Augusto Pinochet was supported by Friedmanite economists and the CIAto conduct a military coup of democratically elected President Salvador Allende to prevent him implementing a programme of nationalisations; specifically the nationalisation of ITT the telecommunications company. By the end of the night Allende would be dead.
The US and UK governments saw a great opportunity in Pinochet. They used his total control of the domestic population to test drive their neoliberal economic theory. They were unable to drive through the extreme free market ideologies at home as the electorate would not stand for the consequences of mass unemployment and so on. Pinochet willingly obliged in return for financial and military support for his regime. Pinochet provided quid pro quo and supported Thatcher’s Falkland’s war.
During a seventeen year brutal dictatorship, the Chilean economy was ripped apart by the economic reforms put forward by Milton Friedman and his Chicago Boys. His efforts to suppress opposition would see the killing of over 40,000 Chilean citizens, according to official figures. The regime will be remembered for the Caravan of Death, Operation Colombo, and turning the nations Football Stadiuminto a prison camp for political prisoners, housing over 40,000 during his rule.
Following his exile from Chile in 1990, Pinochet was an annual visitor to Thatcher, staying with her in London and bestowing her with gifts of flowers and chocolates. They were close personal friends.
In 1998, Pinochet was indicted for human rights violations in Chile by a Spanish prosecutor and arrested in London six days later. He was held under house arrest in a beautiful cottage on a country estate for a year, seemingly in an effort to allow the dictator to die peacefully under house arrest in the UK without ever facing justice for his crimes. During this time, Thatcher came out of retirement to plea on Pinochet’s behalf. She campaigned for his release from house arrest, argued against his indictment and visited him regularly.
In her many salutations of the merciless dictator, Thatcher thanked him publicly ‘for bringing democracy to Chile’. A more stinging insult could not be delivered to the hundreds of thousands of Chileans forced into exile, and those grieving the tens of thousands killed by his regime.
One of the anecdotes supporting the myth of the Iron Lady involves Thatcher coaxing George Bush Snr into a bellicose response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the launch of the first Gulf War. She actually created this narrative herself, stating in interviews that she told the nervous US President “look George, this is no time to go wobbly”.
Thatcher spoke less about the £1bn of taxpayer money her government spent propping up the Hussein dictatorship throughout the 1980’s. The House of Commons had voted to support a position of neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War and signed up to the United Nations arms embargo. The Scott Inquiry of 1996 found that the Thatcher government had operated in secret to ignore the United Nations arms embargo and supply military support to Iraq (the aggressor in the war). Official misconduct included shredding documents to cover the smuggling of British Chieftain Tank Hulls into Iraq and abusing credit lines meant for civilian trade development in Iraq to buy munitions.
This eight year war cost over a million Iranian lives, and up to half a million Iraqis. In the run up and aftermath of the most recent Iraq war, supports of the war were often found saying ‘this is a man who used gas on his own people’. This refers to the chemical gas attack on Halabja in 1988, which killed thousands of Kurdish civilians. It is important to note that this attack was carried out in the dying months of the Iran-Iraq war, while Thatcher’s government were providing military support to his regime.
On hearing of Thatcher’s death, US President Barack Obama celebrated her as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”.
There is a particular irony in this choice of words, given her role in championing some of the world’s worst despots.
Just days before, Obama had spoken as Nelson Mandela lay prone in hospital:
“When you think of a single individual that embodies the kind of leadership qualities that I think we all aspire to, the first name that comes up is Nelson Mandela.”
Thatcher disagreed. In stark contrast to her public praise of Pinochet, she showed utter contempt and hostility toward Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress while they opposed the racist South African apartheid state. Speaking in 1987, while Mandela was still serving his life sentence she stated:
“The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation … Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land”.
Mandela himself refused the invitation to visit Thatcher on a trip to the UK in the early 90’s.
It is often said that one can best judge a person by the company they keep. Margaret Thatcher kept the most despicable company. She gifted her friendship, together with the military and financial support of the nation, to the service of some of the 20th Century’s most tyrannical regimes. She condemned freedom fighters like Mandela as terrorists in the same breath. To describe such a person as a champion of freedom and liberty is to rewrite history itself, making a hero of the oppressor and demons of the oppressed.